I have made no secret of my opinions regarding palm oil and it's use as a generic 'vegetable oil' in most western foods. I have been holding off on this post because it's a pretty hairy issue, and it is so very hard to eliminate it from your diet, that I didn't want to scare anyone off. But, tomorrow is Palm Oil Action Day, so I've pulled it forward a bit.
There are plenty of websites out there detailing the impact that palm oil production is having on the forests, and hence, animal habitats, of Indonesia and Malaysia, so I am not going to go into detail here. I will summarise though; the palm oil industry is growing at an alarming rate, and to meet this growing demand, a large percentage of this rainforest habitat is being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Orangutans, Sumatran tigers, sun bears, Asian (pygmy) rhinos, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, and over 200 plant species, are at threat from this devastating deforestation. The island of Borneo/Kalimantan is the area most affected. I don't want to imagine a world in which these magnificent animals only exist in zoos, so we need to do something now to stop that.
Palm oil can be found in nearly everything you buy at the supermarket. I would be incredibly surprised if someone told me they had none in their house. Ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, crackers, chips, margarine, soap, toothpaste, laundry powders, detergents, cosmetics and biodiesel all potentially contain palm oil, or products derived from palm oil. However, if you take a look at the ingredients lists on all those things, you would never know it was responsible for the destruction of millions of acres of rainforest. In Australia, there is no requirement to specifically state a food product contains palm oil. It is sufficient to label these products as containing 'vegetable oil', it is only a requirement to specify the type of oil if it is derived from a potential allergen (peanut, soy, sesame, etc). Consequently, it is near impossible to know if you are buying a product that contains palm oil or not.
Luckily for you (and me!), there are a number of organisations that have done a lot of the hard work for us, and have long lists of food and household products that they have confirmed to be palm oil, and palm oil derivative, free. One of my favourites is the Palm Oil Investigations Facebook page, which I have linked to before. They are working on a barcode scanner app for smartphones as well, that will make it much, much easier, and they have a regular website, but it is not updated as regularly as the Facebook page, so the lists are a bit limited. The Borneo Orangutan Survival website also has quite a good list.
Also, I'm working on a database that ties in with this site that will bring all that information together, as it can be a bit hard to cross reference all of those sites together when you're just trying to work out which loaf of bread you can buy!
And if that hasn't scared you off completely, Borneo Orangutan Survival, Palm Oil Action Australia, and Palm Oil Investigations all have in depth articles on Palm Oil plantations, deforestation, habitat destruction and suggestions on how to help.