Palm oil is found in a wide range of food and non-food products on supermarket shelves. The ingredient is odourless, high yield, and takes the prize for the most consumed vegetable oil in the world.
However, when unsustainably sourced, palm oil is far from the perfect ingredient. Irresponsible production has caused mass deforestation and biodiversity loss in the tropics, and is the leading cause of orang-utan extinction.
These negative associations, along with focus on palm oil’s high saturated fat content, have prompted some retailers and food manufacturers to phase out palm oil from their supply chains.
The move towards ‘palm oil free’
Rather than commit to sustainable palm oil, a number of retailers and food brands have boycotted the commodity in favour of animal or other vegetable substitutes.
Last year in the UK, Iceland became the first supermarket retailer to pledge to eliminate palm oil from its own-label products. Coming at it from a sustainability angle, Iceland said it was phasing out the commodity until “all palm oil causes zero rainforest destruction”.
In Italy, the first retailer to take the ‘palm oil free’ plunge was one of the country’s largest: Coop Italia. The supermarket cooperative lent on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s concerns that palm oil was less stable – and potentially toxic – at higher temperatures than other vegetable oils.
Italian pasta giant Barilla is another company to have outlawed palm oil from its products.
Where palm oil is removed from a product’s formulation, however, it is invariably replaced with two components: a substitute ingredient and a ‘palm oil free’ label.
It is this ‘free from’ label that attracted the interest of a consumer rights organisation in Italy. According to the FreeForChoice Institute, ‘free-from’ claims are often used to persuade consumers that the absence of one ingredient improves the product in some way: “The intention is to communicate that the excluded nutrient should be avoided because it is harmful, whereas its substitutes are better.”
In a bid to determine whether ‘palm oil free’ products are in fact more sustainable and lower in saturated fat than their palm oil counterparts, ForFreeChoice conducted a comparative study.
The study analysed 96 food products sold in Italy. Dividing these items into 10 categories, the researchers firstly compared the total and saturated fat content per 100g of the ‘free from’ products with their palm oil-containing alternatives.
The survey found that the majority of categories and sub-categories containing palm oil had lower average saturated fat levels than the ‘free from’ products.
More specifically, the average saturated fat content in ‘free from’ products came to 10.8g, and 9.13g for the palm oil versions. Further, 63% of palm oil-containing items were found to have average saturated fat levels lower than their ‘free from’ counterparts.
“There is not much difference in the amount of saturated fats [between palm oil and palm oil free products],” senior research fellow at the ForFreeChoice Institute, Giacomo Bandini, told FoodNavigator. The primary outlier is, of course, the cheese flavoured potato crisps, at 2.9g of saturated fat for the palm oil free version, yet 14g for palm oil-containing chips. “It is the most evident exception, but it is the only one,” he added.
The institute also analysed the sustainability of palm oil substitutes, in order to reassure itself that responsible sourced palm oil was, in fact, the preferred choice for the planet.
ForFreeChoice concluded that “plantations competing with oil palms have a greater impact on the environment and on biodiversity”. In terms of yield, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s 2016 data reveals that oil palm produced a yield of approximately 3.8 tonnes per hectare (t/h). Rapeseed oil, however, stands at approximately 0.8 t/h, sunflower seed oil at 0.7 t/h, and soybean oil at 0.5 t/h.
An analysis of land use conducted by IUCN in 2018 found that palm oil production occupied 6% of land destined for the production of vegetable oils and is capable of meeting 38.7% of global demand. Soy, however, occupied 40% of land destined for the production of vegetable oils, but only produces 22% of total oil output.
ForFreeChoice also examined two comparative life cycle assessments (LCAs) for different vegetable oils, in order to assess their effects on the environment at every stage of its life cycles.
The analysis concluded that, when it comes to overall environmental impact, “palm oil reveals itself to be better compared to its alternatives”. In particular, palm oil scored well in energy used, greenhouse gas emissions, photochemical smog and land exploitation.
Then why push the ‘palm oil free’ message?
According to ForFreeChoice’s report, titled Fake news and falsehood on food labels: The big ‘free-from’ deception, substituting palm oil with other alternatives does not “automatically coincide with lower total and saturated fat content”, not did the data reveal any noticeable improvement in sustainability.
The institute therefore claims that marketing products as ‘palm oil free’ appears misleading to consumers.
“We think that it is for commercial purpose…in order to gain more market share,” Bandini told this publication, suggesting that the move towards ‘palm oil free’ was in some way opportunistic. It came about “at a time when the market was flat, particularly in terms of biscuits and confectionery, so they tried to…gain as much as possible from the anti-palm oil campaign”.
The institute also criticised a lack of transparency regarding brands’ choice of palm oil substitutes. Companies “do not say what they replace palm oil with. It is misleading [because] it does not contain all the information that should be provided to them to better understand what the product contains, [and] what…impact it has on health and environment.”
Instead, Bandini advised companies to commit to sustainably sourced palm oil, which he described as “a good balance between [protecting] human rights in producing countries [and allowing them to] benefit from the production of palm oil, preserving the environment and eliminating deforestation.
“We support sustainable certification and we are pro sustainable palm oil.”