Green bean casserole: It's an iconic prepared-foods dish, right up there with its close cousin tuna casserole and its slightly more distant relative French onion dip. These dishes, relying heavily—as they do—on the packaged convenience foods that became wildly popular in the period of plenty immediately following World War II, seem to ooze 1950s housewife charm. Wholesome, crowd-pleasing, and gut-filling, green bean casserole would appear to be an innocuous addition to the Thanksgiving table. But actually, one of its fundamental components is killing off majestic jungle animals such as orangutans, elephants, tigers, and rhinos.
The enduring holiday side dish relies on only four ingredients: cut green beans (usually frozen), condensed cream of mushroom soup, milk, and, of course, French-fried onions in a can; those salty, preternaturally crispy curls are surprisingly the culprits for the demise of many wild animals. Shockingly enough (or not so shockingly), French-fried onions aren't made with top-shelf ingredients, but are fried in massive quantities of palm oil, a lipid whose harvest is responsible for the wholesale destruction of tropical rainforest habitats in Indonesia and Malaysia. And no more rainforests means no more animals.
Of course, palm oil shows up in many more foods than just French-fried onions: it's added to doughnuts, pizza dough, instant noodles, ice cream, chocolate, packaged cookies, sliced bread, and many more edibles. Plus, it's also a main additive to household items like lipstick, shampoo, laundry detergent, and soap.
Traditionally used in West African cooking, palm oil's popularity has exploded over the past few years. Because it has the highest yield of any oil crop and is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine, more and more manufacturers of packaged goods are using it as their fat of choice. Although an estimated 50 percent of supermarket foods contains palm oil, you might not know when you're eating it: palm oil can be labeled as vegetable oil, vegetable fat, glyceryl, and palmolein, among many other names.
But ease and cheapness of the harvest of palm oil have had devastating environmental consequences. As palm oil production has skyrocketed—in 2013, global production totaled 58 tons—the moist, tropical rainforests that palm trees thrive in have been felled to accommodate vast monocultures of palms. Between 1990 and 2010, almost nine million acres of forest have been cleared in Indonesia, Malaysia and New Guinea.
That's bad news for native animals, many of whom were already on endangered species lists even before the rise of palm-oil cultivation. Borneo's Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered, possibly down to less than 50 individuals; the area's pygmy elephants exist only in isolated pockets of protected forest that "may be too small to ensure" their survival, according to the World Wildlife Fund; regal Sumatran tigers are almost gone; and Borneo's orangutans, one of humans' closest living relatives, have seen their population decline by over 50 percent in the last 60 years. So basically, your festive holiday meal—and, in fairness, the foods you eat every other day of the year, too—are fueling the wholesale destruction of some of the rarest and most beautiful species left on our planet.
In spite of the campaigns by environmental groups such as the WWF and the Union of Concerned Scientists, palm oil production shows no signs of slowing down: 2014/2015's global harvest is projected to be six percent higher than last year's. But if you're feeling bad about shoveling animal-killing foods down your gullet, there is hope: groups such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are aiming to make sustainably-raised palm oil, which is harvested only from areas that have previously been cleared without razing any new forests, the industry norm.
Luckily, it's still possible to enjoy creamy, bubbly green bean casserole—cruelty-free. Check out Naomi Pomeroy's recipe for it, topped with crispy, canola oil-fried shallots. Your holidays guests—and southeast Asian animals—will thank you.