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What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil produced from the fruit of the oil palm tree (most commonly Elaeis guineensis). Oil palm fruit is harvestable year-round, and is grown predominately in Indonesia and Malaysia (combined 57metric tons/year) (Indonesia Investments 2016).

After harvesting, fresh fruit bunches are delivered to a processing plant where parts of the fruit are separated and prepared for refining. The fruit’s orange flesh (the pulp) is processed to produce oil, mostly used for cooking and stability of food products. The heart of the fruit, a white kernel, is pressed to extract palm kernel oil which is used primarily in home and personal care products.

Malaysia and Indonesia now account for about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil production (Phys Org 2017). In Malaysia alone, the amount of land used for palm oil production increased by approximately 9,763,000 acres between 1960 and 2005, from 133,436 to over 9,896,000 acres (Basiron, Y. 2007, Eur. J. Lipid Sci. Technol., 109). Currently, Malaysia harvests about 13 million acres per year, significantly contributing to the 40.5 million acres of oil palm grown around the world (UCS 2014). Palm oil use is expected to double by 2021 (OECD/FAO 2012).


How do I know if a product I use contains palm oil?

Many people don’t realize they are consuming palm oil because it isn’t always listed as “palm oil” on packaging. Check the ingredient list of your products to see if they list any of the below names for palm oil.

  • cocoa butter substitute or equivalent (CBE)
  • emulsifier (some can be palm oil derived)
  • fatty alcohol sulphates
  • glyeryl sterate
  • isopropyl
  • isopropyl palmitate
  • mono-glycerides of fatty acids
  • octyl palmitate
  • palm kernel oil
  • palm oil
  • palm olein
  • palm stearine
  • palmitate
  • palmitoyl oxostearamide
  • palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
  • sodium lauryl
  • sodium lauryl sulphate/sulfate
  • sodium palm kernelate
  • sodium palmate
  • sodium stearate
  • sodium laureth sulfate
  • sodium laureth sulphate
  • sodium lauroyl lactylate
  • stearic acid
  • vegetable oil
  • vitamin A palmitate


How is palm oil used?

Currently, the US is a small consumer of palm oil, using approximately 2% of the total global production, or 1 million tons (WWF, 2015). Even though most people in the U.S. have never purchased a jar of palm oil, we likely consume it in some form every day. In the U.S., palm oil (or one of its derivatives) is found in about 50 percent of household products, including packaged foods, personal care items, cleaning agents, and increasingly as biofuel for cars (Humanature 2015). Biofuel production is expected to account for 9% of palm oil use by the end of the decade (OECD/FAO 2012). In many other countries, palm oil is considered one of the best frying oils because of high temperature-resistance and lack of unpleasant odor from cooking.

Next time you purchase one of the following products, read the label for palm oil or a palm oil derivative. (link to names of palm oil tab)

  • Margarines and fats
  • Dry cake mix, biscuit mixes, cakes and sponge cakes
  • Peanut butter, sauces, powdered milk, condensed milk and cream used in coffee and ice cream
  • Cereals and dry goods
  • Soaps , detergents, candles and cosmetics
  • Greases used for lubricating machinery and protecting tanks and pipelines
  • PVC, glue and printing inks
  • Biodiesel
  • Animal food


What are the environmental impacts of palm oil?

Palm oil cultivation results in sweeping habitat loss for many critically endangered plant and animal species. Conventional palm oil production burns and/or illegally logs rainforest and peat (swamp) lands rich in biodiversity, replacing it with monocultured palm fields, where little animal life can survive. Many forest dwellers are losing their homes, including the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Malayan tiger and Asian elephant.

The destruction of rainforest and peatlands contributes to global health and climate issues as well through the release of stored carbon. Tropical rainforests, especially old growth forests and peatlands which have not previously been logged, store immense volumes of carbon dioxide in their plants and soils. This carbon is released when plants are destroyed and peatlands are burned or drained. International deforestation for the sake of agriculture, livestock or human development makes up about 20 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions (UN-REDD 2015).

Deforestation rates increase as the demand for palm oil increases. Even now, palm oil is the most widely used oil in the world, making up about a third of global vegetable oil use. Worldwide demand for palm oil more than doubled from 2000 to 2015; outpacing soy bean oil as the most popular vegetable oil in 2006 (USDA). To protect our rainforests, it is important that new palm plantations be planted and managed sustainably.


