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Palm Oil: The Hidden Ingredient You Could Be Eating Every Day

It's in plenty of products we use, but it seems palm oil and the industry that manufactures it is plagued by secrecy.

In May, the Indonesian government ordered the country's palm oil companies refrain from releasing data about production to the public citing national security, privacy and competition reasons.

Environmental groups slammed this decision as a move away from transparency for the palm oil industry, which already faces widespread criticism for destroying diverse rainforest ecosystems.

“The Indonesian government seems determined to prevent brands knowing whether the companies that produce their palm oil are destroying forests,"  Kiki Taufik, Global Head of the Indonesian forests campaign at Greenpeace Indonesia said.

Greenpeace claims withholding information is preventing the palm oil industry reforming to end ecosystem destruction. Indonesia and Malaysia produce 86% of the world’s palm oil and without reform, large international companies could stop purchasing the products, which will stunt the nation's economies.

Palm Oil
Indonesia and Malaysia produce 86% of the world’s palm oil. Photo: Getty Images.

"It would also do untold damage to the Indonesian economy, as many consumer brands would find themselves with no choice but to stop buying palm oil altogether,” Taufik said

Palm Oil In Australia

This apparent lack of transparency is also true for Australian markets. It's not compulsory for palm oil to be labelled as an ingredient on Australian packaging, meaning consumers don't know when they are consuming the product.

"We as consumers have a right to choose the products that we use and to make ethical decisions with our choices, so denying us that choice through the control of information I think is deeply undemocratic," President of The Orangutan Project Leif Cocks told 10 daily.

How To Know If A Product Contains Palm Oil

Palm oil is labelled as vegetable oil on Australian packaging. Only peanut oil, sesame oil and soybean oil must be individually labelled.

Palm Oil
Palm oil production contributes to deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra. Photo: Getty Images.

A label must declare if an item has saturated fat, so if a product has vegetable oil and saturated fat it will most probably contain palm kernel oil, palm oil or coconut oil.

"Under current regulations, palm oil can be labelled in the ingredient list using the generic terms 'vegetable oil' or by identifying the source of the oil, for example, as 'palm oil'," the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) website reads.

The most recent application calling for palm oil to be identified in the ingredient list was reviewed by FSANZ in 2008.

FSANZ said it "previously rejected an application for mandatory ingredient labeling of palm oil when used in food products because the application was about environmental concerns".

This possible lack of transparency causes confusion for consumers, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

To clear things up, the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (ROSP), supported by the WWF, has put together guidelines for sustainable palm oil production.

RSPO Certified Label
RSPO Certified Label. Photo: RSPO.

"There’s a lot of confusion not just about vegetable oil or palm oil but about food generally," Head of Sustainable Food at WWF Australia Joshua Bishop told 10 daily.

"You have to label vegetable oil but there is an awful lot of oil that can fall under that label.

We would prefer that not only is palm oil labelled but that any kind of vegetable oil is labelled so people can understand if it is sunflower, if it is grape seed, palm or coconut or anything else."

Only 20 percent of global palm oil production currently meets RSPO standards.  Bishop said consumers can look for the RSPO certified palm oil label (above) as an indication of how sustainable an item is.

"The onus is on the consumer really and you have to do a little bit of work. It is not about boycotting ... but informing yourself to make better choices," Bishop said.

READ MORE: Nutella Has A New Rival With A Very Important Recipe Change

Palm Oil
It's up to consumers to be proactive about buying sustainable food. Photo: Getty Images.
Palm Oil Is Not the Only Problem

While palm oil production has long attracted attention for the rainforest and habitat destruction, it's unsustainable manufacturing that is the root of the problem.

"Palm oil is one of many unsustainable forms of monocultures that are being used to replace rainforest for short term profits but it's not exclusive," Leif Cocks told 10 daily.

"It is a blunt hammer if we say let’s stop producing palm oil … there are still many crops of an unsustainable nature ... so by attacking one particular product alone it's not going to save any forest."

READ MORE: Orangutan Blinded After Being Shot 74 Times With An Air Rifle

Environmental groups are calling for an overhaul of food production in Borneo and Sumatra to ensure more sustainable practices.They claim eradicating palm oil production doesn't address the wider problem with short-term-focused food manufacturing.

Palm Oil
An overhaul of the production systems is the only way to save rainforests. Photo: Getty Images.

"You can’t produce food with zero environmental footprint so we have to find ways to minimise that footprint," Bishop from the WWF said.

"It is not as simple as dropping palm oil and saying let’s use something else."

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au