Navigate to News section

How Palm Oil Made Me Rethink the Definition of Kosher

There’s no halachic reason not to use the popular oil, but the environmental devastation it causes ought to make us all stop and search for more ethical alternatives

Shyrla Pakula
January 16, 2018
Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

There is a small kosher grocery store that I go to, among others in the Melbourne “ghetto” of East St. Kilda. The immediate area, the main drag Carlisle Street, is home to three kosher bakeries, two Judaica stores, a couple of kosher cafes (one of which sells excellent sushi, of course), a kosher candy store, and two groceries, one large and one, Tempo, small, the place that supplies Chalav Yisrael products to the minority within the minority who care about Chalav Yisrael. It looks like your classic sort of kosher bodega: Two narrow aisles, a bit shabby although pretty clean, with a disproportionately large fridge-freezer aisle (dairy foods being the raison d’etre) and a young, affable big guy with a beard and long payos behind the counter, when the older, less affable ex-Soviet guy isn’t there.

This guy, let’s call him Shmuel, because I actually don’t know his name despite having shopped there for some years, looks at me with some amusement, because I am the lady who won’t buy products containing palm oil. I am, to my knowledge, the only kosher consumer in the whole city who seems to care about orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra, and other places in the Indonesian archipelago. And the thing is that orangutans, among other species, are endangered because of palm oil plantations in these areas.

Whether or not palm oil is bad or good for one’s health is a separate issue. I’m sure it’s like everything else, coconut oil included: A bit’s all right, but too much probably isn’t. So my palm oil boycott isn’t even really to do with health. It’s about the habitat destruction and the willful slaughter of these animals, not to mention the deforestation, the carbon release due to slash-and-burn techniques of land clearing, and the effect on quality of air (yes, I know volcanoes make more ash and smoke, but it doesn’t mean that we have to add to the problem of smog and air impurity in Indonesia and South East Asia).

I do go to other shops, because there are other kosher groceries and bakeries and cafes in Melbourne, and I do talk to the other shop managers about palm oil production, but generally this is met with polite disinterest; Shmuel actually thinks I’m a bit funny, but he does respect my stance and is the first person to tell me when something comes in that actually does not contain palm oil. And he says, in wonderment, it actually states on the box “No palm oil!” So it is a thing, not just my personal mishegas. Because Shmuel actually has nothing against “the monkeys,” as he puts it, it’s just that, according to his version of Orthodox Jewish thought, humans were put on earth to rule over the animals and everything is part of the Divine Plan, and moshiach will be here soon anyway. In my own version of Orthodoxy, sure, but we are supposed to be stewards of the earth, and we do not have permission to trash it, or to waste it, or to cause suffering to living things, and if there is a better choice, we should make it.

It’s interesting having a theological discussion with the guy in the kosher grocery. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but, as I said, he respects my stance.

My husband gets annoyed from time to time because it turns out that ALMOST EVERYTHING, his favorite crackers included, contain palm oil, so from time to time, for the sake of shalom bayit, I buy the Osem sesame crackers or whatever. A couple of times a year.

So what is it with palm oil? Global production has risen exponentially over the last 50 years, and there is no end in sight. Most (72 percent) is used in foodstuffs, but 18 percent is used in personal care and cleaning products (PALMolive? Now you know.) And ten percent is used for feedstock and biofuel. (So less petrochemical fall out, but more habitat destruction. That’s a whole other topic, biofuels.)

Palm oil is bland, so it is suitable for baked goods etc., and it has a high smoke-point, so is suitable for frying. It keeps well. It contains no trans-fats. The oil palm has a very high yield per tree. So plantations are very lucrative. And, bottom line, the oil is the cheapest plant-based oil in existence.

Confounding factors:
1. There is no legal requirement in most countries to state the source of fat in the foodstuff or other products. Simply stating “vegetable oil” is all that most manufacturers have to do. So reading food labels may not tell you the whole story.

2. In the case of personal care products, there are many other names for palm oil derivatives, such as palmitate. Start reading: All the mass produced stuff contains it.

3. There is sometimes a disclaimer about “certified sustainable palm oil.” This is a thing, and basically it means that the slashing and burning has already been done, and now that the plantation has been established, the growers are trying to make the best of what was a terrible exercise in destruction. There is no promise that this will slow down the ongoing rate of land clearance, which is about three football fields per hour. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is working on it. But it might be the best that we can hope for.

4. The industry supplies much needed employment for the local population. But there are plenty of infringements of child labor laws, and I’m pretty sure we’re not seeing much protection of workers in terms of minimum wage, or worker’s insurance, or other things we in the affluent West would like to see in the developing world. It seems that every aspect of the industry is exploitative. But people need to work and earn. So no answers.

The last thing I want to do is point the finger at kosher manufacturers, because this is not really a kosher issue. Palm oil is used everywhere, and it’s not the Jews who have caused production to escalate so dramatically. But I wish Osem and Telma and all the kosher manufacturers would focus on alternatives, if at all possible. I wish someone else cared about orangutans and habitat destruction and the rest of it. But I know that every other alternative will add to the costs of the end product, whatever that product is, and it’s alright for me, I can afford to buy the alternative. I suppose we can draw parallels here to products that claim to be organic, or non-GMO, or are “sustainably produced,” all of which generally means that they are more expensive and less affordable.

So the lonely “monkey lady” will continue her little boycott, despite being too old to care about these things, surely, and Shmuel will continue to bring in palm-oil-free products if he can find them, and maybe that’s all the Melbourne Jewish Community can do. I’d like to hope there are others and that we might make a difference. Even while we wait for moshiach.

Shyrla Pakula is an Orthodox Jewish doctor, Lactation consultant, mother of 7 and grandmother of many more (Baruch HaShem ptu ptu ptu). She tends to be opinionated and passionate about many things, even at her age. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.