15 Palm Oil Products You Probably Have in Your Home

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


Over the last few decades, palm oil production has exploded worldwide, quietly seeping into our homes, cars, and grocery stores. But this ubiquitous product has devastated communities and ecosystems across the Global South; it is an industry based on stolen land and slave labor. Iconic animals such as the orangutan now teeter on the brink of extinction; fires lit to clear the way for plantations spew carbon emissions to rival those of industrialized nations.  


In Jocelyn Zuckerman’s groundbreaking work of investigative journalism, Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World, the human and environmental cost of cheap and shelf-stable products is laid bare. 


Many people have not heard of palm oil- but here’s a list of fifteen products you likely have sitting in your pantry, shower, or medicine cabinet that contain it. It’s not always called “palm oil”- it’s often present in derivative form, under these names you might have seen before: 


Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol



Palm oil holds color well, doesn’t melt at high temperatures, has a smooth application, and virtually no taste. This makes it ideal for use in lipstick- as well as other cosmetics. 



Commercial Pizza Dough 

It’s tempting to grab premade pizza dough when you’re getting creative in the kitchen- but it may be a better idea to make your own. Palm oil is added to both frozen and fresh dough to stop it from sticking together and to enhance texture. 

Instant Noodles 

Up to 20% of the weight of a pack of instant noodles, palm oil is used to precook the noodles so all you have to do is add hot water. 

From Planet Palm:  “India’s wildly popular Maggi instant noodles, which are made by Nestlé, also list palm oil second. The place is drowning in the stuff….Nor is palm oil doing anything close to stabilizing food security at its source...These days, the communities rely on instant noodles (some containing 20 percent palm oil) and government-issued rice water to survive.” According to Planet Palm, India is a leading consumer of palm oil. 



Most shampoos strip natural oils from hair; since palm oil has a neutral smell, it’s used as a conditioning agent. You’ll most likely see it listed as Sodium Laureth Sulfate.  

Ice Cream

Most commercial ice cream contains palm oil, which creates a smooth and creamy texture. Common household brands like Breyer’s (Unilever) and Haagen-Dazs (Nestle) count palm oil among their ingredients. 



Palm oil provides the foaming agent in soaps, washing powder, and other cleaning products. The household brand Palmolive puts it right in the name:“‘You’re soaking in it,’ went the old tagline of the palm oil–based dish detergent Palmolive.(from Planet Palm)

“Some of the bigger refineries further “fractionate” the oil into solid and liquid forms, known as stearin and olein, respectively. Much of the former gets shipped off to oleo-chemical plants, where it’s further manipulated and broken down into various fatty acids, fatty alcohols, esters, and glycerines, which in turn are sold to detergent and cosmetic manufacturers, and to the chemical industry.” (from Planet Palm). 



That mainstay of postwar cooking used to rely heavily on trans fats. Since the US ban on trans fats, palm oil has been substituted in margarine because it is solid at room temperature. 

“One of the largest companies in Honduras, Jaremar today oversees oil-palm plantings covering some 37,000 acres, in addition to running its own mills, refineries, and manufacturing sites. Among its retail products are such regionally adored brands as Clover, Mrs. Pickford’s, and Blanquita (margarines and oils); Max Poder (laundry soap); and Riki Tiki (cookies and chips)” (From Planet Palm). 




Palm oil helps create a smooth and shiny appearance in some chocolate and keeps it from melting. “Palm kernel oil, at 80 percent saturated fat, tends to be used more by the makers of chocolates and other confectionery, who prize its hard texture, among other qualities.” (From Planet Palm)


Perhaps America’s favorite sweet treat, commercial packaged cookies are loaded with palm oil. Even Girl Scout Tagalongs and Thin Mints are made with palm oil that has been linked to land that was previously orangutan habitats- a fact that two Ann Arbor eight-grade Girl Scouts learned when researching for their Bronze award. 

Semi-solid at room temperature, palm oil emerged as the ideal swap-in for the partially hydrogenated oils formerly used to enhance the texture and extend the shelf life of products like cookies and crackers, and which are now banned in many countries.

With refiners having since figured out how to transform the brightly hued and strongtasting substance [palm oil] into something odorless, flavorless, and all but invisible, these new processed-food manufacturers had come to rely on it for replacing the more expensive butter and lard, while providing texture and shelf life to their growing lines of cookies, crackers, and other baked goods.

On oscar vanaspati palm stearin, a particularly cheap and unwholesome palm oil variant common in India: ‘“We don’t prefer to sell this one,” Kapoor said. “We have a bad science. Only D-grade people ask for this oil…”But in India, bakeries and local biscuit factories now use the vanaspati for cookies, cakes, and other sweets. “If you take one spoonful everyday for a month,”said Kapoor, “you're going to die. The companies know it, but they sell it only for money, money, money.”’ (from Planet Palm)



Palm oil is especially prolific in soaps because of its ability to remove oil and dirt from hair and skin while moisturizing.

The use of palm oil in soaps is bound up with its colonial legacy. According to Planet Palm, “Europeans originally sourced the oils for lighting their lamps, but the two substances would eventually find their way into soaps and candles, and into the lubricants required by the age’s shiny new machinery….An exploding population of workers, many of them traveling to gritty factory-line jobs in the shadow of belching smokestacks, fueled a new market for soap, which, thanks to the discoveries of a French chemist named Michel-Eugène Chevreul, had just begun to be mass-manufactured using vegetable oil.

By 1850, Liverpool was producing some thirty thousand tons of palm oil–based soaps every year.” The massive conglomerate Unilever also got in early on the palm oil extraction scramble: “With its expanding soap and food operations requiring ever-greater volumes of palm and palmkernel oil (and with the Congo beginning to descend into political turmoil), Unilever, too, began looking east, establishing some eleven thousand acres of oil palm in Kluang, north of Singapore, and eventually adding land in Sabah, on the northern tip of Borneo.” 


Packaged bread 

Solid at room temperature, easy to bake with, inexpensive- palm oil and its derivatives are ideal for maintaining the shelf life of supermarket bread. 


Peanut Butter


The Skippys and Jifs of the peanut butter world rely on palm oil to give this quintessential American lunchbox ingredient its spreadability and creaminess. It's also used as a filler, since it's so cheap- even cheaper than peanuts. 

Packaged Pastries 


Palm oil is used in packaged pastries to create a longer shelf life. 

Chips (that contain vegetable oil)


Low production cost makes it a cheaper frying oil- along with a high smoke point that makes it ideal for frying chips.


Vegan Cheese 


The environmental costs of cattle farming for dairy and meat have been in the public eye over recent years. However, plant-based alternatives are not without their own drawbacks. Palm oil is present in many dairy-free cheese products. 


Baby Formula  

Despite the known health risks of palm oil, its derivatives are used in some baby formulas to match fatty acids present in human milk. 



Amazon.com : Nutella Chocolate Hazelnut Spread, Perfect Topping for  Pancakes, 26.5 Oz (Pack of 1) : Hazelnut Spreads : Grocery & Gourmet Food

Perhaps the most infamous on this list for its use of palm oil, Nutella nevertheless remains an iconic and beloved foodstuff. Ferrero, Nutella’s parent company claims on their website that the palm oil that comprises 20% of the product is “sustainable”, and that only palm oil that has been “improperly processed” poses a health risk. The notion of “sustainable” palm oil is hotly contested by environmental groups. 


























Article related book(s): 
Planet Palm