For a while now, we’ve known the harmful effects of palm oil found in chocolate spreads, especially when it’s produced on a large scale. Given the bad press its received, strategies have been put in place to rebrand it. But, is this really good news? We had the chance to discuss this with Catherine Lefebvre, nutritionist and author of Sucre, vérités et conséquences (Sugar, truth and dare), to break down what’s going on with palm oil on a global scale.

The Craving for Palm Oil 

While palm oil is obtained from the flesh of the fruit grown on the oil palm tree, palm kernel oil comes from the kernels of this fruit. Rich in saturated fat, these oils stay consistent under different pressures such as heat, air and light. Thus, they give the desired texture to products and help them stay on shelves longer. 

Palm oil remains affordable, despite being produced overseas - 80% of the world's production is in Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s mostly found in ultra-processed foods, such as commercial pastries, margarine and the popular spreads. It’s the perfect ingredient to replace partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, also known as trans fats, which have substantially similar culinary properties.

What’s The Issue Here?

The impact of trans fats on cardiovascular health is not new. Yet, it was not until 2007 that the Canadian government got the food industry to "limit trans fat content […] to 2% of the total fat content for vegetable oils and soft spreadable margarines, and 5% for all other foods." 

Meanwhile, in Malaysia and Indonesia, deforestation continues to expand to supply the growing global demand for palm oil. In addition to harming biodiversity, this heavy production generates significant greenhouse gas emissions as a result of peatland drainage and forest fires.

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Wind of Change in the Fields

In order to put in global guidelines for producing more sustainable palm oil, the Sustainable Palm Oil Roundtable (RSPO) was launched in 2004. It has more than 4,000 members across the world including producers, banks, and large multinationals. It’s an organization created by and for the industry. 

Among their criteria, certified manufacturers should not use chemicals that endanger health or the environment, while minimizing erosion and soil degradation. They must also protect and maintain forests that are home to rare or endangered animals, as well as offer ethical and fair working conditions for employees. At first glance, this seems like a good alternative for sustainable production of an ingredient so widely used in the food industry, but is it?

Still...

The certification was created by the industry in order for companies to keep using palm oil without reprimand, while maintaining sufficient production to meet global demand. An independent study published in 2018 reveals the real effects of this certification on Indonesian plantations. This certification could actually have a greater impact on economic growth than social and environmental issues. Thus, it’s been suggested that certification criteria be improved and for surveillance to be more rigorous. But for now, the authors of the study do not believe that the RSPO certification is a guarantee of sustainability. 

These disappointing practices only encourage some companies to choose ingredients other than palm oil to design their products. "For PRANA, it has always been essential to use alternatives to palm oil in all products, explains Ehsane Khadraoul, R&D Innovation Manager at PRANA. Above all, our expertise has led us to understand how the natural composition of organic nuts is more than enough to achieve the desired texture. PRANA’s Mont Rocher is no exception! It’s the combination of our famous hazelnut butter, cocoa butter and date paste, allowing us to get a creamy, yet sticky texture", she adds. The result of which is an amazing tasting chocolate without the health and environment impact of palm oil.

As a consumer, you have to rely on the ingredient list to make sure you prioritize products that are palm oil free. Despite all that, could a company use another term as a cover-up? According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency: "Whether the vegetable oil used is coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, peanut oil or cocoa butter, it must be named precisely in the list of ingredients, and the global term "vegetable oil" is not acceptable."