Why should anyone in their right mind make the no doubt heart-breaking decision to remove the gooey, delicious, chocolatey goodness from their life? If you don’t have a nut allergy, it is very likely that you have consumed and enjoyed Nutella in many of its indulgent forms – Nutella brownies, Nutella pancakes, Nutella by itself from the jar (spoon optional) … The list goes on. However, underneath that versatile yumminess Nutella has a secret: Palm Oil.
According to the site saynotopalmoil.com, palm oil is an ingredient in 40-50% of household goods in the US, Canada and the UK. This includes Cadbury’s chocolate, Mars chocolate, many Nestle products, instant noodles, peanut butter, sliced bread, Pringles, Flora, Herbal Essences, some Sephora and Urban Decay cosmetics, some lipsticks, and a number of cleaning and washing detergents, to name just a few. It’s easy to see how prolific the vegetable fat is for yourself, just by picking up items in the supermarket and reading the label. Doing this might get you some funny looks, but you’ll realise just how many products list palm oil as an ingredient.
The palm oil industry makes up the majority of vegetable oil production globally and is still growing. Its popularity in our household products comes mostly from its high melting point, and its efficiency in comparison with soya beans or rapeseed, for example. In a Guardian article from 2014, a food technologist, Kurt Berger, explains that the palm plant is around 10 times more productive than these two alternatives. The problem is, whilst the plant itself may be efficient for oil produced, the way the palm plant is cultivated is in many cases unsustainable, and is the cause of huge amounts of deforestation, particularly in southeast Asia.
According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association established in 2004 with the aim of transforming the palm oil industry, between 1990 and 2010 palm oil expansion resulted in the loss of about 3.5 million hectares of rainforest in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Deforestation of rainforests – the world’s most biodiverse areas – destroys the habitats of millions of creatures, including endangered mammals such as the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger, which without change to the palm oil industry, are expected to be extinct in the wild within 10 and 3 years respectively. The local effect of the expansion of palm plantations extends to difficulties for local people as a result of air and water pollution, and is also reported to have connections with exploitation of workers, particularly migrants.
Of course the global effects are also a large cause for concern. With their dense plant life, tropical rainforests produce a huge amount of the world’s oxygen (around 40%), which in this time of climate change we cannot afford to lose. Of course palm plantations are themselves large numbers of trees, but their oxygen production can in no way equal the contribution of the rainforest they replaced. Not only is deforestation removing a major source of oxygen, it is a huge contributor to global CO₂ emissions. This is not only because much of the forest is burned away, but also because the peatlands on which rainforests thrive are carbon stores, and clearing and draining them to make way for palm plantations releases a huge amount of CO₂ into the atmosphere.
So that’s what you might not have known about an ingredient of your favourite chocolate and hazelnut spread, and it might be enough to make you consider giving it up. Realistically though, entirely boycotting palm oil isn’t practical and would have a huge economic impact on a number of southeast Asian countries for which it is a major export and source of income (Indonesia’s second largest export, Malaysia’s fourth largest export). The ideal solution is to encourage and enable the palm oil industry, and countries for which it is important economically, to start producing the vegetable oil sustainably, and to encourage companies using palm oil in their products to source it from certified sustainable sources with the help of organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and associated charities and NGOs with an interest in preserving the rainforest in these areas.
This is easier said than done though, and perhaps a decline in sales of their products containing palm oil would be enough to make companies stop ‘aiming to reduce use of unsustainable palm oil’, take decisive action to only use certified sustainable palm oil in their products, and to clearly state this on their labels, to make sure that as consumers, we can make a responsible decision about our chocolate spread.
Interested? Here’s some further reading:
By Susannah Littlewood