Should you avoid palm oil?

Before you ditch it, consider the alternatives


The world uses more palm oil than any other veggie oil. Production of the ubiquitous ingredient has surged over the last several decades, largely because it’s cheap and incredibly versatile, equally comfy making cookies deliciously crisp and lipsticks lusciously smooth. You’re as likely to find it in your frozen pizza as in your shampoo. Palm production, however, comes with a massive carbon footprint and is among the handful of crops and products jointly responsible for more than half of global agricultural deforestation. So what should you, an eco-conscious shopper, do? Look for “palm-free” products? Experts we asked said there’s actually a better way. 

Want more Earth-saving tips?
SUBSCRIBE to the one5c newsletter here

How big of a climate problem is palm oil?

The greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil arise from a range of factors, including farming, processing, and transport, but its impact mostly boils down to “land use change,” which is a coy way of saying deforestation and ecosystem destruction. This has an especially high cost in palm oil’s tropical home turf, which is thick with rainforests and peatlands. In addition to providing livelihoods for Indigenous communities and housing a Noah’s ark of endangered species, tropical rainforests store one-quarter of the planet’s terrestrial carbon. Peat is no slouch, either: Pound for pound, the boggy wetlands hold more carbon than any other biome. 

Setting those ecosystems ablaze to clear areas for palm plantations accelerates warming. A recent study estimated the industry spews 371 million metric tons of emissions into the atmosphere each year, which is almost as much as the state of California. In Indonesia, the top global producer, burning land for oil palms and other agriculture made the country the world’s fourth-biggest emitter in 2015, and palm oil production led to around one-third of the nation’s forest loss between 2000 and 2019.

Substituting palm oil with a combo of its three top understudies would put an additional land area the size of Spain at risk of deforestation.

Science of the Total Environment (2024)

Things, however, have improved. Deforestation from industrial oil palm plantations in Indonesia is down nearly 90% from its 2012 peak. This is thanks largely to pressure from consumers and nonprofits for companies to adopt and stick to no-deforestation and human rights commitments, says Amanda Hurowitz, senior director of forest commodities at the advocacy group Mighty Earth. These gains stand in contrast to other deforestation-driving industries like beef and soy (which, by the by, is an animal-feed problem, not a tofu problem). Hurowitz considers palm oil a success story, albeit a work in progress. “There’s still work that we need to do in the palm oil industry,” she says. 

The threat of lost forests still looms. A recent report by supply-chain analysis group Trase and eco-watchdog Global Witness found that palm oil causes more tropical deforestation than any other commodity Americans buy (with cattle products close behind). And some advocates worry it’ll worsen. An analysis from the World Wildlife Fund suggests demand could grow four- to sixfold by 2050. “The industry clearly has its sights set on large-scale expansion,” says Laurel Sutherlin, a strategist at Rainforest Action Network who’s worked on palm oil for more than a decade. “The carbon threat…from the spread is huge.”

Should we just quit using palm oil? 

Shopping for “palm-oil free” products may seem like the move here, but swapping the go-to ingredient for other oils could actually make things worse. One of the great benefits of palm oil is that it’s more productive per acre than any of its slippery competitors. That means replacing it with something else could use up way more land. A study published this year in Science of the Total Environment modeled the effects of substituting palm oil with a combo of its three top understudies—soybean, canola, and sunflower—and found that doing so would put an additional land area the size of Spain at risk of deforestation. 

So what should you do? 

The best answer is that sustainable palm oil is better than going cold turkey, but there’s no silver bullet for saving the forests. Cat Barton, policy lead for deforestation-free commodities at the Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom, says one of the strongest available levers is legislation that bars products born of ecosystem destruction from supermarket shelves. The European Union and the U.K. have both passed laws to that effect, and a similar measure has been introduced in the U.S., though it has yet to pass. “As soon as other nations start picking up similar legislation, that’s where we will start to see the change on the ground,” Barton says.

But she and Hurowitz point out that there’s also a role for consumers in shifting this market. Here are a few things you can do to encourage companies to use responsibly sourced palm oil. 

Shop consciously

On a day-to-day basis, you can take a beat to check where the oil in your products comes from. The PalmOil Scan app from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums makes this especially easy. Scan an item’s barcode to reveal a score (“excellent,” “good,” ‘poor,” or “no commitment”). The ranking’s primarily determined by the company’s level of certification within the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry’s leading certification body. Like any seal or stamp, RSPO isn’t a perfect metric, but the app’s ratings parse important nuances, such as how much of a company’s oil comes from deforestation-free sources. 

Talk to brands

Not thrilled with the score on those Oreos? You can also send a brand a message through PalmOil Scan, or send one of the sample letters that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has prepared for some major players like PepsiCo or Walmart. Barton says, “The more that companies hear that people are interested and actually bothered about these issues, the better.” 

Join a campaign

Collective action can also help fix ongoing issues in the industry—for example, corporations setting up “shadow companies” that engage in deforestation. Friends of the Earth, for one, is asking members to sign petitions to General Mills and Barry Callebaut, both of which use palm oil from a company responsible for illegal deforestation. You can also sign up for Rainforest Action Network’s email alerts, which share opportunities (think petitions and making phone calls) to pressure brands like Procter & Gamble that have similar sourcing issues.

Keep an eye out for lab-made palm oil

A number of startups are working on a lower-carbon, lab-grown palm oil for use in cosmetics and foods. These products tap a process called precision fermentation, which enlists yeast to digest sugars into oil. C16 Biosciences, for instance, has started using its Palmless torula oil in luxe skincare products, including a multipurpose Nourishing Oil, and the company expects to announce half a dozen more products in the coming months. 

Take a forest-saving shortcut

More immediately, there’s a simpler, even more effective way to preserve forests when you’re loading up the grocery cart: Skip the beef. Globally, beef drives more deforestation than anything else—no contest. “The most important thing you could do if you want to stop deforestation is honestly eat less meat,” says Hurowitz.