Science Made Simple: Palm Oil

My name is Ryan and I love science. Join me as I try to make tough science not so tough.

Follow along as I research the issues, untangle the mess, and figure out what you really need to know to help animals and the environment.

 Today’s Topic: Palm Oil

Today I translate some information on palm oil and oil palm (yup, they’re different) to help everyone get a little insight into the issue. Don’t know what palm oil is? Well… chances are that you’ve probably already eaten something with palm oil in it TODAY!

Confusing Science:
The cultivation of the palm Elaeis guineensis boasts the most rapidly accelerating monoculture throughout the world. Global demand for the oil extracted from this species of plant has exploded as a result of the discovery of its far-reaching applications.

What It Really Means:
There is a type of palm tree that is called the oil palm. The oil palm grows fruit, and that fruit is used to make a special oil that people call palm oil. The two terms can be confusing when they’re used close together, so here’s an easy way to think about it:
“Oil Palm” = The whole palm tree from the sprout to the tips of the branches.
“Palm Oil” = The oil that comes out of the fruit of the palm tree.
Palm oil is an ingredient in products we use daily, including much of the food we eat. There’s a good change you’ve already used something with palm oil in it today! It’s in cosmetics, soaps, food, and much more. Because palm oil can be used in so many products, lots of people and companies want it and that means farmers need more land for growing.

This is what oil palm fruit looks like.
This is what oil palm fruit looks like.

Confusing Science:

Southeast Asian island, Borneo, continues to endure excessive deforestation as palm oil producers engage in the clear-cutting of vast swaths of rainforest for the purpose of expanding plantations and crop yields. These rainforests exist as arks of biodiversity, fostering considerable populations of endemic species.

What It Really Means:
Palm oil comes from a plant grown in places that animals like orangutans, tigers, and elephants call home. Unfortunately, the rainforests here are being cut down or burnt to make room for new palm oil farms. This is a really big deal because the rainforests are home to so many different types of animals, and some of those animals aren’t found anywhere else in the entire world. When the trees are cut down, many animals suffer.

Confusing Science:
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) unites stakeholders from the palm oil industry to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. 1,600 members represent 40% of the palm oil industry, covering all commodity supply chain sectors.

What It Really Means:
Even though palm oil might sound like bad stuff, it is actually an important ingredient in many products. Avoiding items with palm oil altogether isn’t a realistic option, and that’s why groups like the RSPO have been formed. The RSPO helps farmers and other people who are involved in making/using palm oil. The RSPO helps them understand that if they make some changes to how palm oil is grown and produced, we can be sure that the rainforests and the animals that live in them will be around for a long time.

What Can YOU Do?: Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a look at the label on what you buy. Just by learning what products contain palm oil can help you understand how important it is to protect the animals that live where oil palms are grown!

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more as I try to make science easier to understand. Never stop learning,


 Have a topic you’d like me to explore? Post it in the comments!

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