Saturday 7 May 2011

Avoiding Palm Oil

Palm oil is the 'cheapest' vegetable oil available to food manufacturers. Clearly, it costs us all a great deal, but not in the monetary terms understood by world trade. The World Health Organisation has reservations about palm oil's safety- and has advised that it should not be considered a healthy alternative to trans fats. Research appears to show that palm oil consumption is linked to higher rates of heart disease. That gives us a monetary cost in providing health care for those people, but also a human cost in terms of loved and valuable people dying before their time. Add in the environmental cost of deforesting huge areas of rainforest and the environmental, human and monetary costs of worsening climate change (through burning peat bogs and rainforest to grow the stuff) and its starting to look pretty expensive to me.

I decided I'd like to find out how much palm oil I am consuming. I really believe that Michael Pollen is right in what he says about 'voting with your fork':

How you and your family choose to spend your food money represents one of the most powerful votes you have... and you get three of them every day.”

Last week I recorded everything I ate. I didn't change the things I ate, I just wanted to record an average week. At the end of the week I checked the ingredients list of everything I could and worked out if it was likely to contain palm oil or not. I know that there is palm oil in lots of non-food items, like soap and shampoo, but I didn't record them during the week. My soap from Lush is fine, as Lush spent lots of time and money working out how to make soap without palm oil- and then made their successful method available to any other company who wanted it.

I learnt a lot about where palm oil lurks and what I can do to avoid buying the stuff. None of it is rocket science, I admit, but I'm pleased to have learnt it.

None of the 'raw ingredients' I cook with have palm oil in them. I can't say for sure it wasn't used somehow in their growing and processing- that kind of thing is hidden away and hard to find out about. But I am confident that none of the vegetables, spices, fruit, pulses and flours I use have palm oil in them.

By contrast, all of the processed foods I indulge in are suspect. The odd frozen pizza that makes it into my trolley is very likely to have palm oil in. The crisps and chocolate that make my workday a bit more luxurious are interestingly split: in this instance, crisps are fine but the brand of chocolate I love the most is neither fair-trade nor palm-oil free. Whenever I don't have time to make my own bread, the supermarket bread I fall back on almost certainly contains palm oil. The 'big three' bread bakers use it, as the independent discovered:

“It's in the top three loaves – Warburtons, Hovis, and Kingsmill – and the bestselling margarines Flora and Clover. It's in Special K, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, Mr Kipling Cakes, McVitie's Digestives and Goodfella's pizza. It's in KitKat, Galaxy, Dairy Milk and Wrigley's chewing gum. It's in Persil washing powder, Comfort fabric softener and Dove soap. It's also in plenty of famous brands that aren't in the top 100, such as Milkybar, Jordan's Country Crisp and Utterly Butterly. And it's almost certainly in thousands of supermarket own brands.”

But the ingredient which is most worrying me is margarine. I cook and bake with it too, which means my home-made bread could be just as compromised as the supermarket stuff. If there was a legal obligation to label palm oil, I could be sure to buy a palm-oil free margarine.

It was frustrating looking at all those labels that said 'vegetable oil' and having no idea if it was palm oil or not. Then I turned over a box of chocs from the Co-op that a friend had bought me. There on the label it said 'palm oil'. Looking into it, I found that the Co-op voluntarily label all their own-brand products which contain palm oil. No other supermarket does this.

I'll be voting with my fork and shopping at the Co-op more. And I'll be a very happy bunny if they sell margarine without palm oil in it.

1 comment:

  1. Margarine?! Not to put too fine a point on it, but you're killing yourself and your family. Margarine, filled as it is with transfats, is one of the most unhealthy things you can eat. Please, you're a valuable person. Let's not lose you before your time.