The Problem with Palm Oil

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The Problem with Palm Oil

II love baking with vegan margarines like Earth Balance because they taste almost as good as butter and contain no hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oils are oils where hydrogen is forced into oil at high pressure. This chemically changes the unsaturated fatty acids into saturated ones. The benefit of this is that the oil is solid at room temperature and has an extended shelf life. The drawback of this is that trans fats are created during this process. In the 1980's food scientists began to notice adverse health affects associated with trans fat intake. This finding has led to a disaster in the food industry as food processors scramble to re-engineer their food to forgo hydrogenated oils but allow them to retain their flavor, shelf life, consistency and profit margins.

The Rebirth of Margarine

The first and arguably best margarine to come out of one of the biggest health miscalculations in the history of food is Earth Balance margarine. It consists of a blend of oils including palm oil, which is already solid at room temperature, hence not requiring the hydrogenation process. The people at Earth Balance didn't stop there though, they also made their margarine one of the best tasting margarines in the business. Due to this, it's regarded as the gold standard butter alternative for vegan baking.

It should be noted that vegan shortening went through this rebirth at the same time margarine did with both Earth Balance and Spectrum Naturals leading the way several years ago. Most non-hydrogenated vegan vegetable shortening on the market is 100% palm oil derived. I've created a non-palm oil derived margarine called simply Vegan Butter and a non-palm oil derived Vegan Shortening to get around the palm oil issues and to empower vegan bakers with more control over the flavor profile of their recipes.

Other Good fats for Vegan Baking

Baked vegan goods like croissants, shortbread cookies and flaky pie crusts require margarine for best results but there are other things like cakes, muffins and cookies that do perfectly fine with other fats like canola oil. On some occasions, it's desirable to have an oil that's extremely solid at room temperature for things like brownies and other bars. In these instances, coconut oil works extremely well because it's similar to palm oil in that it doesn't require hydrogenation to be solid at room temperature.

Tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil have done a great job filling the void in the last decade as more people who turn to vegan baking look for fats that mimic butter. There is one ever increasing problem however.

Where does Palm Oil Come From?

As the world population increasingly turns to non-hydrogenated solutions for their plant-based fats, there is more demand for the plants that make them. Palm trees make palm oil, with 85% of it coming from Malaysia in 2004. Worldwide demand for palm oil is skyrocketing. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, palm oil is forecast to be the world’s most produced and internationally traded edible oils by 2012 (pdf link). As more land is required for palm plantations in order to meet demand, rainforests are being cleared in Southeast Asia which is leading to disruptions in wildlife. According to CSPI, "Five mammals exemplify the impending disaster: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, Asian elephant, and Sumatran rhinoceros. Each of those species is endangered, with the three eponymous Sumatran species critically endangered. They once flourished in precisely those areas where rainforests have since been cleared for oil palm." According to the UN, the orangutan could be extinct in five years as a result of habitat loss. According to the New York Times, palm oil production is turning from being a green alternative into an environmental nightmare.

How can this be possible? You mean the most effective vegan baking butter alternatives actually cause more animal suffering? How bitterly ironic this problem is. Are we supposed to use canola oil for everything now and just deal with never having croissants again? What are the alternatives to the alternatives? Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. There are institutions like the non-profit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil which is working hard to ensure that palm oil is sustainably produced. Hopefully the companies that make our favorite butter alternatives (I'm looking at you Earth Balance) will adopt policies where they only buy palm oil from sustainable sources. Thankfully, Spectrum Organics has taken these steps and currently sources their palm oil from a sustainable certified family owned company called DAABON Organic.

But this doesn't put soy oil in the clear. The United States still makes more soybean oil than any other country but Brazil and even Argentina are rapidly gaining and may surpass US soy production in several years. There's concern that this will lead to rapid rainforest depletion as well.

At this point our options are:

Coconut Oil

As of this writing coconut oil does not appear to suffer from the same level of sustainability issues as palm oil production does. This will probably change in time as it looks like any plant that's being grown in large quantities in countries with large amounts of rainforest is going to lead to rainforest destruction if sustainable policies are not enacted.

Canola oil

92% of canola oil is produced in the United States as of 2007. Since there are very few rainforests in the United States, there's a pretty good chance that using canola oil will result in no rainforest destruction. I recommend organic canola oil for maximum sustainability. Since canola oil isn't solid at room temperature, it's no drop in replacement for our favorite margarines.

Sustainably Produced Palm Oil-based Products

There are people who don't believe palm oil should be sustainably certified because they feel that it's use is going to lead to deforestation anyway. I don't believe this is the right approach because banning the use of a high-demand product to the world market is impossibly unrealistic and far less effective as enacting sustainability standards. Is the world community supposed to just throw up it's hands and forget that palm oil exists? Good luck with that. In the meantime, organizations like the Rountdable on Sustainable Palm Oil are working to promote sustainably harvested palm oil so producers abide by standards so it has as little impact on the environment as possible. The video below describes how RSPO does this.

