Debunking palm oil myths

The specific functional properties of palm oil make it an important ingredient in food manufacturing, and as a trans-fat free product, a popular replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The palm oil landscape is complex, and anti-palm oil campaigners are vocal in their concerns about sustainability.

Palm oil is trans-fat free The current controversy about palm oil is necessitating the need for suppliers and manufacturers to put their weight behind sustainable sourcing. The industry is booming, partly due to the plant’s high yield and low cost of production. What is clear is that South Africa needs to increase the availability of sustainably certified palm oil to the local market. Woolworths are at the frontline, and its policy to use certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in products reflects this commitment.

Woolworths was one of the first South African companies to become a member of the global Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a global organisation dedicated to the sustainable production of palm oil. It has since developed a set of standards called ‘Principles and Criteria’ that address the legal, economic, environmental and social requirements of producing sustainable products. This ensures that no new primary forests or high conservation value areas have been cleared for palm oil production since November 2005, and mills and plantation owners minimise their environmental footprint.

While Nestlé doesn’t necessarily use the raw material, it does use processed palm oil and mixes, which often comes from multiple sources, further complicating efforts to trace product back to source. The majority of supplies come from members of the RSPO and they are in the process of developing an independent certification system for sustainable and traceable palm oil within the organisation. Nestlé is also actively working with suppliers to improve and document traceability and will play an active part in finding an effective multi-stakeholder solution to this complex problem.

Palm oil specialist and food scientist Dr Aubrey Parsons, is of the view that palm oil’s image has suffered negatively in the past due to a number of factors including a misrepresentation on the environmental impacts of palm oil plantations and harvesting. ‘Palm oil is naturally free of trans-fats and serves as a healthy alternative to hydrogenated oils due to the active ingredient tocotrienols. This compound contains a higher dose of Vitamin E not commonly found in other vegetable oils. Palm oil also has high functional properties, contributing to taste, heat stability, and resistance to oxidation, texture and smoothness.

‘Some of the biggest detractors to the industry have been vocal in their concerns about the environmental impact of palm oil plantations and production and especially its impact on the endangered Orangutan. Although this has been the case in the past, the situation is currently very different, and palm oil should be seen as an important and versatile raw material for both food and non-food industries. It is also a product which can contribute to the economic development of producing countries and diets of millions of people around the world,’ he states.

A global solution

It is not only South Africa that is heeding the call on sustainability in palm oil. As of January 2015, all palm oil sourced by the DuPont Nutrition & Health (DuPont) facility in Grinsted Denmark (where it manufactures the majority of its emulsifier products), is CSPO-certified. In addition, it will offer RSPO certified sustainable emulsifiers from a Mass Balance (MB) source as standard.

As a leading producer of emulsifiers, DuPont has led the industry in the move towards sustainable emulsifiers since helping establish the RSPO in 2004. It was also one of the first to offer RSPO-certified sustainable emulsifiers in MB in 2009, and in 2011 bought its first products from a segregated supply chain to the market.

‘We have , for some years, held firm to our commitment to sourcing only certified palm oil by 2015, and these changes represent significant progress towards that goal,’ says Annette Hansen, director of sustainability for DuPont Nutrition & Health. ‘Grinsted is our largest emulsifier production facility and ships to an international customer base, so the sustainability benefit accruing for our customers is expected to have a positive global effect.’

Unilever Australia and New Zealand have also announced that all palm oil purchased for locally produced food products will come from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) segregated source by the end of 2015. This comes after just three years after Unilever announced that all of its local palm oil use was covered through Green Palm Certificates.

‘This is an important step on the company’s journey towards achieving full traceability and sustainability across the supply chain,’ says Clive Stiff, chair and chief executive officer of Unilever ANZ. Unilever now has visibility of around 1 800 crude palm oil mills, which represents around two-thirds of all mills in the global palm industry. Unilever reports 58 per cent of the palm oil used in its global supply chain is traceable to known sources.

At a glance…

  • Massmart has implemented a palm oil market assessment, and supplier engagement workshop programme and survey of its private label suppliers for products containing palm oil
  • Walmart is dedicated to sourcing Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil in its private label products by December 2015 but as an interim measure supports the use of GreenPalm trading certificates
  • South African palm oil imports are one per cent of global trade
  • Woolworths uses approximately 680 tonnes of palm oil annually in products such as margarine, soups, sauces, bakeries and sweets as well as a range of home and personal care products
  • Palm oil has the highest oxidative stability among vegetable oils
  • Smokes less easily as it has a high smoke point
  • Has a lower tendency to foam, presenting less of a fire hazard
  • Is absorbed at a slower rate by fried food and has low oil pick up
  • Does not contain linoleic acid – which imparts fishy odour to food