Happy Earth Day! and a little bit about my palm oil project

When you talk about guilty pleasures, these are ones I just can’t resist: brownies, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cups, potato chips. I have a weakness that creates a need for prodigious amounts of exercise to control my weight. Imagine my dismay when I found out, by reading labels, that Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups are made with palm oil.nikid-cups

I had already sworn off their chocolate chip cookies and brownies for the same reason. And then I started looking at the labels of more of their products. They are certainly not alone, but Trader Joe’s, it turns out, is the purveyor of a whole lot of palm oil.

Even if you don’t know about palm oil, I’m sure you suspect this is about climate change. It is. But first the nutritional aspects of the story. Palm oil, alternately called palm kernel oil, glycerin and a whole bunch of other aliases, has a lot of saturated fat – ounce for ounce as much as butter. And we’ve lately been warned that saturated fat, not cholesterol, is the clogged-artery_1thing that raises the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in our blood. Besides its use in lots of things you find in grocery stores, from Ritz Crackers to Nutella, from Cheerios to Oreos, palm oil is used to make a whole lot of the deep-fried fast food available almost everywhere. (It’s also in lipstick, shampoo, lotions and other such products.)

But I’m not here to give you medical advice.

The bigger problem with palm oil, in my opinion, is its contribution to global warming. “Globally, it’s estimated that 5% to 20% of global (greenhouse gas) emissions are attributable to deforestation,” writes John Sutter, lead reporter on CNN’s Two° series on climate change.

And that’s the connection to palm oil: “Large areas of tropical forests and other oil-palm-plantation-vlecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations – destroying critical habitat for many endangered species, including rhinos, elephants and tigers (and orangutans),” according to WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.

One day I was complaining to a checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s about all the palm oil, and she suggested I write to the stores’ corporate officials. So I did:

I have recently begun noticing how many products at Trader Joe’s use palm oil (it has a lot of different names, including: Palm fruit oil, Palm kernel oil, glycerin, vegetable oil, etc.). It is found in ever more snack foods, sweets and pastries and on and on. I know you say that you get it from “sustainable” sources, but there are no such sources (there is a significant amount of debate on this point). Palm oil is bad for individuals — with significant amounts of saturated fat — and bad for the environment. The destruction of rain forests to add more space for palm oil plantations is destroying habitat of endangered species of plants and animals and adding significantly to climate change. You should be on a straight line to eliminating all palm oil products from everything you sell.

Can you tell me if this is a policy you are willing to adopt and how quickly you will move to implement it?

trader_joe_sI got a surprisingly prompt response.

Dear Lincoln,

Thank you for your feedback and inquiry on this important issue. We do want to let you know that much of the palm oil used in our Trader Joe’s products comes from small scale family farms in South America. These farmers are certified by ProForest, which ensures that they meet strict social, environmental and technical criteria.

With regard to environmental criteria, the assessments are carried out at the landscape and operational level at both the farms and processing facilities. These assessments cover environmental impact on the soil, water, air, biodiversity and local communities. The lands the farmers use are not lands that were deforested. The lands used to grow the palm fruit are lands previously used for agricultural purposes (cattle, rice, bananas, etc.).

Still, though, while much of the palm oil our vendors source is as described above, it is impossible for us at this time to ensure that all of our palm oil is sourced this way, and some of it is definitely sourced as a commodity. We appreciate your input, though, and we hope this information helps inform your shopping choices.

Trader Joe’s Customer Relations

So far I haven’t gotten a response to my follow-up reply:

Dear Amy,

Thanks for the prompt reply. A couple of thoughts after reading and re-reading your response.

First you don’t address the health problems caused by substituting palm oil for vegetable oils that have less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.

Second you are using what journalists call “weasel words.” Especially the word “much,” which could, I suppose, mean 20%, but undoubtedly is less than 50%, or you would have said “most.”

Finally, you articulate no intent to eliminate products that use palm oil from plantations on deforested land, which means you are among the companies who are providing strong incentives for deforestation.

Thus you really have not addressed my concerns. Only by using progressively less palm oil in the products you sell can you decrease the incentive for deforestation. Only by using progressively less palm oil can you move your product line in the direction of improving nutritional standards for your customers.

 I think it would be great if everyone who reads this and shops at Trader Joe’s would say something at your store or write to corporate, or send an e-mail to my friend Amy — webRelations@traderjoes.com.

More about palm oil:
Palm Oil and Tropical Deforestation
Palm Oil and Global Warming
WWF on Palm Oil

4 thoughts on “Happy Earth Day! and a little bit about my palm oil project

  1. Hi Linc!

    Miles and I very much share your concerns. We go around looking for palm oil in snack foods at the grocery store and are no longer able to buy most of the normal kid-friendly food. One interesting thing we discovered is that although Cheese-its do contain palm oil, the Scrabble version does not. So, that is the version we buy. Very strange!

    Love to you and Sandi!
    Gayle Levy
    Associate Professor of French
    Director of UMKC Honors College
    University of Missouri-Kansas City
    Apply to the Honors College!

    • The more you look the harder it gets. When the big food processors were forced to let transfats go, they shifted to palm oil. If you dig a bit, you’ll see some very sad pictures of orangutans. Our best to you guys, too!

  2. Great! That’s the second message to them inspired by my article. Much appreciated. But I guess that’s not quite what you’d call going viral, eh? Oh well, we do what we can.

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