In the meantime, we can use products that use sustainable palm oil like Spectrum Organics Shortening. In regards to margarine, we can urge our favorite margarine companies to only purchase palm oil from sustainable sources. Earth Balance has such a high consumer confidence level that if they needed to slightly increase their prices in order to do this they probably wouldn't lose any business. They could stand to gain a business advantage because they could market their product as being more green than their trans-fat laden competitors.

The next few years will be an interesting time in the palm oil scene. Indonesia is set to double their palm oil production by 2020 so now is a critical time to act so producers get in the habit of making sustainable palm oil that doesn't result in environmental destruction. As bakers we can vote with our dollars to help these sustainable methods flourish. Our baked goods will end up being just that much sweeter.


I emailed Earth Balance inquiring if their palm oil is sustainably harvested. Their email response was accompanied by a legal order that the message not be posted to anyone other than the intended recipient so I can't post it here verbatim.

GFA Brands, the company that owns Earth Balance responded from their Consumer Affairs department saying that their palm oil is sourced mainly from Malaysia, not Eastern Malaysia. The email said they do not source palm oil from Indonesia (Sumatra), one of the primary homes of orangutans. They say that Indonesia is where most of the issues regarding palm oil production is a problem. They said the palm oil they use comes only from existing palm plantations and not from plantations that have been recently cleared. They also said they purchase palm oil from law abiding, reputable plantations that are registered with their national governments.

The email invited me to check out the website of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.

It's hard to tell whether their response is legitimate or just hot air. I feel that if a company goes out of it's way to make sure it's getting it's product from sustainable sources, it's going to be a member of a sustainability society and brag about it on it's package labeling. How many food products are organic that fail to say so on their packages? None. Also, the Malaysian Palm Oil website has a featured article saying how the "Attack on Palm Oil is Politically Motivated" which I strongly disagree with. I need more proof than just words to prove that a product is sustainably harvested.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.

Margarine by lindenbaum via Flickr

Get a price on the Unrefined Cocoa Butter I Recommend at Amazon.

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I totally agree with this!

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Concrete Contractor Round Rock

This looks amazing. Thank you.

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This is amazing! Thanks so much for sharing this here.

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This is great! People always react differently to different oils, so I appreciate you noticing that and keeping it in mind!

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Thank you for the unbiased writing! I am sensitive to what companies put into their products and it is too bad that sometimes that truth is not always apparent!

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If we replace palm oil to soya oil will it harm to environment too?

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I really appreciate how you always consider multiple perspectives and don't unnecessarily sensationalize the information that you share. This is how we should be discussing these kinds of complex subjects.

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(Updated: August 28, 2018)

I agree with your assumption that if Earth Balance was using Conflict-free Palm Oil, they would make sure to advertise that fact on the label. Since I became aware of the horrifying consequences of palm oil production, I have been very careful not to buy foods with that ingredient. Of course, there are many non-food products that contain some derivative of palm oil and I'm not sure how I can eliminate consumption of those products, e.g. shampoo, lotion, etc.

I observe the dietary laws of Kashruth and have wanted to bake with a product that is kosher and palm oil free.
So far, this has been impossible. Now that you have made us aware that the Spectrum Culinary Organic (no s) All-Vegetable Shortening is part of the Rain Forest Alliance, I look forward to baking some healthy, vegan cakes!

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Vegetable Oils Come from Seeds, Not Vegetables

"Vegetable" oils are yet another example of vegan health fraud that has caused massive death and disease in the human population. Which I'm sure vegans secretly delight in since they hate human beings more than they love animals. Anybody citing CSPI is a fraudster in my books.

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(Updated: October 20, 2017)

Mattie, I admire your passion and the work that you do to give people complete information, thus allowing them to make informed decisions.

This hasn't anything to do with vegan baking, although I was interested in Sear's and msyates's postings about experiencing indigestion after consuming foods made with palm oil. If you read the posting from vegangster, the majority of other "things" made from palm oil are used in detergents, shampoos, and waxes. I was tempted to try pam oil shortening for the recipe Best-Ever American Buttercream on, but will search for another ingredient to try.

Mattie, I'm really concerned about such excellent writers like you don't know when to use apostrophes. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking o starting a blog about how to improve writing with correct punctuation, spelling and grammar.

As a rule, apostrophe-s ('s), is used for the possessive: Mattie's blog, the dog's leash. The origin of this contraction is believed possibly to be a contraction of "his"; as in Mattie-HIS-blog. Therefore, Mattie's blog.

