The proliferation of palm oil in today’s food cannot be overstated. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), around 50% of packaged items in grocery stores contain the substance, while the European Palm Oil Alliance relays that global consumption of palm oil rose from 14.6 million tonnes in 1995 to 61.1 million tonnes in 2015.

Beyond cosmetics, palm oil is an invaluable ingredient in a variety of foodstuffs, including bread, crisps, ice cream, pizza and instant noodles. This has fuelled the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia – the world’s largest palm oil producers – which have devoted around 20,000 hectares of farmland to oil palm trees between them.

With demand for palm oil continuing to increase, experts have contended that it is likely here to stay. But how did food companies come to rely on palm oil, and what should they be doing to combat the problems caused by its production?

Deforestation: palm oil’s negative effects on biodiversity

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly aware of the negative impacts linked with palm oil. According to WWF, the substance has been a major driver of deforestation in countries growing it, destroying the habitats of already endangered species.

According to a report last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), areas into which palm oil could potentially expand are inhabited by 54% of the world’s threatened mammals and 64% of all threatened birds.

“These are serious issues that the whole palm oil sector needs to step up to address.”

The loss of forests, combined with the conversion of carbon-rich peat soils to host oil palm crops, has led to millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year. What’s more, human rights groups have regularly protested that slavery and inhospitable working conditions persist on oil palm plantations.

“These are serious issues that the whole palm oil sector needs to step up to address because it doesn’t have to be this way,” says WWF-UK agricultural commodities manager Dr Emma Keller. “Palm oil can be produced in a way that safeguards nature and the livelihoods of the people that produce it. We need to see all actors in the supply chain to urgently step up and make this the norm.”

One-upping alternative oils

In Asian countries, palm oil is largely used as a cooking oil, but its benefits for food processing have been the real draw in the west. Because it remains semi-solid at room temperature, palm oil keeps spreads spreadable. Its stability at higher temperatures boosts the crunchiness of fried products. And the fact that it is odourless and colourless means it doesn’t impact the smell or look of food.

“If food companies around the world boycotted the oil, the effect could be devastating.”

Palm oil performs particularly well in snack food, as it is non-oxidising and therefore provides a major boost to shelf life. Asian countries consume palm oil in vast quantities due to the region’s instant noodle addiction, with each pack having 20% of its weight made up by palm oil.

Other oils are available but are produced at a much higher economic and environmental cost. Palm oil is easier and cheaper to extract and crops produce more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, Keller says, palm oil accounts for 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on just 10% of the land.

“To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or coconut oil you would need anything between four and ten times more land, which would shift issues such as deforestation to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species,” says Keller.

Last year, UK-based supermarket chain Iceland pledged that it would remove palm oil from its own-brand products altogether, replacing it instead with rapeseed and vegetable oils. However, if food companies around the world boycotted the oil, the effect could be devastating. After all, the IUCN report states that three quarters of all palm oil is used in food (this includes cooking oil or processed foodstuffs).

Making palm oil more sustainable: stringent monitoring required for corporate responsibility

Major brands in the food industry, such as PepsiCo, the Kellogg Company and Mars, have put measures in place to ensure their sources are more sustainable. Global food and drink company Nestlé has its Responsible Sourcing Standard, which has specific provisions in place to protect peatland and high-carbon stock land, as well as workers’ rights.

The major challenge is the sheer complexity of the palm oil supply chain. Oil mills receive fresh bunches from across a wide variety of plantations all run by myriad stakeholders and farmers. Ensuring that a company is sourcing palm oil from a plantation employing sustainable practices remains difficult.

“The major challenge is the sheer complexity of the palm oil supply chain.”

Formed in 2004, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides a standard that sets best practices for producing and sourcing Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). Keller says that many global palm oil-using companies, including food companies, are committed to buying only RSPO palm oil and have made strong No Deforestation, Peat or Exploitation (NDPE) commitments

“Many of these commitments are for 2020 so it’s important we hold them to their word,” she says. “In the UK, many major companies have made commitments to using CSPO and to date about 78% of the crude palm oil used in food and consumer goods manufactured in the UK is CSPO.”

The need for more stringent monitoring has been bubbling up for some time. Last year, the RSPO was forced to suspend Nestlé’s membership after it was discovered that many of the chocolate products it sold – e.g. KitKat – still contained palm oil. However, the RSPO itself has been also been criticised by organisations such as Greenpeace for not enforcing the rules.

In November, RSPO responded to calls from global investors to implement stronger standards on members, releasing its revised ‘Principles and Criteria’ for the CSPO standard. One change included a total ban on deforestation on all members, while another prohibits palm oil producers planting crops on peat of any depth.

Growers and food companies need to update their policies accordingly. However a recent report by the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) found that Europe – the second largest palm oil purchaser – would miss its 2020 target to use 100% sustainable supplies of edible oil in food ingredients.

Health benefits and sustainability plaudits: Finding ways to replace palm oil

The question of whether palm oil could be replaced has often been associated with the health problems it causes due to its high proportion of saturated fatty acids, which can affect cardiovascular health.

Recently, the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV launched a new research project into whether palm oil could be replaced with a healthier alternative based on high-quality, polyunsaturated oils.

The project involves ‘targeted crystallisation’ of oils such as rapeseed and sunflower to change their properties so they more closely replicate the viscosity and melting behaviour of palm oil. The idea is that healthier oils could be used in foodstuffs, such as spreads, while maintaining the same benefits.

The project is currently in a screening phase, and Fraunhofer hopes to have a prototype to show food manufacturers in the near future. Food technologist and confectionary and fats expert Ina Eibl says that a similar process has been seen in the pharmaceutical industry but not in food because not all of the ingredients were available and laws surrounding the process weren’t clear cut.

“The overall mixture has a similar texture or structure like a saturated fat, like a palm fat, so it is solid at room temperature, but it consists of more than 90% liquid oil,” says Christian Zacherl, another food technologist familiar with the project. “It’s a drastic change in the fatty acid composition – and this has a big potential to replace oil and palm fats in different recipes.

Zacherl says that food companies would definitely benefit from the sustainability plaudits of putting a ‘no palm oil’ sticker on the front of their product. However, to hark back to a common theme, he says overall that palm oil will always have a place.

Ultimately, the world is scared of what a complete boycott could mean, not because of the impact on countries and communities, but because in the current market switching to other oils could be even worse for the environment. It’s a sentiment that Keller sums up effectively: “Boycotting palm oil is not always the answer, but demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.”

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