Palm oil: it appears in our lives every single day. From our beloved packaged snacks to our favorite bathroom products, it ]truly is everywhere. With its low monetary costs and versatile properties, it is no wonder so many companies use it in their products. In fact, it can be found in over 50% of items in an average United States supermarket. 

Since it is not a common allergen or overly controversial in mainstream health and wellness dialogue, it can be pretty easy to overlook palm oil as a consumer. Many people even gravitate towards palm-oil-containing products for their low prices and familiar brand names.

However, the real cost of this ubiquitous ingredient runs deeper and on a bigger scale than you may realize. To date, palm oil production is one of the most environmentally destructive industries. Because of its high demand, any efficient production of this oil causes inordinate amounts of damage.

The problems

For starters, it's a significant cause of deforestation. In fact, as of 2018, it has been estimated to responsible for 8% of deforestation worldwide. Because palm trees grow best in the tropics, traditionally tropical rainforests are set on fire to clear land for palm oil plantations, emitting carbon dioxide and soot into the atmosphere. Not only does this practice contribute significantly to long-term climate change, but it also more immediately contaminates the air of local cities, creating a serious health hazard for vulnerable populations. In fact, experts believe it was a palm oil-related forest fire that caused the infamous smog episode in Singapore in 2013. 

Deforestation on account of palm oil also threatens biodiversity and animal habitats. On account of the industry, many endangered species, including the palm oil posterchild orangutan, are losing their homes, driving them closer to the brink of extinction.

Furthermore, destroying natural habitats has brought these animals into closer contact with humans, increasing the chance of the transmission of zoonotic diseases, which poses a serious threat to global human health. For context, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease.

Beyond the environmental threats, though, the palm oil industry has also been linked to human rights abuses. From landgrabs to labor trafficking on plantations, countless workers and local communities have been hurt by the establishment and growth of palm oil plantations. And with the complicity of big corporations, more people will continue to get hurt so long as the industry flourishes.

So what can we do about it?

All of this is not to say that I, or you for that matter, must boycott the stuff at all costs. I put a lot of emphasis on the "trying" component of trying to avoid palm oil. To be honest, when I really started paying attention, I realized it was nearly impossible to escape it all together with my buying habits at the time. Even sadder, I found it in some of my favorite snacks that I was not quite ready to give up, namely my beloved Oreos. I just want to put it out there that that as consumers, we have a lot more power than we realize. If you care enough about the cause, it is really not that difficult; just being a bit more mindful about your purchases could make a substantial difference over time. To make it a bit easier, there are many online resources listing sustainable, palm oil-free products you can buy today, like this one.

So the next time you're at the grocery store about to mindlessly reach for that no-stir peanut butter or big brand detergent (both of which are likely ridden with palm oil), I urge you to think about the real price and ask if it is truly worth your convenience.