Complete Q&A

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Last updated: 24 Sep 2015

Sustainable Palm Oil Q&A

1)  What is palm oil and where is it produced?
2)  Which products contain palm oil?
3)  Why do food manufacturers use it?
4)  Should manufacturers stop using palm oil?
5)  What other names are commonly used for palm oil and its derivatives?
6)  Which countries are the biggest consumers of palm oil?
7)  What are FDF's views on sustainable palm oil?
8)  What is the UK's national ambition on sustainable palm oil?
9)  Which other countries have made commitments?
10)  What commitments have leading UK manufacturers made?
11)  How will the Food Information Regulation affect the labelling of palm oil?
12)  Is the consumption of palm oil a health concern?
13)  What is the role of palm oil in producing countries?
14)  How does palm oil production compare to other oil crops?
15)  What are the impacts of unsustainable production?
16)  What is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)? What are its aims?
17)  Are there alternative palm oil certification standards?
18)  Do I need to be a member of RSPO to use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)?
19)  What are the different RSPO supply chain options?
20)  How much Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is available on the market?
21)  Can I use the RSPO Trademark on my products?
22)  Where can I find other useful information?

1) What is palm oil and where is it produced?

Palm oil is produced from the fruit of the oil palm tree, mainly the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Oil palm fruits grow in bunches of up to 2,000 fruits, with each fruit containing around 50% oil.

Two different oils can be extracted from each fruit – palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil comes from the flesh of the fruit and palm kernel oil from the nut at the fruit's centre. Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature and can be further separated into different fractions to produce liquid oil and a solid fat.

The oil palm is grown in tropical climates within 10° of the equator. Malaysia and Indonesia are responsible for 85% of global production, with the balance coming from other parts of South-East Asia, South America and West Africa[1].

Nearly 70 million metric tonnes of palm oil and palm kernel oil [2] are produced annually, making it the world's biggest oil crop. Oil palm trees provide nearly 40% of the world's vegetable oils but use only 5.5% of agricultural lands taken up by oilseed production[3].

1. USDA 2017
2. USDA 2017
3. Oil World 2014

2) Which products contain palm oil?

Palm oil is a key raw material in food manufacturing, non-food industries and biofuels[4].

The primary use of palm oil is as a consumer cooking oil in many Asian and African countries. With the rapid growth of the middle class, diets in these developing countries are changing with consumers eating more fried food, leading to rapid growth in demand for palm oil.

Palm oil is used in the production of many food products including: margarine, confectionery, snack foods, biscuits, cakes, sauces, condensed milk, powdered milk, non-milk fats used in coffee and ice-cream.

It is also commonly used in the production of soaps, detergents, candles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, animal feed, biodiesel, and other household and industrial products.

Since 1999, USDA figures show that the share of the food industries' use of palm and palm kernel oil in the EU has fallen from 82% to 55%, while industrial use has risen from 16% to 40%.

4. USDA 2014 (food industry 55%; industrial use 40%; and feed waste 4% of total EU consumption)

3) Why do food manufacturers use it?

Palm oil is a key ingredient for the food industry due to its superior sensory characteristics and technical attributes. No alternative edible vegetable oil that is naturally solid at room temperature and provides the same functional properties, exists in sufficient quantity. Key advantages of palm oil for food manufacturers include:

  • Great stability at high cooking temperatures: palm oil maintains its characteristics even at high temperatures and performs better than other oils and fats.
  • High stability over time: palm oil helps to maintain the product's taste for its entire shelf life, because of its higher stability to oxidation compared to other vegetable oils.
  • Neutral taste and smell: deodorised palm oil can be used in many different foods without affecting the taste; due to its neutral taste it doesn't impact on the flavour of other ingredients.
  • Palm oil is a very versatile vegetable fat as it can be fractionated into different parts: liquid and solid. Altering the mix of these fractions makes it suitable for different requirements of texture and flavour in the final product.
  • Smooth and creamy texture: food products with palm oil have an excellent mouth feel with specific characteristics for each product. For example, palm oil helps to make many spreads smooth, creamy and spreadable.
  • Doesn't require hydrogenation: palm oil usually requires no hydrogenation for production of margarine, bakery shortenings and confectionery fats. It helps replace oils that are partially hydrogenated and reduces trans fat content.

