Palm oil's impact on the environment

If you’re like most people, you probably make a point to avoid certain ingredients when you’re shopping. 

You might know that high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are bad ingredients in food, and that artificial dyes and fragrances aren’t so great in beauty products (1, 2). Avoiding these ingredients most of the time is good, and can help you live your healthiest life

However, you might not realize that many of the products we use and even eat contain something that isn’t bad for us so much as the environment. The ingredient in question? Palm oil.

Let’s dive into what it is. 

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a type of oil that comes from—you guessed it—palm trees. These trees grow in tropical environments, with much of the world’s palm oil coming from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. 

More than 50% of all the products we use contain some form of palm oil (3). It’s popular because it’s a natural preservative—it helps to extend the shelf life of different products. 

On top of that, it’s also one of the cheapest ingredients to produce, has a high melting point, and contains zero trans fat. That last fact allows manufacturers to highlight their products as being trans-fat-free. 

How using it impacts the environment

So what makes palm oil so bad for the environment? The problem isn’t so much the oil as it is the process to extract it. 

Since palm oil is so cheap, companies try to produce as much of it as possible. They end up cutting down entire rainforests to build palm oil plantations. 

To get rid of the thick vegetation, they often have to start fires to burn everything away. This releases huge amounts of smoke into the atmosphere, while the destruction of the trees releases carbon. 

Effects on wildlife

Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. They’re the habitats of thousands of different mammals, birds, and reptiles. 

Habitat destruction is one of the greatest threats to hundreds of different species, including animals like orangutans and Sumatran tigers. 

In addition to habitat loss, deforestation also causes poaching rates to increase. Loggers build roads and trails to help get their equipment to remote areas. Poachers then often use these same paths to hunt and kill animals. 

Make the switch to palm-oil-free products

While palm oil may have a solid hold on much of the world, it doesn’t have to be that way. Buying palm-oil-free products helps to send a clear message to companies that you don’t support what they’re doing to the environment. 

You can also look into buying sustainably sourced palm oil. Just keep in mind that some companies might be able to make that claim regardless of whether it’s true. 

Be an informed buyer

Whenever you buy a product, no matter what it is, take a moment to turn it and learn it—read through the ingredients and learn about what they are. 

While ingesting palm oil won’t hurt you, it often hurts the environment. If you can’t avoid using it altogether, make sure that the products you use get their palm oil from sustainable sources. 

By taking the time to learn about what goes into the products you use, you can help make both you and the planet happier and healthier.

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