How to avoid palm oil at the supermarket

How to avoid palm oil at the supermarket

    By Rachael Ridley  August 18th, 2020

    Even for the most ethically minded of shoppers, the supermarket can be a battlefield when it comes to identifying products containing palm oil or palm oil derivatives. With all this ambiguity, how does an aspiring ethical and responsible shopper buy with confidence?


    Its low cost, versatility and functionality means palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the market and can be found in a variety of products, from packaged foods to cosmetics to cleaning products. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) doesn’t currently require the use of palm oil to be specified in the ingredients lists on product labels, meaning many of the products in your trolley will likely have palm oil in them declared as ‘vegetable oil’, ‘vegetable fat’ or another one of its 200+ alternate names. Confused? You’re not alone!

    The problem with palm oil 

    If you’re wondering why you should be concerned about palm oil, it’s because of the impact the monocrop has on biodiversity. Unsustainable palm oil plantations, primarily found in Indonesia and Malaysia, often contribute to deforestation and can cause the destruction of the natural habitat of threatened species such as elephants, rhinos and tigers. All three species of orangutans are critically endangered and have been particularly affected by the growing palm oil industry. The unsustainable clearing of these tropical forests has also displaced native communities and contributed to climate change through deforestation and the peat fires often used to clear land for plantations. 

    Tips for buying palm-oil free products 

    Currently, manufacturers and importers are able to voluntarily declare palm oil in the ingredient list, but very few actually do, putting the onus on consumers to make an informed choice in the shopping aisle. The good news is, there are ways you can crack the code to figure out when palm oil has likely been used in a product. Here are some helpful tips for avoiding palm oil.

    1. Check the label

    Using the nutrition information panel on the label of food products is the key to deciphering whether palm oil is an ingredient. Saturated fats must be declared on the label of food items and palm oil contains a high proportion of saturated fat. If the generic ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’ has been listed in the ingredients and the product has a high proportion of saturated fat, palm oil has likely been used. Although there is a chance it could be coconut oil, so it’s best to check with the supplier for clarity. 

    2. Contact the supplier

    When palm oil is not declared, consumers can request this information. The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code requires the name and address of the supplier to be listed on the label, and many suppliers provide a free call telephone number on their labels. If you buy a product regularly and want to know if it’s palm-oil free, ask the supplier for specificity. 

    3. Don’t forget your beauty and laundry products

    Many chemicals derived from palm oil are widely used in makeup, shampoo, conditioner, and cleaning and laundry products. Unfortunately, there is even less clarity around the declaration of palm oil in these products due to the huge number of palm oil pseudonyms used. For a full list of these names, visit Palm Oil Investigations.

    One of the reasons Planet Ark has endorsed Aware Environmental’s Aware Sensitive and Orange Power ranges of laundry, cleaning and air freshener products is because they are completely free of palm oil and its derivatives. They are also free of harsh chemicals, meaning they are better for your health and the environment. Find out more about the Endorsed by Planet Ark program. 

    4. Buy products that use sustainably sourced palm oil

    If you can't avoid palm oil, keep an eye out for the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) globally recognised eco-label, which signals the use of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. While the RSPO has more than 4,000 members worldwide, unfortunately, the proportion of global palm oil certified by RSPO is as little as 19%. 

    Learn more about palm oil and biodiversity here.


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    Rachael Ridley

    Rachael joined Planet Ark in early 2019 after eight years working in media and publishing as a producer, editor, and writer. Rachael loves using her skills in content creation and communication to instigate positive environmental behaviour change. Outside of work, Rachael enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music, and patting dogs.

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