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Trying to avoid palm oil in the products you buy? It could be harder than you think

It’s one of the most controversial vegetable oils on the planet, so what’s palm oil doing in your deodorant?

That’s exactly what eco-conscious consumer Sheila O’Reilly wanted to find out when she called up makers of some popular consumer products.

Palm oil is ecologically problematic and has been linked by the World Wildlife Fund, among several others, to deforestation and other environmental abuses. And those concerns are front and centre for O’Reilly when she is shopping for groceries and other goods. 

“If there is palm oil listed, I don’t buy it,” the Guelph, Ont., resident said in an interview with CBC’s Marketplace.

  • Watch “The Secret Sources of Palm Oil” on Marketplace on CBC-TV on Friday at 8 p.m. or stream it on CBC Gem.

But Canada’s labelling laws are anything but clear, so finding out what’s in some of your favourite products isn’t easy.

“It’s really tricky. It’s a bit of a minefield,” said Adria Vasil, author of the Ecoholic book series and managing editor for Corporate Knights, a sustainable economy magazine.

WATCH | Why palm oil is easy to spot in some products and almost impossible in others: 

CBC Marketplace reveals why palm oil is so easy to spot in some products, and almost impossible in others.

Marketplace’s latest investigation has found it’s not always possible for consumers to find out whether or not palm oil is in their products, and in many cases, companies refused to disclose this information.

Clearly labelled in food

In food products, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency requires palm oil or one of its hundreds of derivatives to be clearly labelled.

That’s not the case when it comes to other consumer goods, including personal care and cleaning products.

“There is zero requirement to tell you that it’s palm oil,” said Vasil. 

Some commonly used palm oil-derived ingredients include glycerin, sodium lauryl sulfate and stearyl alcohol. 

To make things more confusing, these ingredients could also potentially be derived from coconut oil, soybean oil or rapeseed oil, among others.

“If you are coming to the store, expecting to walk through here and just make informed choices by looking at the ingredients and staying away from palm … good luck,” said Vasil.

That lack of transparency in labelling doesn’t sit well with O’Reilly, who wants to avoid palm oil in all its many forms.

“People who are concerned about palm oil should be able to know that that’s in there.” 

To get a sense of just how pervasive but hard to spot palm oil can be in products other than food, Marketplace called some of the top personal care companies in the world to inquire whether a product they sell contains palm oil.

All the products from the 10 companies we reached out to listed at least one ingredient that could be one of palm oil’s many derivatives (a form of palm oil that has been broken down through processing).

Confirmations from 4 companies

Four companies confirmed their products had at least one palm oil derivative: L’Oreal, Beieresdorf, Unilever and Shiseido. 

L’Oreal said seven ingredients in its Cerave hydrating cleanser are derivatives of palm oil and palm kernel oil. 

Beieresdorf, the makers of Nivea Creme, confirmed that three ingredients in its cream are based on palm kernel oil.

Unilever told Marketplace its Degree Ultra Clear Pure Rain deodorant contains stearyl alcohol that is derived from palm oil.

Shiseido confirmed its Urban Environment oil-free sunscreen SPF 42 contains palm oil derivatives, but would not say which ingredients those are.

No confirmation for specific products

Four other companies — Colgate-Palmolive, Haleon, Estée Lauder and Procter & Gamble — did say they use palm oil derivatives in their products but would not confirm that palm oil was in the specific product we inquired about.

When we asked Colgate-Palmolive about its Colgate Total whitening toothpaste, the company would only say it uses palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm oil derivatives in some of its soap products, toothpastes, antiperspirants, deodorants, and household cleaners. It would not tell us which ones.

Haleon, the makers of Sensodyne toothpaste, said the plant oils used to manufacture the glycerin used in its products may be derived from palm, shea, soy or rapeseed oil.

Product shots of CeraVe, Degree deodorant, Shiseido sunscreen, Sensodyne toothpaste, Nivea Creme, Mac lipstick, colgate toothpaste, Rimmel blush, Head and Shoulders shampoo and Aveeno lotion.
Marketplace reached out to the parent companies of all the products shown in the image above. Only four out of 10 confirmed that their product contained at least one palm oil derivative. (David MacIntosh/Alison Cake/CBC)

Estée Lauder, makers of MAC Matte Lipstick in Marrakesh, confirmed their products contained palm oil but wouldn’t answer our questions about palm oil in the product we asked about. We were directed to the company’s palm oil website. 

Proctor & Gamble wouldn’t answer our questions about ingredients in its Head and Shoulders 2-in-1 shampoo either, and referred us to their company’s palm oil website.

All of the companies who responded to us say they are committed to using sustainable palm oil. 

Coty, makers of Rimmel blush, did not respond to our emails. Johnson & Johnson, makers of Aveeno’s moisturising body wash, declined to comment.

