Why palm oil could be the next plastic: 7 ways it has permeated your weekly shop
As one supermarket boss pledges to stop using the environmentally harmful ingredient, Joe Shute asks should you too?
Last November the managing director of British supermarket chain Iceland made a visit to the Kalimantan rainforests in Borneo. Richard Walker, whose parents founded the frozen food firm in 1970, says he wanted to see the impact of the palm oil industry first hand.
The 37-year-old recalls encountering a "horizon to horizon monoculture" of palm trees where pristine rainforest once stood. Illegal deforestation and draining of peat bogs were further expanding the plantations, which manufacture an oil now used in a staggering 50pc of all supermarket products, from the cereal to the soap aisle.
Walker's conclusion was stark: "I do not believe such a thing as sustainable palm oil exists."
Following that trip, Iceland has announced it will be removing palm oil from all of its own-brand products by the end of 2018 (replacing it with other vegetable oils). It is a move which will cost the company around £5m but Walker insists it is the right one.
Much like plastics - on which Iceland also took the lead among supermarkets earlier this year, pledging that its own-branded products would be plastic-free by 2023 - a utilitarian substance has now turned into a global scourge.
And Walker, backed by high profile campaigners such as BBC presenter Chris Packham, says there is a moral imperative to act: "We have this great oil which is being used and abused and put into everything, and it is just not right."
Iceland may seem an unlikely retailer to lead the way on palm oils. Its reliance on processed foods (of which they are an all-pervasive constituent) resulted in it being named and shamed in a survey by the environmental charity Rainforest Foundation for its use of palm oils.
According to Walker, however, once informed about palm oil and its effects on the environment, 85pc of its customers supported a decision to remove palm oils altogether.
"Five years ago, only Waitrose customers could afford to care about the environment," he says. Now everyone is interested.
But how can we all reduce our reliance on palm oil, 62 million tons of which were consumed globally in 2015; a figure set to double by 2050? Everyday items from biscuits and bread to shampoo and washing detergents rely on vast amounts of palm oil, of which the EU is the world's third biggest consumer.
Palm trees are native to the forests of West and Central Africa where indigenous communities have relied upon the oil for food, medicine and manufacturing products for centuries, but use has exploded in recent decades as the lubricant of the global production chain. Swathes of rainforest amassing some 15-25 million acres (6-10 million hectares) have been cleared across south-east Asia to accommodate vast plantations. Such sustained habitat loss has had disastrous impacts on animal populations. Orangutans and Sumatran rhinos, elephants and tigers, which rely on the habitats being destroyed by palm oil plantations, are now listed as critically endangered.
Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 85pc of the world's palm oil, are the only remaining home to wild orangutans, of which fewer than 80,000 survive today.
This impact on biodiversity has been exacerbated by the draining and burning of peat bogs upon which the rainforest stands, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
"It is a double whammy effect," says Simon Counsell, Director of Rainforest Foundation. "Essentially pretty much any wildlife living in the forest will have lost their habitat under these carpets of palm oil plantations."
An association of industry and NGO members has been working together since 2004 under the auspices of a "Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil" (RSPO) to improve the sustainability of palm oil production. However, critics claim this has done little to halt the environmental destruction. And while there is now a legal requirement to display palm oil in products, the abundance and myriad uses for the ingredient means it can often be obscured under as many as 200 different names - palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, hydrogenated palm glycerides, sodium kernelate and Elaeis guineensis are some of many examples.
"The problem is there are many derivatives of palm oil," says Counsell. "It's become a highly pervasive ingredient. Very often it's impossible to recognise which products it is in."
How palm oil has permeated your weekly shop
Palm oil and its derivatives lurk in an astounding 70pc of global cosmetics, where they serve as emulsifiers and surfactants. Lipsticks rely on palm oil as it holds colour well, doesn't melt at high temperature and has virtually no taste.
Soap and shampoo
Palm oil is used as a conditioning agent in shampoo. Unilever, which buys more palm oil than most other consumer-goods conglomerates for use in products such as Dove soap and Pond's cold cream, recently committed to tracing its entire supply to sustainable sources by 2019. Other companies, such as L'Oreal, also pledged to follow suit.
Palm oil is widely used to make bread due to its solidity at room temperature, making it cheap and easy to bake with on a large scale. A survey by the Rainforest Foundation (updated in 2017) found Tesco and British-based stores Asda and Morrisons are all using palm oil in their in-store bakeries.
Among Iceland's palm oil offenders - from which it has already removed it or is in the process of doing so - were ready meals such as luxury chicken makhani masala, chicken stew and dumplings, and its luxury beef wellington. Palm oil forms 20pc of the weight of a packet of instant noodles. It is also added to frozen pizza dough.
Palm oil is used to create its smooth and shiny exterior. Last October, Nestle, Mars and Hershey were accused of breaking pledges to stop using "conflict palm oil" from deforested Indonesian jungles. The firms say they have committed to improving its traceability.
Palm oil is refined to create soap, washing powder and other cleaning products. Studies have recorded palm oil in 30-40pc of cleaning products.
A vast array of puddings and desserts rely on palm oil. Among the list of products Iceland says it has removed palm oil from, or will do so by the end of 2018, are mince pies and Bramley apple pie. Palm oil is used in ice cream to make it smooth and creamy, and appears in mass-produced biscuits.