4) Should manufacturers stop using palm oil?

Industry has a responsibility to its long-term impact on the palm oil supply chain and on palm oil producers. Leading NGOs such as Oxfam, WWF and Greenpeace have all urged the food industry not to move away from palm oil, but to buy sustainable palm oil instead.

WWF's most recent Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, published in 2016, concludes that efforts need to be stepped up to lead to a shift to sustainable palm oil. They also discourage boycott measures, WWF note that: “The palm oil industry can still flourish without destroying rainforests or harming communities and endangered wildlife. In fact, solutions exist for the palm oil industry to lessen its impact on natural forests, wildlife and communities, without affecting profitability.”

While criticising impacts of the RSPO, Greenpeace also declares that boycotting palm oil is not the solution: “Palm oil is a critical part of the Indonesian economy, providing crucial income to rural communities and pumping money into this burgeoning country. So let's not ruin what is good about palm oil by boycotting it, and instead let's drive the industry toward commitments to avoid what is bad about palm oil. The answer is not to boycott a commodity that is crucial to Indonesia, and practically unavoidable in the products we consume.”

5) What other names are commonly used for palm oil and its derivatives?

These ingredients are definitely palm oil or derived from palm oil:

  • Cetyl Palmitate
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Epoxidized Palm Oil (UV cured coatings)
  • Ethylhexyl Palmitate
  • Hydrated Palm Glycerides
  • Octyl Palmitate
  • Palm Oil
  • Palm Fruit Oil
  • Palm Kernel
  • Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palm Stearine
  • Palmate
  • Palmitate
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Palmityl Alcohol
  • Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
  • Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
  • Palmolein
  • Saponified Elaeis Guineensis
  • Sodium Kernelate
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate
  • Sodium Palmate

These ingredients are either derived from palm oil or coconut oil:

  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Fatty alcohol sulphates
  • Isopropyl or Isopropyl Palmitate
  • Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate

These ingredients are often derived from palm oil, but could be derived from other vegetable oils:

  • Cocoa Butter Equivalent (CBE)
  • Cocoa Butter Substitute (CBE)
  • Emulsifiers (some can be palm oil derived)
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Sodium Lauryl Lactylate
  • Steareth-2
  • Steareth-20
  • Steareth-21
  • Stearic Acid

6) Which countries are the biggest consumers of palm oil?

The table below shows the major consumers of palm oil and palm kernel oil in 2014[5]. The UK figure is calculated separately using official UK HMRC import and export data[6] for palm oil and palm kernel oil. This calculation shows that the UK accounts for 0.6% of annual global consumption, making it the 28th biggest market (excluding other EU Member States).

Major consumers of palm oil and palm kernel oil
Tonnes (000s) %
Indonesia 9,960 15.1
India 9,445 14.3
EU28 (inc. UK) 7,240 11.0
China 6,180 9.4
Malaysia 4,575 6.9
Pakistan 2,690 4.1
Thailand 1,970 3.0
Nigeria 1,833 2.8
Egypt 1,495 2.3
United States 1,404 2.1
Bangladesh 1,345 2.0
Colombia 1,065 1.6
UK 399 0.6
Others 16,647 25.3


5. USDA 2014
6. HMRC 2014

7) What are FDF's views on sustainable palm oil?

View: FDF's policy position on sustainable palm oil

8) What is the UK's national ambition on sustainable palm oil?

The UK had an ambition of achieving 100% sourcing of credibly certified sustainable palm oil by the end of 2015. Further details can be found in the original 2012 publication.

2014 annual progress report

2014 annual review of UK palm oil consumption

UK statement on sustainable palm oil: final progress report

The UK is now a signatory to the Amsterdam Declaration in Support of a Fully Sustainable Palm Oil Supply Chain by 2020. The Declaration states:

As European countries and as member states of the European Union, we take note and declare ourselves supportive of the private sector-driven “Commitment to Support 100% Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe”, as signed by European national sector organisations engaged with the palm oil supply chain at the Amsterdam Conference on the “EU and Global Value Chains”.

9) Which other countries have made commitments?

Alongside the UK, industry organisations in the following EU Member States have committed to using only Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO):

Further information can also be found here: RSPO National Commitments. RSPO have also produced a paper entitled '100% Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe: A Snapshot of National Initiatives'.

