How many times have you read the ingredients list on the back of a product and simply skimmed over the words ‘vegetable oil’? One of the oils your snack may contain is palm oil; which is derived from the fruit of the oil palms. However, with its ongoing increase in popularity in the food industry, the production and consumption of the ingredient are becoming more and more unsustainable, environmentally and personally. Inspired by everyone’s favourite Oscar-award winning actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before The Flood documentary, SUBCULTURED explores the effects of palm oil on the human body and on the world.


Impact on Health

Whilst it is an important source of calories in poor areas, such as the tropical belt of Africa and parts of Brazil, the consumption of palm oil in Western countries is unnecessary, and is frequently linked as a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease.

Studies by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) linked the intake of palm oil to a rise in blood cholesterol levels. In turn, the World Health Organisation have encouraged the limitation of products containing the oil, and are so convinced of its input in increasing the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases that it has been placed in the same evidence category as trans fatty acids; a substance found in doughnuts, chips, cookies and ready meals; vegetarian/vegan or not.


Environmental and Social Impact

The social impact of palm oil is relatively mixed. Whilst some societies reap in the benefits of the industry, including improved infrastructure and a reduction in poverty, others have had their lives damaged by it. In Before The Flood, DiCaprio exposed the lives of children who had swapped school and education for heavy containers in order to illegally work on plantations in order to help their families. The usage of the land of indigenous people without compensation has also been a major cause for social conflict.

The forever increasing demand for palm oil has encouraged wider cultivation, resulting in the clearing of forest in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. This has had a serious impact on the orangutan, which is listed as endangered, with the Sumatran orangutan being critically endangered. It is also a major factor in climate change, as these areas of forest are burnt down, creating more greenhouse gasses. As almost 60% of products in a supermarket contain palm oil, it is evident that the demand for it is on the rise, further enhancing the impact it is having on the world.


So how is this relevant to Surrey students? – What can we do?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry group founded in 2004, which aims to address these concerns, and offer Sustainable Palm Oil certificates to producers which meet their criteria. Unfortunately, the demand for sustainable palm oil is low due to the lack of consumer knowledge on the subject. But, by trying to purchase goods that are either palm oil free or using a sustainable source, you can help make a difference.

Brands that use sustainable sources of palm oil include Quorn, The Co-Operative, Young’s, Warburtons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. However, by simply eating a diet with a minimal amount of processed foods, it is easy to steer clear from it. Try boiling carrots, mushrooms and pasta and adding a Llyod Grossman pasta sauce to it for a simple, nutritious meal that can easily be obtained from Simply Fresh! With the Fruit and Vegetable market at Rubix on Thursdays as well as Tesco being so near to campus, reducing your intake in extra oil is easier than ever, and will allow you to actively contribute to the saving of our planet!


Text by Amy Furney

Picture research by Jonathan W. Espiritu; featured image taken from Tumblr.