Palm Oil Is The New Black

By Stephen Ewashkiw | June 4, 2014

14,937 km so far.

Sometimes you have to let go of your habits, your preconceptions, and your base desires, and take a look at the bigger picture.

Palm oil has replaced trans fat and other fats in almost every kind of packaged food you can imagine. It might be healthier than hydrogenated vegetable oil (though it is still not good for you) but the damage this industry is doing to the earth, the virgin jungle, wildlife, and the environment cannot outweigh the individual costs.

We must find a better alternative.

Jane’s note: There is a better alternative. It’s called eating real fresh food instead of packaged, processed crap.

It’s Getting Hot In Here

Yesterday we met a Malaysian man while we were stopped for a drink. He told us it was much hotter here now than in the recent past. He said the weather has changed completely from when he was a young man.

Looking at the scarred landscape, and the endless acres of palm oil plantations, we can imagine why. The ecosystem here has been irrevocably destroyed by industry. The lungs of Malaysia have been stripped away and replaced with countless palm oil trees.

Making way for new palm oil plantations near Kuala Lumpur.

Making way for new palm oil plantations near Kuala Lumpur.

The jungle has been burned to the ground to make room for these trees which feed America’s (and the world’s) addiction to junk food. The damage to the environment isn’t the only problem. The habitat of countless animals has been destroyed causing huge declines in populations – from elephants and leopards to butterflies and centipedes.

Leopard Flavoured Doritos

As we left Mentakab this morning we saw a wild leopard. Really? Yup. As I rode past it I thought, “That cat has an interesting pattern on its fur.” Then, I realised why. I stopped, Jane pulled up, and I told her what I had seen.

There was a dead baby leopard at the side of the road.

She was incredulous, and thought it must have been a domestic cat. It was just a few metres back so we went to check it out. I mean, even dead, it is still a wild leopard, and we wanted to see it.

Poor baby leopard. Just one of the victims of "progress".

Poor baby leopard. Just one of the victims of “progress”.

Sadly, I wasn’t mistaken. It had been trying to cross the highway, which cuts the jungle in two, and was hit by a vehicle. We have really enjoyed riding along the highways through the jungle, but I worry about the animals who live there. They take their lives into their own paws as they race across the highway, hoping to make it before a car or truck comes along to snuff them out.

Near Kuala Lumpur, the habitat of the Indochinese leopard has been reduced to such a small area that they are now highly concentrated in the mountains around the city. This busy, congested area is some of the the only habitat they have left.

Eating The Jungle, One Cracker At A Time

As we rode today, we passed clear-cut, scarred hillsides just waiting to be planted with palm oil trees. A few months ago this was virgin jungle, teeming with thousands of species of animals and plants. We passed acre upon acre of palm oil plantations.

Oil palms as far as the eye can see, near Kuala Lumpur.

Oil palms as far as the eye can see, near Kuala Lumpur.

The pace of the destruction of the jungle doesn’t seem to be slowing down. With every day, more and more jungle is slashed and burned, and more palm oil trees are planted.

Malaysia’s richest man is wealthy from palm oil, and most of the men on the Malay rich list have their hands in this dirty business. While they rake in the money, they destroy their own country. It is no wonder Robert Kuok lives in Hong Kong now.

Everything from food to cosmetics to cleaning products uses palm oil.

Don’t be fooled by claims of sustainable palm oil. This label (RSPO) was created by corporations like Unilever to reduce the negative publicity they were receiving. Can you imagine Unilever producing anything that is sustainable?

Also, don’t be fooled by intentionally vague labelling.

All of these ingredients come from palm oil, except vegetable oil/fat which CAN be palm oil: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams), Palm Kernel (or any other ingredient that has Palm in its name), Stearic Acid, Cetyl Alcohol… the list is long.

To find out which palm oil products are likely lining the shelves of your cupboards, check out this list, which also shows products that do not contain any palm oil (notice the only item on the good list that resembles food is Halls lozenges).

Jane’s note: So along with ditching processed, packaged food, how about reducing your addiction to beauty products? It’s easy, and once you get started you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it years ago. Here’s how to start.

So what food is palm oil free? Check out this link. It is a good starting point. And read the ingredients on everything you buy.

Jane’s note: Or just buy fresh food.

The High Road

We have heard stories of the nightmare that is riding your bike into KL. Not only are the drivers crazy and the traffic a dangerous snarl, but it sits on the coast surrounded by mountains, which we would have to ride over. Add in a heavy rain and the decision to take the bus into KL from Bentong was an easy one. Plus, at $2 (USD) each for the 70-minute bus ride, it was a total steal.

