Iceland supermarket pledges to remove palm oil from own brand foods

Supermarket chain Iceland has announced it will no longer use palm oil in its 130 own brand food lines, reducing demand by more than 500 tonnes a year.

The company said it will remove the product from its lines by the end of 2018 and replace the ingredient in half of the foods with alternatives such as sunflower oil and butter.

Growing demand for palm oil in everday foods, toiletries and biofuel has driven widespread deforestation in south-east Asia and threatening the habitat of species such as the orangutan.

Industries have pushed for the promotion of "sustainable" palm oil rather than eradicating trade for workers in producing countries.

But Iceland managing director Richard Walker said the company did not believe there was verifiable sustainable palm oil on the mass market and so was removing it all together.

Mr Walker said: "Until Iceland can guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction, we are simply saying 'no to palm oil'.

"Having recently been to Indonesia and seen the environmental devastation caused by expanding palm oil production first hand, I feel passionately about the importance of raising awareness of this issue - and I know many British consumers share my concern and want to have a real choice about what they buy.

"This journey has shown me that, currently, no major supermarket or food manufacturer can substantiate any claim that the palm oil they use is truly sustainable, as the damage being caused to the global environment and communities in South East Asia is just too extensive."

What is palm oil?

The palm oil fruit is harvested from the African oil palm tree. Credit: PA

Palm oil is the most commonly produced edible vegetable oil made from the African oil palm tree.

The trees are originally from Western Africa but can flourish anywhere warm with abundant moisture and rain.

It is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America and South America but 85% of all palm oil globally produced comes from Malaysia, Indonesia.

The fruit is reddish in colour but is refined into a white semi-solid oil that can be easily used in a variety of products.

Some 66 million tons is produced annually and at its low market price, the product is used in a variety of products including processed food and cosmetics.

Why do companies use palm oil in their products?

Palm oil is commonly used in cosmetics and soaps. Credit: PA

Almost half of the palm oil imported into EU countries is used for biofuel.

But Rainforest Rescue says that palm oil is also used in half of all supermarket foods.

The use of the substance differs for each item, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

  • In lipstick, it is used to hold the colour and stop it melting.

  • It is used in ice cream to make it smooth and creamy.

  • It is used in pizza dough, both frozen and fresh, to stop it sticking together.

  • For soap, it is added to help remove oil and dirt from skin and hair and moisturise.

  • It makes the appearance of chocolate more shiny and keeps it from melting.

  • Palm oil makes up 20% of instant noodles. It is used to pre-cook the product so consumers just have to add hot water.

  • It is used for baking items like bread and biscuits because it is inexpensive and gives products a good texture.

What impact does it have on the environment?

Swathes of forests in Indonesia have been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Credit: AP

According to Rainforest Rescue, forests have been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations in South East Asia, Latin America and Africa currently covering more than 27 million hectares of the Earth's surface.

As a consequence, the world's largest producer of palm oil, Indonesia, temporarily surpassed the US in greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

The 'green deserts', the size of New Zealand, offer no biodiversity and have caused the destruction of habitats for wildlife including endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros.

The scale of deforestation equates to the size of 300 football pitches being destroyed every hour, the WWF has claimed.

Half of Bornean orangutans have been lost due to deforestation. