How to find Hidden Palm Oil in Supermarkets

By Bhavani Prakash

Palm Oil is the largest plantation crop in the world, and much of it is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia where primary rainforests that are rich in biodiversity and home to millions of species are being rapidly cleared.

Rapid expansion of plantations releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as peat swamps are drained, or rainforests burnt down. This threatens to accelerate global warming. Over 2 species an hour or 55,000 species a year globally are becoming extinct, much of it from tropical rainforests.

Are we all unwittingly contributing to this, each time we fill up our shopping trolleys?

One out of 10 supermarket products contains  palm oil in some form or the other. Palm oil is such a versatile product. It’s colourless and odourless, and improves the shelf life of several products. These attributes as well as the low cost make it attractive for manufacturers.

Food products which contain palm oil are as follows. This is not an exhaustive list :

Dry Biscuits (Crackers, Breadsticks, wafers, twists, flatbreads etc)  * Sweet Biscuits ( Shortbread, Thins, Cookies, tartlets, crepes etc) *   Cake Mixes * Chocolate * Crisps * Snack Foods (Chips – Potato, Tortilla, Rice etc, Other Snacks like seaweed, chickpeas, soy) * Frozen meals & fish * Frozen pizzas/pastry/pies/snacks * Frozen chips & wedges * Margarines, Spreads & Peanut Butter * Instant noodles * Cereals *

Why does this sound all too familiar? Palm oil has insidiously infiltrated into a majority of products that we see and consume every day!  Contributing to this is also the fear of transfats, that has lead to a rush to replace hydrogenated oils with Palm Oil as this TreeHugger article highlights.

Apart from this, there are inedible uses for Palm Oil.  Non-Food Products which contain Palm Oil are :

Soaps & Detergents * Shampoos* Candles * Cosmetics * Lubricants for Industrial Machinery * Grease for Bread Moulds * Drilling Mud for Petroleum * Grease to plastify and sterilise plastic products * Glue * Prints * Acids to lubricate fibres in textile industry

This video on Palm Oil in Supermarket products is worth watching:


How can we buy responsibly?

1.  Recognise brands which do not use palm oil in their contents. Though the site is Australian, some of the brands mentioned are global.  For a local or regional brand, look at the ingredient list as mentioned further below.

2. Consume less Processed Foods : If you take a good look at the products containing palm oil, you’ll soon see that they are mostly highly processed foods, which use an enormous amount of resources, such as fossil fuel based inputs in  large scale agriculture, processing and packaging, and food miles in terms of distance travelled from place of production to the supermarket. So in general, reducing the quantity of processed foods we consume is the best way to help reduce palm oil consumption, and help conserve resources for the world.


palm oil fruit3. Recognise the ingredients which contain hidden palm oil. Read the labels behind every product that you buy.  From the Borneo Orangutan Society website:

  • “As a rule of thumb, if the saturated fat content is about 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil.
  • Another thing to watch out for on the ingredients list is margarine.  If the product contains margarine, it is highly likely that the margarine will have been derived from palm oil.
  • Additives and agents such as emulsifiers (E471 is a common one), while a small component of the overall product, can also be derived from palm oil.”

Palm Oil Action.org lists these Unlabelled Palm oil ingredients to look out for.

Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)

Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)

Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)


Palm Oil Kernal



Elaeis Guineensis

Glyceryl Stearate

Stearic Acid


Steareth -2

Steareth -20

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate

Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)

Hydrated palm glycerides

Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)

Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (and anything with palmitate at the end)

This video captures the effect on palm oil plantations on Orangutans:


Isn’t it tragic that magnificent, biodiverse rainforests are being cut down and burnt away for soaps and shampoos, cakes and biscuits. How can we even justify this to our grandchildren?  We as consumers shouldn’t be waiting for companies who are dragging their feet on “sustainable palm oil certifications”  to protect rainforests. We have to start demanding palm-oil free products every time we make that shopping trip.

It is upto us to watch what goes into our shopping trolley, even if it means a bit of inconvenience. If that little bit of inconvenience by way of reading labels, and perhaps using more fresh produce instead of processed foods, saves our precious rainforests and the orangutans…it’s surely worth it.


Further links you may be interested in:

BBC article: Big Business leaves big forest footprints

Please watch this moving film on what palm oil does to rainforests and the Orangutans- a highly endangered ape. It’s called Green the Film.

The Greenpeace report on how Palm Oil is Cooking the Climate is also an enlightening read.




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Posted by on Nov 4 2009. Filed under Biodiversity, Climate Change, Consumerism, Food, Food/Diet/Meat Reduction, Palm Oil, Sustainable Agriculture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “How to find Hidden Palm Oil in Supermarkets”

  1. Great idea, thanks for this tip!

  2. I cannot believe this is true!

  3. finally, I could find this article again. You have few useful tips for my school project. This time, I won’t forget to bookmark it. :)

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