For decades, instant ramen noodles have been a culinary staple for cash-poor college students, young working professionals and even prisoners. Yet ramen noodles are a main culprit of deforestation due to the high amount of unsustainable palm oil used to make them. While several large food corporations have committed to eliminating conflict palm oil from their supply chains, two of the world's biggest instant noodle producers, Nissin Foods Holdings and Toyo Suisan Kaisha (Maruchan), both Japanese firms, have failed to adopt responsible palm oil policies, according to SumOfUs, a non-profit consumer advocacy group.
"Instant noodles are cheap, convenient, and popular, but today they're mostly a threat to our planet," said Kaytee Riek, campaigns director at SumOfUs, in an email. Both Nissin and Maruchan have failed to "cut ties with bad actors that clear rain forests, peatlands and abuse the rights of communities and workers in the palm oil sector," she said.
"As global demand for palm oil has skyrocketed, so has the need for large numbers of laborers on plantations," according to Humanity United, a non-profit social welfare group, "This has resulted in widespread exploitation of workers and a reliance on forced and child labor."
Riek said these firms "use massive amounts of palm oil in their top-selling instant noodles — Instant Lunch, Top Ramen and Cup Noodles — [but] haven't even taken the first step to create a palm oil policy. Up to 20 percent of their package contents is some of the cheapest and most environment-wrecking palm oil in the world, directly linked to deforestation, responsible for the death of endangered orangutans and the displacement of communities."
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm, primarily the African oil palm. In addition to being an ingredient in many processed foods, palm oil is a ubiquitous part of consumers' lives: About 50 percent of household products contain palm oil, from shampoo and cosmetics to cleaning agents, washing detergents and even toothpaste and candles. It is also cultivated for use as a biofuel. (For a list of everyday products that contain palm oil, click here.)
Thanks to its low cost and stability when used for frying, palm oil has become widespread not only as a common cooking ingredient in Africa, Southeast Asia and Brazil, but across the global commercial food industry. Its health impacts remain controversial as studies are ongoing; one study linked palm oil to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease , while another found that palm oil does not pose any additional risks for coronary artery disease. But its negative impact on the environment and local communities is abundantly clear.
The main threat to the survivial of endangered orangutan populations in the wild is the massive expansion of palm oil plantations in Borneo and Sumatra. (Image: tristan tan/Shutterstock.com)
Large swaths of rainforest have been mowed down in Malaysia and Indonesia — the world's top two palm oil producers — to make room for palm oil monoculture. Not only does this activity release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (10 percent of all global warming emissions] result from tropical deforestation), it destroys critical habitat for wildlife, particularly the endangered orangutan. Sumatran orangutans are only found in Indonesia, and Bornean orangutans only in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The United Nations Environment Program projects that, due to palm oil expansion, Indonesia will lose 98 percent of its natural rainforest by 2022, with its lowland forests succumbing much sooner. According to UNEP:
Orangutans survive only in the dwindling tropical rainforests of Borneo and northern Sumatra, being dependent on the forest for food and nesting sites. Orangutan populations are seriously affected when their forest is destroyed or logged, not least because they are often killed for meat or to protect newly planted crops. For example, in the Sebangau swamp forests of central Borneo, orangutans fled from illegal logging operations, moving into less ideal habitat. The resulting overcrowding led to an increased death rate among young orangutans, and fewer births amongst females...Over Borneo and Sumatra as a whole, illegal logging has led to huge declines in orangutans and other wildlife. Where forests are converted to plantations of oil palm or other crops, the consequences are even more serious, with many orangutans starving.
Expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, in millions of hectares. (Image: Rainforest-Rescue.org )
According to Say No to Palm Oil, a palm oil consumer education site:
An estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year for this [palm oil] development. The orangutan is a keystone species and plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. An example of this being the spread of rainforest seeds in Indonesia, many of which can only germinate once passed through the gut of an orangutan, hence this primate is essential for the existence of the forest. But the orangutan is not the only species affected by palm oil development; their situation represents the story of thousands of other species facing the same fate in Southeast Asia.
"When these forests are lost, carbon is released into the atmosphere, driving global warming," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit science and environmental advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The Sumatran orangutan, elephant, and tiger, all of which are critically endangered, as well the endangered Bornean orangutans and pygmy elephants, are being driven toward extinction as their habitat is converted into massive oil palm plantations."
Unlike Nissin and Maruchan, several of the fast-food sector's biggest firms have announced commitments to sustainable palm oil sourcing in their supply chains. In April, McDonald's became the first global fast-food chain to pledge to eliminate deforestation from its global supply chains. Also in April, Yum! Brands, the parent company of global fast-food chains KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, released a commitment to source deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. Last month, Wendy's issued a statement about responsibly sourcing palm oil, though the announcement was criticized as greenwashing.
Both Nissin and Maruchan are included in Rainforest Action Network's recent Snack Food 20 list, a group of companies that manufacture a wide range of popular snack food sold in the United States and around the globe that contain conflict palm oil. These companies are Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; Grupo Bimbo; Hillshire Brands Company; H.J. Heinz Company; Hormel Foods Corporation; Kellogg Company; Kraft Food Group, Inc.; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Corp.; Mars Inc.; Mondelez International, Inc.; Nestlé S.A.; PepsiCo, Inc.; Hershey Company; J.M. Smucker Company; and Unilever.
According to RAN:
When you eat food that comes out of a bag, a box, or a package of any kind, chances are you are eating palm oil. It is added to chocolate, turned into fry oil, and snuck into snacks of all sorts—in fact, it can now be found in roughly half the packaged food products sold in grocery stores. This palm oil comes at a terrible human and environmental cost. Skyrocketing demand has driven massive, industrial palm oil plantations into millions of acres of formerly lush rainforest habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia, worsening climate change and causing widespread human rights violations.
Activists protesting the Snack Food 20, a list of the largest food corporations that use conflict palm oil in their products. (Image:Rainforest Action Network)
"Obsessed with maximizing profits, corporations are trying to pretend that what happens at the ends of their supply chains doesn’t matter," said Riek, adding that it's time for Nissin and Maruchan to address this urgent issue. "They are under the spotlights after being identified as laggards of the industry...It’s their turn to commit to a supply chain that protects the rainforest, workers, communities and our planet."