Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
at Brandeis University
i n v e s t i g a t i o n s
Our investigation reveals that some palm oil--the most widely used vegetable oil in the world--is produced with slave labor. Palm oil is in all the products above, and many more.
Outline of Production:
Palm Fruit to Product
Ubiquitous Palm Oil:
Products with Palm Oil
& Its Derivatives
While palm oil and its derivatives are in numerous products we use every day, few of us would recognize a palm fruit on a tree, let alone as an ingredient in our food, cleaning supplies, and personal care products.
On non-food product labels, palm oil may be listed as another name—palmitate, vegetable oil, or sodium lauryl sulfate, to name a few possibilities.
Palm oil, palm kernel oil, and derived chemicals are common in processed snacks, cosmetics, shampoos, laundry detergent, and much more.
Palm Oil in Food Products
Most of all palm oil produced is used in processed food items. The following food items are listed in the World Wildlife Foundation's report "The Palm Oil Industry in Malaysia: From Seed to Frying Pan" as common food products in which palm oil, palm olein, palm stearin, and palm kernel oil are found.
Vanaspati (vegetable ghee)
Cooking oil (hot climate)
Specialty fats for coatings
Forty-three of Britain’s 100 top-selling grocery brands are thought to contain palm oil, according to a 2009 report by the UK-based newspaper The Independent.
Nestlé, Kellogg, Mars, Wrigley, Nabisco, PepsiCo, General Mills, and Hershey are a few companies that use palm oil in their food products. Some are committing to using only 100% certified sustainable palm oil. Most recently, Ferrero announced it is now using 100% segregated CSPO in their popular hazelnut spread Nutella destined for the French market.
Disclaimer: Brandeis University owns the patent for Smart Balance, a product that uses palm oil. The offices of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism are located at Brandeis University.
Around the World:
Labeling Requirements for Food Products with Palm Oil
Australia: In Australia, the government is reviewing the current labeling practices for palm oil in food items, which now allows palm oil to be listed as a vegetable oil.
China: China's prepackaged food labeling requirements also allow palm oil to be listed as edible vegetable oil. The exception in China is olive oil, which must be listed separately.
Europe: As of December 2014, all food items sold in Europe must list palm oil in their ingredients if it is in the product.
India: India's food labeling laws don't require that prepackaged foods list palm oil as an ingredient, allowing instead that palm oil be included under the class of edible vegetable oils or fats.
United States: In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) requires that palm oil in foods be listed on the ingredient label, even if it is blended with other oils.
Palm Oil in Non-Food Products
As its name implies, the original Palmolive soap formula was made entirely of palm and olive oils. While Palmolive soap no longer uses palm oil, Colgate-Palmolive, the company which produces Palmolive soap and many other personal care items, continues to use palm oil and its derivatives in other Colgate products. Of the total 93,720 metric tons of palm oil and derivatives it uses in its own products, 25 metric tons are certified as sustainable. Colgate-Palmolive, a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has committed to using 100% sustainable palm oil by 2015 according to its time-bound plans submitted to the RSPO.
Colgate is among a number of companies that use palm oil and its derivatives in an unknown number of cosmetics, household cleaners, soaps, candles, lotions, body oils, shampoos, and skin care products. The natural fats present in palm oil make it an ideal emulsifier for moisturizers and other personal care products.
Palm oil is used to produce sodium lauryl sulfate, an effective foaming agent, often used in cleansing and body care products like toothpaste and soap as well as in household and automotive cleaning products. (See the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Household Products Database for full list of products using sodium lauryl sulfate.)
Palm oil is used in the manufacture of cetyl palmitate used in lipsticks, stearic acid in shaving gels, palmityl alcohol in shampoos, vegetable wax in candles, and much more.
Although most palm oil is used for food production according to Soyatech, Rabobank, a Dutch multinational banking and financial services company, estimates that 10% of palm oil purchased worldwide in 2011—almost 5 million tons—was used for biodiesel production. Palm oil for biodiesel production has been steadily increasing with rising petroleum prices and concerns about global warming resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
The use of biofuel from palm oil is not without its controversies, however, with environmental researchers pointing to rising emissions of greenhouse gases that result from the destruction of peat lands and primary rainforests for development of new oil palm plantations.
The European Union (EU), which is the largest producer and consumer of biodiesel, has drastically increased its imports of rapeseed and palm oil, says Rabobank in its report, because it cannot produce enough rapeseed domestically to meet biodiesel demand.
The U.S. is the third largest producer of biodiesel (after the EU and Argentina), using soy oil, rendered fats and corn oil.
"Environmental and Social Impacts of Oil Palm Plantations and their Implications for Biofuel Production in Indonesia," Obidzinski, K., R. Andriani, H. Komarudin, and A. Andrianto, Ecology and Society 17(1): 25, 2012.
"The Biofuel Boom and Indonesia’s Oil Palm Industry: The Twin Processes of Peasant Dispossession and Adverse Incorporation in West Kalimantan," Claude Joel Fortin, April 2011.
Next: Palm Oil Supply Chain
The oil palm fruit, above, grows in large bunches that hang from the Elaeis guineensis tree which originated in West Africa. Today it is used in a plethora of grocery and household products, as well as in biodiesel. Nutella, a product on the store shelf behind the palm fruit, lists palm oil as its second ingredient after sugar. Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella, announced in April that it had switched to 100% CSPO (segregated) palm oil for its French market. Photo of store shelf by Roswitha Siedelberg.
While most edible oils are liquid at room temperature, palm oil remains solid, making it useful in products like frosting and creams in cookies and other similar products that need body and are sold at room temperature.
Photo | Wikipedia Commons
Ingredients that Often Mean Palm
Although palm oil is used in many non-food products such as cosmetics, personal care products, and detergents, the ingredient is rarely listed as “palm oil” on labels. Some of the most used synonyms for palm are glycerin, stearic acid, and vegetable oil. Glycerin and stearic acid are generally considered safe as a direct food additive and in cosmetic products, according to the cosmetic, toiletry and fragrance trade council's searchable database of ingredients and consumer safety information.
While palm oil is a popular source for these ingredients, it is important to note that they can also be derived from other sources, usually other tropical oils, some of which may produce an allergic reaction or show some toxicity and which would then need to be labeled with the appropriate warning.
Labeling requirements for non-food items are less stringent than for foods. More about labeling requirements about glycerin and stearic acid may be found at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's website.
Funneling biodiesel into a car on a palm oil plantation, above, from "Development, optimization and scale-up of biodiesel production from crude palm oil and effective use in developing countries."
Palm stearin is often used as an additive to candles because it provides extra rigidity, stiffens the outside surface, and gives the candle more shine, according to this ebay seller.
On this page
Palm oil in food products
Labeling requirements for food
Palm oil in non-food products
Ingredients that often mean palm
Links to other sections
1. Forced Labor on
Palm Oil Plantations
2. From Palm Fruit
1 | What is palm oil?
2 | Indonesia's palm oil industry
3 | Products with palm oil <
3. Human Rights Abuses & Other Controversies