Last week the supermarket chain Iceland hit the headlines after an advert it planned to air was blocked from TV for being politically motivated. The ad highlighted the devastating environmental impact of palm oil production and announced that Iceland was committing to phasing out the oil in all its own-brand products by the end of the year. Around 200 branded items which include the oil will remain.
Earlier this year Richard Walker, Iceland's MD and son of the founders, told The Telegraph of his time spent in Borneo, where he witnessed "horizon to horizon monoculture" of palm trees, which had replaced native rainforest. His quest to ban the product, at a significant financial cost to the supermarket, is partly inspired from his view that "I do not believe that such a thing as sustainable palm oil exists" – though no doubt Iceland being named and shamed by the Rainforest Foundation UK played a role.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a highly saturated vegetable oil found in the fruit of oil palms, which are native to West Africa, where it's been used for centuries in food, medicine and manufacturing. After European empires colonised the continent, the valuable commodity was transported around the tropics.
It is a highly calorific source of fat, which has made it a staple in many parts – in Brazil and southeast Asia, for example, it is a constituent ingredient in several traditional and popular dishes. However, acids found in the oil may increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
Because palm oil has a high melting point and is semi-solid at room temperature, it is very versatile, and far cheaper than animal fats offering the same benefits, making it attractive to manufacturers.
Oil palm trees are highly productive, more so than many alternatives, such as rapeseed oil, hence the low cost. According to the WWF, "palm oil supplies 35 per cent of the world's vegetable oil demand on just 10 per cent of the land [used for vegetable oil production]." The problem is that the land used is is some of the most biodiverse and harbours some of the most endangered species on earth.
Why is it so controversial?
The cheapness and versatility of palm oil make it an incredibly popular product: according to Greenpeace, it is found in up to 50 per cent of all supermarket products. However, large palm plantations, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia though also in several other tropical countries, are contributing to the destruction of rainforests, often illegally.
In Indonesia, a football pitch-sized space is cleared every 25 seconds. "When these forests are destroyed, local people lose their homes and amazing species like orangutans are put in danger," say Greenpeace.
What are supermarkets and manufacturers doing about palm oil?
Iceland is the first supermarket chain to promise a crackdown on palm oil. According to Greenpeace, Nestlé, Unilever, Mars and several other companies have signed commitments to prevent "dirty palm oil" from being used in their products by 2020 (click here if you'd like to sign their petition, which so far over 700,000 have done). However, the NGO describes progress as "pitiful".
According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Iceland's move away from palm oil may not be the solution to deforestation. The report states: "Moving away from one commodity to another does not eliminate these issues. Iceland supermarket may in fact be exacerbating customers' confusion about the issue... switching to other vegetable oils may very well result in more primary forests being converted into agricultural land."
Most supermarkets I contacted said they were committed to sustainably-sourced palm oil. However, a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says that sustainable palm oil is little better than the regular stuff, at least regarding deforestation.
What food items regularly contain palm oil, and how can I avoid them?
The obvious answer is to look for 'palm oil' on the label and place it back on the shelf. However, it might not be that simple because a) products containing palm oil are often cheaper and b) derivatives are common, making palm oil tougher to spot. Previously, palm oil could be listed as 'vegetable oil', but thankfully this is no longer the case.
Be wary of any item with 'palm' in the ingredients list. Palm will often be followed by 'kernal', 'stearine' or 'fruit oil', while technical names like 'palmitate', 'palmate' and 'palmitoyl' also signify the use of palm oil. Ingredients like glycerol and or glyceryl should be avoided, as should many emulsifiers.
Below, we look at some regular food items that often contain palm oil.
Because palm oil is solid at room temperature, it's commonly used in commercial baking. According to a survey by the Rainforest Foundation in 2017, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons all used palm in their bakeries. Most Waitrose bread is palm-oil free, as is all Weight Watchers bread.
Your best bets are to search for better quality brands, head to your local bakery, or bake a loaf at home!
Palm oil is regularly found in ready meals. Instant noodles (up to 20 per cent of packet weight), frozen pizzas, curries, stews and even beef wellingtons – they're all liable to include palm oil. Around two per cent of a ready meal may be palm oil, though more in many cases, as with instant noodles.
Palm oil gives chocolate a smooth shiny appearance, and many of the most celebrated brands use it. When testing chocolate spreads earlier this year, The Telegraph found that most, including Nutella, included palm oil. The more expensive a chocolate spread, the less likely it was to contain palm oil or derivatives.
According to Greenpeace, since 2016 Mondelez, the giant behind Cadbury, Oreo, Milka, Terry's, and Toblerone, has been responsible for the destruction of 70,000 hectares of rainforest. A spokesperson for the company told The Independent it was committed to sustainability and traceability of palm oil production.
Palm oil free chocolate brands include Divine, Montezuma, and much of Waitrose and M&S's output.
Palm oil is often used in ice creams as a suitable replacement for dairy fats, as they help give ice cream its thicker viscosity while keeping it smooth and creamy.
There's good news for Ben & Jerry's lovers: there is no palm oil in your tub of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough or Phish Food.
However, Nestlé ice creams (though they have committed to going sustainable), do include it, as well as supermarkets Tesco and Morrisons, which score badly on the Ethical Consumer's ice cream guide when it comes to palm oil.
It tells the story of how the rainforest homes of orangutans are being destroyed to grow row upon row of palm oil.
We’re not anti-palm oil, we don’t support a boycott, we do demand urgent change. 2/4
— Greenpeace UK (@GreenpeaceUK) November 9, 2018
Nut butters regularly top up their nut content with palm oil. While many use sustainable palm oil, only Meridian's offering is completely palm oil free.
BUTTER AND MARGARINE
Margarines routinely include palm oil – it is essentially vegetable oil, after all – to keep it solid at room temperature. Butters however, fare better. Switching to butter, even of the spreadable variety, can help reduce your palm oil intake.
Many healthier breakfast cereal brands are palm oil free, including Rude Health, MOMA and Infinity Foods.
The Telegraph asked all the UK's major supermarkets what their policy on palm oil was, and here's what they said:
A Sainsbury's spokesperson said: "Responsible sourcing is important to our customers and to us, which is why sourcing our key raw materials sustainably has been a focus for years. By the end of 2016 over 98 per cent of the palm oil used in our own brand products was certified sustainable and we're committed to ensuring none of our own-brand products contribute to global deforestation by 2020."
Similarly, an Asda spokesperson said: "All of the palm oil used in Asda own-brand products is sustainably sourced." At Aldi, "all palm oil used in our own-label food products has come from sustainable RSPO-certified sources since 2015. This position is being extended to non-food products by the end of 2018."
Lidl said they were "committed to sourcing 100 per cent of the palm oil used in our products from independently certified sustainable sources. We recognise that, when produced responsibly, palm oil plays an important role in developing the economies of the countries in which it is sourced."
A spokesperson from Waitrose & Partners commented: "We believe we can have the biggest influence by being part of the solution. All of our palm oil sourcing is certified by the RSPO (either via physically certified sustainable palm oil or through the RSPO's PalmTrace credits programme). We collaborate with organisations like the RSPO to protect forests and biodiversity in countries and places where palm oil is grown. Through continued collaboration, together we can help incentivise palm oil producers to adopt higher ethical and sustainability standards."
And an M&S spokesperson added: "we're committed to using only the most sustainable sources of palm oil in our products. We have removed it wherever possible and 100 per cent of the palm oil used in M&S products is RSPO certified."