We asked all of the companies why they don’t disclose when a derivative is sourced from palm oil. None of the companies answered that question, but Beiersdorf, Haleon and Unilever all say they are compliant with regulatory requirements for ingredient labelling.

A woman sitting at a table in a kitchen smiles at the camera.
Sheila O’Reilly says she tries to avoid palm oil by buying locally. She says she also buys in bulk as much as possible. (Submitted by Sheila O’Reilly)

To see what consumers are told when they contact companies for information about palm oil and its derivatives in products, O’Reilly made a number of calls to consumer helplines. 

She said they left her frustrated and confused because she couldn’t get a clear answer on whether or not palm oil or an ingredient containing palm oil was used in the products she was inquiring about.

In one case, O’Reilly contacted Unilever’s customer service and was incorrectly told that the Degree Ultra Clear Pure Rain deodorant had no palm oil derivatives in it. 

In an email to Marketplace, Unilever addressed the error, saying the company is “taking action to ensure that all of our consumer service representatives are well informed and have the most up to date information,” and that they are dedicated to providing transparency to our consumers and continue to look for the most optimal ways to do this.”

Widely used in consumer products

Palm oil has made headlines for its prolific use in food products, but with global demand for the cost-effective ingredient soaring, Vasil believes the average Canadian still knows too little about how common it is in our consumer goods.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates it’s in about half the packaged products we find in supermarkets.

“It’s in our cleaning products, it’s in our soaps, it’s in our shampoo, it’s in our lotion. I mean, really any of the products that you stand in the shower and apply to your body every day could contain palm oil and you would have no idea,” said Vasil. 

A woman stares at the camera in the middle of a seemingly endless aisle of cleaning and personal care products at the grocery store.
‘If you’re coming to the store, expecting to walk through here and just make informed choices by looking at the ingredients … good luck,’ said Adria Vasil, author of the Ecoholic book series. (Michelle McCann/CBC)

Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature, and that unique property is part of what Toronto Metropolitan University food scientist Dérick Rousseau says makes it so popular. 

“That’s the texture you want for use in a lot of foods.” 

It ensures certain foods maintain their fan-favourite textures, such as the softer centre of sandwich cookies and praline-style chocolates. 

Palm oil is also what keeps products like peanut butter from separating and provides spreadability to margarines.

Derivatives used in consumer goods

Once palm oil is broken down into derivatives, it is used in consumer goods, like lotions or shampoos, to provide viscosity or act as an emulsifier. 

Manufacturers love it because once processed, it is relatively flavourless and colourless, but most importantly, said Rousseau, it’s cheap. 

A man in glasses and a lab coat smiles at the camera in front of multiple screens showing microscopic images.
Dérick Rousseau runs a lab that studies fats and oils used in processed foods. He works with large food corporations to help them develop the right texture in their products. (Jenny Cowley/CBC)

“There are other fats that certainly perform like this, but from a cost-effectiveness perspective, palm oil is very difficult to beat.”

Palm oil is harvested from the oil palm plant. It grows easily and produces much more oil per hectare than other vegetable oils. It’s why growers in Africa, Asia and South America have been clear-cutting rainforests to make room for the lucrative crop. 

That in turn has devastated fragile ecosystems, and resulted in the decimation of many animal habitats, endangering a number of species, including the orangutan. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, more than 50 per cent of tropical deforestation on the island of Borneo is directly linked to palm oil production.

In the past 20 years, one-third of Indonesia’s forest loss can be tied to palm oil. The country is the largest producer of palm oil in the world.

An adult and baby Sumatran orangutan much on some greens.
Palm oil plantations have been widely cited as the reason the population of Sumatran orangutans has been reduced to ‘critically endangered’ status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Toronto Zoo)

Health Canada says it has no plans to change labelling laws 

There are no efforts by the Canadian government to increase the transparency of ingredients in non-food items that may contain palm oil or its derivatives. 

When Marketplace asked Health Canada if it plans to change labelling laws so Canadian consumers can make informed choices about palm oil in products beyond the foods they eat, Health Canada said it “does not plan to establish health or safety regulatory requirements for companies to list where their ingredient derivatives come from.”

Vasil said the time for change is now.

“Canada risks really falling behind on this, and it means that all of us end up buying products that are potentially linked to some pretty terrible deforestation that’s not just wiping out biodiversity and certain hotspots, but also increasing climate emissions and all sorts of environmental problems.”

While some corporations have improved their palm oil sustainability efforts over the past several years, Vasil is quick to point out that even within certified sustainable supply chains, there are still ethical concerns. 

“It’s not a green rubber stamp.”

For consumers hoping to reduce their palm oil consumption, Vasil suggests making your own products as much as possible so you can be sure where the ingredients you use are coming from.

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