Is sustainable palm oil an option?

Sustainably grown palm oil is possible, and Woodland Park Zoo believes that sourcing sustainable palm oil can decrease the destruction wrought by conventional palm oil practices. One alternative is to convert already degraded land into plantations rather than converting old growth rain forests.  Accounts of how much degraded land is available vary widely depending on the source – Indonesia’s Agricultural Research and Development Body reports 76.6 million acres of “suitable” land, while the Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board reports only 14.8 million acres. This disagreement hinges on the definition of “degraded” and “available” land; in some cases healthy second growth forests might be at risk (World Resources Institute 2010). Regardless of the exact number of acres, this is an important resource to carefully explore. 

Palm oil production can also become more sustainable by increasing yields from existing plantations. This is a highly productive plant that, in many cases, is not being cultivated to its full potential. Further destruction is not necessary in order to meet the growing demand worldwide for palm oil.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to help transform the palm oil industry in collaboration with the global supply chain, to put it on a sustainable path. With the help of stakeholders and voting members, RSPO has identified seven principles and criteria intended to guide the industry towards the growth and production of certified sustainable palm oil. 

Learn more about the criteria


Why not boycott all palm oil?

Palm oil is a popular ingredient for good reason. Naturally free of trans-fats, palm oil makes a great cooking oil because of its stability and natural preservative effect, extending the shelf life of foods. Palm oil is also the least expensive vegetable oil because of the high productivity of oil palm plants. One acre of oil palm yields 4-10 times more oil than other oil crops, such as soybean and canola (Humanature 2015). Of all the edible oils, palm oil is one of the most environmentally- and economically-sound options – or it can be, when grown sustainably.

Boycotting palm oil will not make it go away. In fact, the demand for plant-based oils will only increase with the global population; Malaysia and Indonesia are anticipated to increase their combined palm oil production by 12 million tons by 2021 (OECD/FAO 2012). Woodland Park Zoo believes that rather than boycotting all palm oil, supporting sustainable palm oil products is the answer. We can encourage a viable alternative to current practices by increasing demand for sustainable palm oil, and choosing to financially support RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) companies pledging to grow, manufacture and source sustainable palm oil in a transparent way. Learn more about the criteria for sustainable palm oil. (, Humanature 2015)


How is Woodland Park Zoo supporting sustainable palm oil?

Like you, Woodland Park Zoo is on the journey to sourcing and using sustainable palm oil. This isn’t possible overnight, but we are committed to reviewing our zoo products and supporting certified sustainable palm oil when available.

We support a number of conservation efforts in affected areas, including WPZ's partners: Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation and Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Project. With the opening of Banyan Wilds and the arrival of our Malayan tigers, we strive to educate ourselves and our community about palm oil, habitat loss and the impacted animals.

In April of 2015, Woodland Park Zoo joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as a voting member. Membership gives the zoo a seat at the table with other environmental and conservation NGOs so we can help to expand the regulations on deforestation and habitat loss in the future. As a conservation organization, it is our duty to make sure that the habitat and the animals in it are preserved for years to come.


What can I do?

Become an informed consumer! Choose to buy products from companies pledging to source certified sustainable palm oil. While few businesses are entirely sustainable, companies within the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) make pledges to work toward growing, manufacturing or sourcing only sustainable palm oil. Educate yourself on the issue by exploring resources such as The Guardian’s Palm Oil Interactive and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s palm oil app from Google Play or the App store, a convenient app to use while shopping to determine if a product has sustainable or unsustainable palm oil. If you find a product or company that has not made a strong commitment to deforestation and the sourcing and use of certified sustainable palm oil, write to them and share your concerns.

Palm Oil Letter Template Link

You can also support conservation organizations focusing on these regions like WPZ's partners: Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation and Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Project. These innovative non-governmental organizations are saving orangutans and elephants by joining forces with palm oil producers, purchasing land and creating wildlife corridors to create a more comprehensive habitat.

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Woodland Park Zoo saves wildlife and inspires everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives.

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Woodland Park Zoo recognizes that these are the lands of the Tribal signatories of the Treaty of Point Elliott. We acknowledge their stewardship of this place continues to this day and that it is our responsibility to join them to restore the relationship with the living world around us.

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