- More and more shoppers fear palm oil use in food products is making orangutans extinct, says Sally-Jayne Wright. What's the role of indie retailers in the debate?
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Despite well-intentioned work by the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil production (RSPO) – set up in 2003 – less than 20% of the world’s supply is ‘certified sustainable’. This means 80% is not. In 2017, Iceland’s joint managing director, Richard Walker, visited Indonesian Borneo. He “saw at first hand the environmental devastation being wreaked there by illegal deforestation, industrial scale draining of peat swamps and man-made forest fires”. Unconvinced there is such a thing as verifiably sustainable palm oil, he put his money where his mouth is. In April 2018, Iceland announced it would remove palm oil from own brands by the end of the year.
WHAT ACTION ARE OTHER RETAILERS TAKING?
In January, Ocado put a palm oilfree ‘aisle’ on its website and app, so customers could browse over 3,000 palm-oil free products. Marks & Spencer undertook ‘to ensure zero deforestation from the use of palm oil in the production of its products by 2020’. Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s signed up to RSPO standards.
I’VE HEARD PALM OIL IS A DREAM PRODUCT FROM A FOOD MANUFACTURER’S POINT OF VIEW… IN 50% OF SUPERMARKET PRODUCTS
Right. Solid at room temperature, palm oil keeps packaged bread, biscuits and cakes moist and gives them a long shelf life. This versatile wonder-fat smells and tastes neutral; keeps ice cream, chocolate and mayo smooth; keeps peanut butter stable; prevents pizza dough sticking; and helps pre-cook instant noodles. Above all, it’s cheap.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms which can only be grown in the Tropics. Indonesia and Malaysia produce over 85% of the world’s supply. The uncontrolled clearing of rainforests for palm oil plantations has led to widespread loss of irreplaceable forests rich in biodiversity. Plantations have been connected to the destruction of habitat of endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos (World Wildlife Fund).
THAT’S DREADFUL. WHY ARE WE STILL USING IT?
Palm oil is easy to grow and highyielding. To produce the same amount of rapeseed, soy or peanut oil, farmers would need up to nine times as much land.
IS PALM OIL HEALTHY?
Palm oil is relatively high in saturated fat so best consumed in moderation. Ironically, partially hydrogenated fat is more harmful than fully hydrogenated. The first process creates trans-fats, the second saturated fatty acids.
WHAT DID WE USE BEFORE?
Hydrogenated vegetable oil. Remember when spreads were marketed as healthier than butter and lard? In the early 1990s, convincing evidence linked partially hydrogenated fats with harmful trans-fats, associated with heart disease. Hydrogenation became a dirty word.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
The food industry still needed a fat that was solid at room temperature. Butter was too soft, coconut oil too expensive – especially as it needed ‘deodorising’ – and lard was unsuitable for pork-avoiders and vegetarians. So it chose palm oil.
ICELAND’S BID TO REMOVE PALM OIL FROM OWN BRANDS BY THE END OF 2018 FLOPPED, DIDN’T IT?
Yes, it proved impossible to remove it from 17 products. Food consultant, Simon Wright, is unsurprised. It took a chocolate company he worked for two years to successfully replace palm oil with olive oil in a praline. When Iceland’s product development director, Neil Nugent, substituted coconut fat for palm oil in iced buns, the icing slid off after about four days because of ‘moisture migration’. They solved the problem by adjusting the sugars. However, Nugent says the whole replacement process has been “mindbogglingly difficult”.
I WANT TO BOYCOTT PALM OIL. SHALL I READ PACKETS CAREFULLY?
By law, palm oil must be listed as an ingredient though companies don’t have to declare if it’s sustainable. Palm oil used in processing aids will not appear. So a quiche company can have sprayed baking trays with palm oil or a sausage maker used it to lubricate sausage skins. How can I reassure ecoresponsible and worried customers? Stock more organic products; organic palm oil is by definition sustainable. Visit the website ethicalconsumer.org to check the status of particular products, or approach the maker direct. Consider a palm oil-free section. Recommend the free Giki app, which acts as a ‘sustainable shopping companion’. Giki has a palm oil badge which tells customers whether there is palm oil in the product, whether it’s sustainable, and whether the parent company is making the right decisions, based on WWF scorecard and RSPO data.
WILL CONCERNS ABOUT PALM OIL GO AWAY?
Very unlikely. Sustainability and ethics are macro-trends and Iceland’s corporate activism – at considerable cost to its balance sheet – has brought the debate to the fore. There’s a school of thought that if the ‘big boys’ – Unilever, Nestle and the like – pull out of Indonesia, far less ethical companies will take over the plantations. A palm oil ban could also lead to higher food prices and shorter shelf lives. As fine food retailers, we represent the very opposite of cheap processed food made from ingredients our grandmothers wouldn’t recognise. But we must still do our bit, wherever we can.