It’s a phrase that’s been popularised in advertising for a motoring product. But when it comes to the use of palm oil in food manufacturing, Australian Orangutan Project president Leif Cocks says the same message applies: oils ain’t oils.
”It’s estimated 300 football fields of rainforest per hour are being destroyed,” Cocks says of the repercussions in Malaysia and Indonesia as the global demand for cheap oil climbs. Estimates suggest 93 per cent of all palm oil produced is used in food.
The food industry loves it for two reasons: it’s cheap and trans-fat-free. Its characteristics also make it an ideal ingredient: semi-solid at room temperature, it adds crunch (think of the crisp bite of packet chips or the snap in a commercial butternut biscuit) and boasts a long shelf life. But issues arise in its planting.
Oil palm is a monoculture crop normally developed on a massive scale. Orangutan Land Trust’s Michelle Desilets says companies in Sumatra and Borneo often obtain concessions for oil palm in forested areas, which must be cleared to plant.
”When an oil palm monoculture replaces natural forest, between 80 and 100 per cent of the bird, reptile and mammal species will perish,” she says. ”Predators such as tigers can no longer find their prey.” Orangutans are forced to feed on the shoots of the young palms and become a pest.
But consumer pressure is beginning to herald a new direction. Cocks believes the popularity of projects such as Melbourne Zoo’s Don’t Palm Us Off campaign show the Australian public ”wants to know if their products contain palm oil”. The independent senator for South Australia, Nick Xenophon, is leading the political charge by driving the Truth in Labelling - Palm Oil Bill, passed by the Senate last month and now on its way to the lower house.
Overseas, British retailer Marks & Spencer has revealed plans to launch a ”healthier” palm oil-free milk in October, with 6 per cent less saturated fat achieved by removing all palm oil from cow feed. But for Desilets, the solution is not in banning or labelling but in ensuring its sustainable cultivation.
”It’s not practical to eliminate because it’s so ubiquitous,” she says. ”Some 85 to 90 per cent of palm oil produced goes to India and China, markets less concerned with sustainability. Even if countries like Australia and the US actually banned the import of palm oil, this relatively small amount of product would be quickly taken up by China and India and new emerging markets such as Russia and Japan.
”While I support an individual’s choice to avoid palm oil on principle, I don’t think it is a tool that is going to effect change in the industry.”
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary, non-profit initiative of oil palm producers, retailers, banks and social or developmental NGOs among other groups formed in 2004, aims to promote the sustainable palm oil products. The American agribusiness, Cargill, has pledged to use only sustainable palm oil products in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand by 2015, extending worldwide by 2020.
Therapeutic chef and clinical nutritionist, Samantha Gowing, would be pleased to see it eliminated from Australia. ”Palm oil is environmentally impacting the planet and, more importantly, is harmful to anyone’s health on a cellular level,” she says. She disputes claims it is ”healthier” because it lacks trans fats. ”[Health-wise] the greatest concern is that … it promotes heart disease.”
She adds: ” ‘Gluten-free’ has become the buzz word for the last five years for very good reason.”
It might be time for palm oil to take its place, she says.
Keep an eye on the fine print
With no legislation as yet passed to control labelling of palm oil, it can appear in many products under different guises. Here’s some of what to look for:
- If a product contains margarine it is highly likely the margarine will have been derived from palm oil.
- Additives and agents such as emulsifiers (E471 is a common one). While a small component of the overall product, they can also be derived from palm oil.
- Cocoa butter equivalent (CBE), cocoa butter substitute (CBS), palm olein and palm stearine can all be derived from palm oil.
- In non-food products such as soaps and detergents, the list includes elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates - all of which may be derived from palm oil.
Thanks for reading to the end of this story!
We would be grateful if you would consider joining as a member of The EB Circle. This helps to keep our stories and resources free for all, and it also supports independent journalism dedicated to sustainable development. For a small donation of S$60 a year, your help would make such a big difference.