Other EU Member States have also signed the Amsterdam Declaration in Support of a Fully Sustainable Palm Oil Supply Chain by 2020, these are:

  • Denmark
  • France
  • Germany
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Italy

More detail on the commitment of European countries can be found in the European Sustainable Palm Oil (ESPO) Progress Report on the import and use of sustainable palm oil in Europe.

10) What commitments have leading UK manufacturers made?

Many leading UK manufacturers are active members of RSPO with long-standing public commitments to source 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) by 2015 or sooner. Most large buyers and a growing number of SMEs now source 100% CSPO using available RSPO supply chain mechanisms.

Having achieved their commitments, leading manufacturers are now putting in place revised targets and action plans on palm oil sustainability. Examples include time-bound commitments to using only 100% traceable CSPO and action plans to source palm oil that doesn't contribute to deforestation or destruction of peat land.

Details of commitments and progress achieved can be found on individual company websites. RSPO members also report their progress directly to RSPO which publishes them in the Annual Communications of Progress (ACOP).

11) How will the Food Information Regulation affect the labelling of palm oil?

Changes to food labelling make it easier for consumers to identify which products contain palm oil. The EU law on food labelling used to allow manufacturers to choose to label oils under the generic name 'vegetable oil', with no reference to its specific composition. Vegetable oil could be a variable mixture of oils such as rapeseed, sunflower, soya, maize, coconut or palm oil.

However, companies have had to comply with changes to the European Food Information Regulations since 13 December 2014. This allows consumers to identify when palm oil is present in foods.

Under the new rules the label must identify the specific types of vegetable oils that have been used. For example “vegetable oil (sunflower, palm and rapeseed) in varying proportions”. This provides information to consumers but gives businesses flexibility to vary the proportions of different vegetable oils without label changes. The requirement applies to all food business operators.

Manufacturers are not required to say if the palm oil used is from sustainable sources, though many already provide this information voluntarily. We would expect information about sustainability to increase further now that mandatory labelling of palm oil is required.

One way of doing this would be to use the RSPO trademark for sustainable palm oil which was launched in 2011. Its use is not yet widespread, but some businesses in Europe have launched products using the trademark.

12) Is the consumption of palm oil a health concern?

There are no health concerns that are specific to palm oil. When considering issues of nutrition and health, it is important to focus on the whole diet rather than on individual ingredients. Exceeding recommended intakes for saturated fat from any source is undesirable.

Palm oil's saturated fat content (50%) compares favourably to similar fats: coconut (92%), butter (66%), cocoa butter (62%) and tallow (54%). In practice, many manufacturers use palm oil as part of a blend containing other fats and oils to deliver a specific fatty acid composition.

It should also be noted that palm oil is frequently used as an alternative to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in order to reduce trans fat content in products.

13) What is the role of palm oil in producing countries?

Palm oil plays an important role in producing countries. It favours rural employment and is a crop that smallholder farmers can easily grow. The palm industry plays a key role in improving livelihoods of farmers in parts of the developing world.
Palm oil represents 3.2% of Malaysian GDP and nearly 7% of Indonesian GDP.

In Malaysia, the palm oil sector directly employs 590,000 workers and 35% of production is by smallholders who often rely on palm cultivation as their sole source of income. In Indonesia, 3.7 million people are engaged in the palm oil industry and downstream industries, with 45% of production by smallholders.

Rising demand for palm oil has helped to create new jobs, helping to lift millions out of poverty in rural regions across Indonesia and Malaysia. It has contributed to the Indonesian middle class more than doubling in size between 1999-2009.

14) How does palm oil production compare to other oil crops?

Oil palm produces 10 times more oil per unit area than soybean, 7 times more than sunflower and 6 times more than rape. Oil palm trees provide nearly 40% of the world's production of vegetable oils while using only 5.5% of the total area planted with oil crops. This means that, to produce the same volume of oil, oil palm requires significantly less land.[8]

Average oil yield (tonnes/ha/year)[9] % of total planted area[10] Production (million tonnes)[11] % of total production
Oil palm 4.2 5.5 70.6 39.9
Rape 0.7 13 26.76 15.1
Sunflower 0.6 10 15.29 8.6
Soybean 0.4 40.1 46.95 26.5

8 RSPO 2014
9 Oil World 2013
10 Oil World 2013
11 USDA 2014

15) What are the impacts of unsustainable production?