However, with "it," the correct way is reversed. "It's" is a contraction of "it is." "Its" is the possessive for it.

This is how I remember this: the possessive for everything with a name (table, dog, Mattie) has the apostrophe-s. The reverse is correct for "it."

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Palm oil indigestion

Within 30 minutes of ingestion of food containing palm oil I have intense abdominal pain. My digestive system does digest palm oil, and it appears that the palm oil dramatically slows all digestion. The pain often lasts for several days until I have defecated the ingested material in the form of greasy stools. How many other people have this same problem?
But that's not the only reason I avoid palm oil. Forest ecologists in the New World tropics (Central and South America) report the same rampant destruction of rain forests for planting oil palms that is seen in Malaysia and Indonesia, etc. Besides the elimination of important natural resources, indigenous peoples of the forests are being driven from their lands by murderous torturing thugs working for the palm oil companies--including companies that use commerce in palm oil to launder drug money. Why would anyone with a conscience buy products made with palm oil?

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Reality: Are you part of the problem?

When agriculture was being planned for the masses, areas and species were being conserved. The problems began when consumers (those not involved with the process) decided they didn't want to eat what was offered. Concessions and demands were met. DEMANDS. Use what is around you to nourish yourself, dammit. Grow your own stuff for just you and there would be less strain on the market places. This is the result of your demands for "organic goods". Eat what is available and be thankful it is provided to you! It's a blessing that you shun and it's repulsive.

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(Updated: January 07, 2016)


I'll first start with why is so many people being hateful with there posts there's no reason for it. I feel sorry for people like that, calm down and take a deep breath. It's so sad that there is so much hate in our world. If you want to be vegan or an meat eater that's your right but there's no reason to bash each other. I'm vegan because it works for me. Now as for palm fruit oil.

I use Palm Fruit Oil that is Organic and certified sustainable by "Friend of the Earth". It is NOT from Malaysian. I use it at home and in products I make. I'm very proud that it is sustainable, its listed in the description, on the label is the Trademark of the World Sustainability Organization. Any company not listing it is most likely using palm oil that is not sustainable so shame on them.

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Learn some common sence!

YOUR QUOTE - Canola oil

92% of canola oil is produced in the United States as of 2007. Since there are very few rainforests in the United States, there's a pretty good chance that using canola oil will result in no rainforest destruction. I recommend organic canola oil for maximum sustainability.

- HAVE YOU NEVER HEARD OF GMO's ??? MOST CANOLA OIL from USA is GENETICALLY MODIFIED which is the worst thing you can do for yourself and the future!!!

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To msyates who ignorantly comments that "other's [sic] don't suffer when we eat butter", do your research on the dairy industry before posting self-righteous drivel.

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I would like to ask, because coconut oil people do not destroy the forests?

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Well I'm very sorry but Palm oil appears in many products consumed daily, as we all know, and as heralded as it might be in the eyes of some, I do know that it can be the cause of outstanding heart burn and indigestion amongst so many people that I know. Surely this is a sign that this 'stuff' is not all that good for us, besides the worldwide wildlife's survival (orangutans amongst countless other vegetation and living species on this planet. However, I don't, and other's don't suffer when we eat butter. Silly people. Vegan? Sheesh. Get real. With all of your silly whims and 'acts' of I don't know what you're all contributors to chipping away at and changing the planet anyway. Be self sufficient if you care that much. Swallow that.
P.s. None of us would be here if our very early ancestors hadn't worn fur, eaten meat and used animal products to survive... Or could you all see yourselves time travelling and protesting about that too? Get off your man made couch (which incidentally pumped thousands of chemicals into the atmosphere to produce for your self righteous behind to sit on) and get hoeing the garden, harnessing the natural power of the land and live clean lives. Then you can cast your judgment. No, hang on a minute, you'll be too busy living. Case closed.

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Some vegans make me laugh.

Thanks for posting this. If it weren't for you, some vegans would have the wrong idea that Palm Oil is vegan. To my fellow mislead vegans out there, just because it's not made with animal ingredients, doesn't mean it's vegan. You also have to think of the environment the products come from, and how it affects animal wild life. Palm oil ISN'T vegan despite what people may tell you because of the reason listed in the article.

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Interesting article, Mattie. When I talked to vegan baker Ms Cupcake for an episode of my internet radio show "The Vegan Option" about palm oil (30 mins, available to download and play at, iTunes, Stitcher) she said that she avoided palm oil when baking at home ... but it was not economical to avoid margarine that contained it.

It is a complex issue. Should you be interested in listening, we talked to experts and campaigners, including a vegan Indonesian punk rocking Orangutan-rescuing anti-palm oil activist, and the boss of the RSPO about whether their label could really be trusted.

