Palm Oil

Today’s post is on palm oil. I decided on the topic while I was snacking on a bag of plantain chips at my desk (pictured below). I flipped it over to read the ingredients and was surprised to find palm oil on the list. I’ve definitely heard about it in regards to the environment and deforestation, but I wasn’t sure how to feel about it for this use. So I decided to do what I do best…dig.

Bag of Inka plantain chips

Palm oil comes from the kernel of red fruit, shown in the main image, that grows on oil palms. The African trees (shown below) are native to West and Central Africa and grown extensively in Malaysia and Indonesia. The American trees are native to Central and South America. These are different than the palm trees you see in California and that are cultivated for coconuts, dates, or other fruit.

African palm tree

Palm oil is incredibly versatile, largely because it’s naturally semi-solid at room temperature. Most oils that have this property come from animals or need to be hydrogenated. Palm oil also contains carotenoids and tocopherols that protect it from oxidation and rancidity.

Palm oil is controversial because global demand for it has skyrocketed, making it the most widely traded vegetable oil across the world. It’s cultivated in areas that were once tropical forests, making it a leading cause of deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Now the bag of chips that started this whole post also has a label on the back from RSPO. It’s pictured and circled below.RSPO label on the back of Inka plantain chips

RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. They are a non-profit that works with the palm oil industry to develop and implement standards for sustainable palm oil production globally. In order to use their trademark on a product, companies must be RSPO members, receive supply chain certification, and 95% of palm-derived components in the product itself must be RSPO-certified. I’ll go into these three components.

Membership to RSPO requires an application and annual dues and includes other requirements as well, including progress reports, transparent operations, and the promotion of sustainable palm oil.

The supply chain certification is a little more complicated. It follows the value chain from the oil palm grower through each processing step, which can occur at multiple facilities, and includes traders and distributors before reaching the final end product. They involve third-party certification audits to ensure the chain is reducing the negative impacts of oil palm production.

Now you might notice that in the picture above, it also says the word “mixed” next to the RSPO trademark. The organization offers two different tags, depending on the level of certification. A “certified” tag means that the palm oil delivered to the consumer comes only from RSPO certified sources. It is the most strict label they offer. The “mixed” tag means that certification is occurring at a single site, so certified and non-certified oil may be mixed together in the final product. This second level of certification is a driver to make RSPO products more mainstream.

So where does that leave me and my plantain chips? Well, personally I would prefer a product that is fully RSPO certified, or that doesn’t use it. I may be on the lookout for something that fits the criteria, but in the meantime, I’m glad to have learned more about palm oil and I hope you have too. I wanted to introduce something on third-party certification. I’ll be writing a future post on what it is and its importance. Stay tuned for more unraveling of your favorite and staple food items.

Image by: Eva Blue

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