Rapid expansion of the palm oil industry has led to the destruction of large areas of tropical forests and peat land. Environmental challenges associated with unsustainable palm oil production include:

  • Biodiversity loss
  • Loss of rare and endangered species
  • Pollution of soil, air, and water
  • Soil erosion
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change
  • Loss of key ecosystem services

This has also caused significant social challenges for local communities. Social impacts associated with unsustainable palm oil production can include:

  • Land grabs
  • Loss of livelihoods
  • Child labour
  • Social conflict
  • Forced migration

Stopping production of palm oil is not a viable option, therefore the challenge is to ensure future expansion of production does not take place at the expense of the environment or local communities.

16) What is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)? What are its aims?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable palm oil. Members of RSPO, and participants in its activities come from many different backgrounds, including plantation companies, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, financial institutions, environmental NGOs and social NGOs, from many countries that produce or use palm oil.

The RSPO vision is to “transform the markets by making sustainable palm oil the norm”.

RSPO’s definition of ‘sustainable palm oil production’ is comprised of legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial management and operations. This is delivered through the application of its Principles and Criteria, and the accompanying Indicators and Guidance.

In July 2015, WWF published a statement on required characteristics of sustainable palm oil initiatives. They believe RSPO is the only initiative that meets their principles and has sufficient size and influence to achieve the necessary change. WWF therefore supports RSPO and its certification standard as the foundation of a sustainable palm oil industry and as the best opportunity for global transformation, recognising the scheme must improve in certain areas.

17) Are there alternative palm oil certification standards?

RSPO is the leading certification scheme for palm, however there are some alternatives. Further information on these other options can be found on ZSL's Sustainable Palm Oil Platform

18) Do I need to be a member of RSPO to use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)?

No, you do not need to be an RSPO member to source RSPO certified sustainable palm oil.

However, in order for a company to communicate publicly about its use of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), all actors in its supply chain (producers, refiners, processors, traders, distributors and manufacturers) need to be RSPO members and RSPO-certified.

This is required to allow the flow of sustainable palm oil to be tracked throughout the supply chain. If a stage in the supply chain is not a member of RSPO, or RSPO certified, RSPO is unable to track where the sustainable palm oil goes from that particular point in the supply chain and the assurance offered by the chain of custody is broken.

19) What are the different RSPO supply chain options?

RSPO has set up and supports four certified supply chain options to ensure all parties in the supply chain comply with requirements and that claims of end-users are accurate. These systems have differing levels of traceability and costs to make sure the whole industry can support market transformation to make sustainable palm oil the norm:

Supply chain system





Identity Preserved (IP)

Sustainable palm oil from a single certified source is kept separate from ordinary palm oil throughout the chain.

Up to the plantation



Segregated (SG)

Sustainable palm oil from different certified sources is kept separate from conventional palm oil throughout the chain.

Up to the mill



Mass Balance (MB)

Sustainable palm oil from certified sources is monitored administratively in the chain, but is mixed with ordinary palm oil.

Up to the mill



Book & Claim (B&C) – operated by GreenPalm

End users can buy a GreenPalm certificate for a given quantity of palm oil that is produced sustainably to offset the usage of conventional palm oil.

No traceability

The chain is not monitored


RSPO guide on how to begin using sustainable palm oil

20) How much Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is available on the market?

Facts and figures on the supply and uptake of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) can be found on the RSPO website

21) Can I use the RSPO Trademark on my products?

Companies that would like to use the RSPO Trademark need to be a member of the RSPO, they need to be RSPO certified and they need to apply for a Trademark license. The Trademark license is currently free for all RSPO members, but this could change in the future. View further information on the RSPO Trademark

22) Where can I find other useful information?


Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
RSPO Certification Bodies
Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO)
International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) system
Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN)


Consumer Goods Forum
CPET Publications and Documents (Service ended 2016)
ZSL's Sustainable Palm Oil Platform
Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT)
Guardian Sustainable Business Palm Oil Debate

EU organisations

European Sustainable Palm Oil Advocacy Group (ESPOAG)
European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA)

NGOs and Stakeholder Groups

CDP Forests Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG)
Rainforest Alliance