Palm oil has been at the centre of several heated debates and discussions in recent years, and wherever we look – from food to fuel – we see palm oil. On the other hand, there are also many products labelled “palm oil free”.

Why is it that such an affordable, versatile, and widespread oil is under such fierce attack? The impacts of palm oil’s mass production on the environment are the main reason. But the topic requires a fair bit more digging… So, let’s dig in!

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, originally native to Africa. It is one of the most widely used vegetable oils globally, and a common ingredient in a variety of products, from snack and sweets to haircare or even skincare products. Ice cream, crisps, chocolate, deodorants, soap, or detergents are just a few products containing palm oil. It is also used as a biofuel in many countries and in animal feed.

More than 40 countries produce this commodity, but Indonesia and Malaysia together account for around 83% of the global palm oil production, being responsible for 66 million tonnes (of a total of 78 million tonnes). The African continent produces only around 5% of the world’s palm oil.

Red palm oil vs refined palm oil

These are the two main types of palm oil. Red palm oil is unrefined and crude, extracted from the oil palm fruit. It is naturally reddish, due to the carotenoids (also present in carrots). Refined palm oil is normally white or transparent (once refined, it loses some of its compounds, namely the carotenoids) and has much milder flavour than red palm oil. That’s why it is mainly adopted for food manufacturing and mass production than red palm oil, which has stronger flavour and is more used for household cooking in local communities.

Why use palm oil?

Palm oil is an extremely versatile vegetable oil, which has very useful and functional properties, both in food and non-food industries. For example, this oil is semi-solid at room temperature, so it is used in spreads like butter or margarine substitutes. It is oxidation-resistant, and for this reason it helps products achieve a longer shelf life. It is also temperature resistant, so widely used for frying. Lastly, palm oil is odourless and colourless. Therefore, it does not modify the look or smell of food products, making it very attractive for the food market.

Common palm oil products

Besides the food industry, where it’s used in ice creams for the smooth texture, or in chocolates to keep them from melting, palm oil is widely used in cosmetics such as lotions, creams, and lipsticks, because of its creamy texture. It also lathers very well, making it excellent for soaps, shampoos, body washes and shower gels.

Palm oil can even be used in industrial production of rubber, in printing inks due to its binding properties, and in pharmaceuticals. Its relative low cost of production allied to its versatility makes it one of the most popular vegetable oils worldwide.

Hands holding palm fruits.

What is the problem with palm oil?

The problem isn’t the palm oil itself – it’s the unsustainable production of this raw material, which leads to deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats.

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of palm tree Elaeis guineensis, that can live for 28 to 30 years. However, as trees grew, it became increasingly difficult to harvest the fruits. In times where environmental concerns were less considered, trees were chopped down earlier and repeatedly for new ones to be planted.

Also, palm oil crops are very efficient, meaning less inputs are needed for its production, such as soil area, water or fertilisers, when compared to other vegetable oils – coconut, sunflower, soy, etc – which made it a target for mass production. Because of this, other parts of the rainforest were cleared to make way for more palm oil farming. As such, its production has been one of the main contributors for the deforestation of some of the world’s most diverse and rich forests.

Deforestation of tropical forests has a big side-effect on the environment. It releases enormous amounts of carbon as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. It is estimated that tropical deforestation accounts for 10 percent of total global warming emissions.

Unfortunately, this is not all. With deforestation comes loss of natural habitats for many species, including some that are already very endangered, such as the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino.

Sustainable palm oil is the right choice

Does this mean palm oil should not be used? Not exactly. While the mass production of palm oil can be harmful for the environment, tropical fauna and local populations, there are ways of ensuring that palm oil used in the products we consume is not contributing to these issues.

After the backlash to palm oil, NGOs soon realised that, even with all the problems associated to palm oil production, the alternatives also have negative impacts on the environment. Other vegetable oils are also responsible for high greenhouse gases emissions and deforestation, and its production isn’t as efficient.

The answer came in the form of a certification: sustainable palm oil. As such, the best way to tackle this problem is to choose RSPO certified palm oil.

RSPO, the Roundtable on Sustainable palm oil, is a non-governmental organisation formed in 2004 with the aim of making palm oil farming more sustainable, both for the environment and for people. RSPO certification bans deforestation of tropical areas and promotes conservation of highly biodiverse ecosystems.

Jerónimo Martins stance on palm oil

Acknowledging the importance of palm oil as well as the issues related to its production, since 2014 that the Jerónimo Martins’ Group has been mapping palm oil presence on its Private Brand products sold at Pingo Doce, Recheio, Biedronka, Ara and Hebe stores.

To this end, it questions its suppliers about the origin and journey of this and other raw materials, such as soy, paper and wood and beef, throughout the different production stages of a product. This is what experts call traceability.

The Group also annually replies to CDP Forests, an international program acting on behalf of investors who wish to understand how organizations are addressing their exposure to forests-related risks and discloses it to the public. In 2023, Jerónimo Martins was distinguished with A (the highest score) for its performance under the ‘climate change’ programme, and A- (Leadership level) in ‘water security’ and managing the commodities associated with deforestation risk, namely palm oil.

Jerónimo Martins Group is a member of the RSPO, an international non-profit organisation that brings together stakeholders from the palm oil industry sectors – producers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors and non-governmental organisations – to develop and implement global standards for the production of sustainable palm oil.