The amazing bus driver knew exactly how to twist and turn our bikes so that they fit under the bus. He made the whole getting on the bus ordeal much easier than it usually is for cyclists. Thanks driver!

As we settled into the bus ride, I started to sketch out this blog post. When I looked up a little while later, we were nearing the top of the mountain that surrounds KL, and the rain was coming down. I hadn’t felt the bus struggle to climb the steep highway, and I hadn’t broken a sweat. This whole bus things seems much easier than riding my bike.

In Kuala Lumpur, with energy to spare for window shopping.

In Kuala Lumpur, with energy to spare for window shopping.

So here we are in Kuala Lumpur, a day earlier than we expected, with very little planned for our stay.

Soundtrack: Pixies, Indie Cindy | The Dandy Warhols, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia Live At The Wonder | Krishna Das, Spoken Word Recordings, 2012 Workshop Sampler | All Songs Considered podcast  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.


  1. Comment by Megan Indoe

    Megan Indoe October 26, 2015 at 5:01 am

    Thanks for sharing this piece and giving valuable information. We recently learned about the dark side of quinoa recently too. Also, the leopard is really sad too :(

    • Comment by Stephen Ewashkiw

      Stephen Ewashkiw October 26, 2015 at 9:31 am

      Hi Megan – thanks for reading. Please help pass the message along. The leopard was so sad. I’ll never forget that moment by the side of the wet, busy road outside Kuala Lumpur. Poor little cat.

      As for quinoa, I am here to help set the record straight. One lazy journalist, who somehow got The Guardian to publish her story, started that whole saga. It is not true.

      This article from Slate though does a good job of summing it up:

      Keep asking questions! But keep finding your own answers too – this is how I discovered the correlation between Sustainable Palm Oil and the illegal slashing and burning of the rainforest.

    • Comment by Megan Indoe

      Megan Indoe October 27, 2015 at 12:24 am

      Thanks Stephen! I felt pretty embarrassed when my coworkers called me out for eating quinoa and then shared that article with me. I went home with my tail between my legs from public shame and didn’t do any other research besides that article. Another lesson learned. More of us should do more independent research like you and stop believing everything we read on the internet.

    • Comment by Stephen Ewashkiw

      Stephen Ewashkiw October 27, 2015 at 10:20 am

      It’s just an opportunity to learn, and grow. I always have something on repeat in the back of my head to help me remember to question things. One time in line for a Banksy exhibit Jane and I overhead someone say, “If you read it on the internet 3 times, it’s true.” The problem with this is, of course, that mistakes get repeated as fact ALL THE TIME.

      I was doing an Instagram yoga challenge a while ago with one of my teachers, and each day had a motivational quote associated with it. A few times when I googled the quotes I discovered they were either by someone else, or were not quoted correctly. But of course the internet is littered with the incorrect quote and attribute as if it is fact. Quote Investigator is a good place to start. It is like Snopes for Quotes. Here’s one I always see misquoted:

      Keep asking questions, keep looking for answers. -S.

  2. Comment by Kimberly

    Kimberly June 8, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you so much for this piece! We run a homemade soap business and unfortunately palm oil is the oil of choice for soap. We never used it until last year and bought a gallon to test out the properties (it provides hardness to the bar so that it lasts long). Earlier this year we became aware that there is no such thing as sustainable palm industry and stopped using palm oil, though we still have a few bars in our inventory that we batched using palm. We are going to start incorporating facts about the palm industry into our marketing materials, hoping to raise greater awareness and giving customers even more reason to read labels and understand product transparency. Thank you again for your advocacy!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen June 8, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      Nice. Thanks for sharing, and for helping spread the word.

  3. Comment by Scot

    Scot June 7, 2014 at 3:49 am

    So sad about the cat. I did a little Google research – I think it might actually be a Leopard Cat, and not a baby leopard.

    Either way, it would have been way better to see one alive. Hope you guys enjoy your time in KL.

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen June 7, 2014 at 6:38 am

      It was definitely and Indochinese leopard, Scot. This one was about 90cm long, not including the tail and was clearly NOT a small cat, but a big cat in an immature stage. Really sad.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane June 7, 2014 at 2:11 am

      Man, I’m sure glad we didn’t buy any Krispy Kremes today, even though we walked by their store twice!

  4. Comment by mauricio

    mauricio June 6, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks Stephen and Jane!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen June 7, 2014 at 6:38 am

      Happy National Donut Day!

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