Do you like peanut butter? Do you indulge in the occasional (or very frequent!) chocolate bar, cookie or bag of chips? If so, you probably consume palm oil on a near daily basis. Many popular brands contain this oil coming from the fruit of an African oil palm tree (yes, that's actually the name of the tree).
Why is this important?
Because oil palm trees can only grow in tropical environments, rainforests around the world are being diminished due to increased palm oil demand, contributing to the reduction of plant and animal biodiversity.
A couple summers ago, I went on a trip to Ecuador with New Community Project, a non-profit that focuses on social justice and environmental sustainability. While staying in the Cuyabeno National Park, located in the northeastern corner of the country, I witnessed the impact of deforestation firsthand.
When large corporations clear plots of land for crops like oil palm trees, it not only has a devastating impact on the biodiversity of the region, but it also causes soil erosion and air pollution.
Beyond these environmental issues, indigenous people in these regions are forced to change their way of life to account for the diminishing land, as western businesses encroach on their homes.
One day during my trip, we went on a tour of a rainforest preserve, listening as our local guide explained to us the medical uses of each plant. At the end of the walk, we came to an immense tree called a ceibo tree.
It was only one tree in a forest of millions, but he explained to us that it would be directly impacted by the increasing effects of deforestation. After seeing it up close and learning that it maintains certain spiritual elements for the local community, it got me thinking—what can I do to preserve species like this?
How can we make a difference?
On my last day in Ecuador, my group had a discussion about what we could do to help the rainforest once we returned home. I felt overwhelmed after exposure to such a range of environmental concerns, but also determined to find a way to make at least a small difference.
I found it less overwhelming to focus on one simple thing I could do to become a part of the solution. For me, this was a commitment to avoid palm oil in the products that I buy on a regular basis.
An estimated 50% of all processed supermarket products contain palm oil, and this number is predicted to double by 2020 as a result of the rising demand for a cheap vegetable oil.
Because this problem is developing at such a quick rate, I found that cutting palm oil out of my diet was a tangible, feasible way for me to make a difference in my everyday life.
What foods contain palm oil?
Palm oil is a tricky ingredient to avoid. It is listed under many different names, such as palm kernel oil, palmate, or something as generic as vegetable oil.
Although products without any palm oil are most ideal, some companies are making a commitment to obtain their palm oil sustainably. To find these products, look for a RSPO label, which indicates that the palm oil was produced in an environmentally conscious way.
Substitutes for your favorite foods that do NOT contain palm oil
Since I made the commitment to avoid this common ingredient, I've discovered some delicious non-palm-oil alternatives to foods that normally contain it.
1. Trader Joe's Peanut Butter
Everyone loves the creamy goodness of Jif peanut butter, but unfortunately, it includes a fair amount of palm oil. Instead, try Trader Joe's salted or unsalted all-natural peanut butter. Its only ingredient is dry roasted peanuts—so it really can't get much more simple or sustainable than that.
2. Justin's Peanut Butter Cups
As you may have guessed, Reese's (like most peanut butter products) contain palm oil. The good news: Justin's Peanut Butter Cups, an organic alternative, easily rival Reese's with incredibly creamy centers and smooth chocolate shells. The company has committed to produce palm oil sustainably, shown by the RSPO label found on all Justin's products.
3. Haagen Dazs Ice Cream
Edy's ice cream is a common find in many American freezers, but certain flavors, like Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, contain palm oil. Haagen-Dazs makes a similar chocolate peanut butter ice cream but without the palm oil, and with a gooey peanut butter swirl that's arguably better than Edy's peanut-buttery crunch.
These are only a few examples of earth-friendly alternatives for your favorite foods. If you take the time to read nutrition labels, it's easy to find foods that contain palm oil and then work toward eliminating those from your diet. It's just a little thing that can make a big difference in the end.