Owner's reply

Thanks for the info Ian! Yes, many vegan bakeries use it on the "downlow" because they wouldn't be able to make many things like frostings without it. It's complex and controversial. Here's hoping the whole palm oil thing gets sorted out!

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Great article, thanks for writing it! I'm not buying Earth Balance's response... and also literally not buying anything with palm oil. It's so frustrating to go vegan and find all this tasty food, only to realize that it's kind of evil.

Your recipes for vegan butter and shortening without palm oil look awesome, and I will definitely be trying them!

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Hi. Thank you for bringing this topic to the forefront of vegan baking. I refuse to buy anything with palm oil or palm fruit, and I have read enough of the literature to know that the RSPO is made up of members of corporations. There will never be such a thing as sustainable palm oil, and it is only a matter of time before other vegans begin to realize this. Of course, palm oil and other palm products go under many other names:

PKO – Palm Kernel Oil
PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein (PKOo)
PHPKO – Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil
FP(K)O – Fractionated Palm Oil
OPKO – Organic Palm Kernel Oil
Palmitate – Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate (NOTE: Vitamin A Palmitate is a very common ingredient in breakfast cereals and we have confirmed 100% of the samples we’ve investigated to be derived from palm oil)
Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)
Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)
Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Elaeis Guineensis
Glyceryl Stearate
Stearic Acid
Chemicals which contain palm oil
Steareth -2
Steareth -20
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
Hydrated palm glycerides
Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (names with palmitate at the end are usually derived from palm oil, but as in the case of Vitamin A Palmitate, very rarely a company will use a different vegetable oil)

so it is difficult. But we can all do our best!

Really like your site!

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Owner's reply

Wow thanks for all that awesome palm oil information vegangster! I had no idea so many additives were derived from palm.

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The sustainability of coconut oil is different than that of palm oil because you do not need to continuously need to cut down and grow more coconut palms in order to produce more coconuts from what I understand. A coconut palm will continuously produce coconuts which is where the oil comes from.

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Frankly? they are full of SHIT! and is it not funny how they thraten u with legal steps should u publish their msg. verbatim????
By the way did u know that the greenwashing Roundtables President is the same Person as the President of UNILEVER, which one of the worst AGGRO FOOD BIZZNESSES (cooparating with MONSANTO!) if i were u i would not trust anything they say, its mostly LIES LIES LIES, here is a much better link:

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Frankly? they are full of SHIT! and is it not funny how they thraten u with legal steps should u publish their msg. verbatim????
By the way did u know that the greenwashing Roundtables President is the same Person as the President of UNILEVER, which one of the worst AGGRO FOOD BIZZNESSES (cooparating with MONSANTO!) if i were u i would not trust anything they say, its mostly LIES LIES LIES, here is a much better link:

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Frankly? they are full of SHIT! and is it not funny how they thraten u with legal steps should u publish their msg. verbatim????
By the way did u know that the greenwashing Roundtables President is the same Person as the President of UNILEVER, which one of the worst AGGRO FOOD BIZZNESSES (cooparating with MONSANTO!) if i were u i would not trust anything they say, its mostly LIES LIES LIES, here is a much better link:

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rainforest destruction and palm oil

just because united states deforested there country 200 years ago before people did protests against these things doesnt mean you can stand proud about your ability to produce 92% of poisonous and genetically modified canola oil. You are such a hypocrical nation just running down any country trying to expand there finacial export base using the very same methods you have used and still use to boost your countries exports at the expense of other less fortunate countries.

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Sustainable Palm oil

Palm oil is actually good for our health as long as it isn't hydrogenated, but you should watch out for these few oils. Here's the link of an article about vegetable oils and a little experiment you could do to see how certain vegetable oils turn into plastic:

As for palm oil and the environment, WWF has stepped in to educate palm oil smallholders, enlisting plantation owners to carry out innovative methods to control Orang-utan encroachment on their land.

Just make sure we purchase only SUSTAINABLE palm oil

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Thanks for the article!

Hey Mattie! Thanks SO much for doing all that research on palm oil and bringing us up to date. My friend Vineet reminded me a few weeks back just how destructive palm oil farming is and it's been weighing on me since then. I emailed Earth Balance about my concerns and got a response the next day, basically saying that they are using responsibly grown palm oil. Maybe if we kept some pressure on them to change, they would....surely they could work some of their magic on coconut oil ?

Owner's reply

Hi Dale,

I don't know if coconut oil suffers the same sustainability issues currently because in my research on this article I wasn't able to find much concrete information on it compared to palm oil. I'm curious how Earth Balance is certifying their palm oil as being sustainable. Usually when a company takes steps to ensure their product is manufactured in an environmentally sustainable manner they also go our of their way to make it known to their consumers. Since Earth Balance hasn't done this it may be a good idea to take their clams with a grain of salt. I'm going to email them and see what they have to say on this.

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