I think a lot of about the food I buy and cook.
I am interested in the source of my grains – I buy a local Assamese variety of rice and love its fragrance, even though there are other, more familiar hybrids in my supermarket. Our garden gives us delicious produce and, sometimes, I can go weeks without shopping for vegetables. I try to buy seasonal fruits (and have discovered the actual time of the year when litchis, grapes, oranges, and pineapples are naturally harvested), and somewhere along the way completely switched to ghee and cold pressed oils.
I thought I was doing well, and stories about the destruction of far-off rainforests for palm oil had nothing to do with me. When there were headlines about man-made forest fires in Malaysia and Indonesia, about the great loss of habitat for animals like orangutans, I didn’t think I was contributing to the disaster. A lot of the deforestation in virgin forests in south-east Asia is related to palm oil production. But I wasn’t consuming any palm oil – I was fine.
Till I looked at the ingredients in my packet of bread. And behind the bar of chocolate. And the small packet of cookies, the instant soup, the ready-made pizza dough, and the occasional treat of ice cream.
Palm oil kept appearing in different forms and with different names – vegetable fat, vegetable oil, palm fruit oil, kernel oil, and derivatives like glycerine, sodium kernelate, glyceryl stearate, and palmitic acid.
It is easy to see why palm oil is an attractive ingredient. The trees grow quickly, yield fruit for 15-20 years, and every tree produces more oil than most other vegetable sources. The oil itself is solid at room temperature, doesn’t have a smell and can give a rich, creamy texture to a variety of cosmetics and foods.
Maximum bang for the buck.
Even if we become really conscious about checking food labels, though, palm oil derivatives can sneak into our lives – in cosmetics, soaps, dishwash detergents, and shampoos. Surfactants in commercial detergents are often harsh on skin and hair and can strip natural oils. Palm oil derivatives are used as conditioning agents to create an artificial and temporary replacement for these oils.
But there are ways to avoid these products as well.
1. Eat fresh, eat at home – A lot of readymade or commercially prepared food uses palm oil. Palm oil is cheap, easily available and doesn’t overwhelm the food with its own flavour. So that packet of instant noodles, and the fresh pizza (quickly delivered at home)? There is some kind of palm oil in them.
Why not simply go ahead and learn to cook? Good for health, kind on the environment, and let’s face it, kind of empowering. Nothing more adult than creating tasty alchemy from simple ingredients.
2. Switch to local alternatives – Before global economics brought palm oil to nearly every home on the planet, people still ate, slept, and washed their hair and had clean homes and clothes. Dig a little into local history and speak to older people. Find out what solutions were available earlier.
When two states in India started to implement a ban on single-use plastic, a number of people rediscovered their stainless steel lunch boxes, or started to wrap flowers and snacks in banana leaves. There are alternatives everywhere (except perhaps those parts of central Africa where the palm tree has existed for more than 3000 years). Find them and speak to others about them.
3. Ditch the make-up – Cosmetics (especially lipsticks) can be a nightmare of ingredients. Palm oil is one of them. Reduce usage, and someday, actually become a no-filter, no make-up person – simply glowing with good health and confidence.
4. Look for sustainably sourced palm oil – It can be difficult to completely ditch this super-useful product, though. But companies like Nestle are committing to obtaining palm oil from sustainable sources. Look around, do a little research (apparently Gabon is trying to find a middle ground) and choose brands that are working towards preserving the remaining rainforests (and letting the cute orangutans stay in their home).
Happy, sustainable and cruelty-free week to you!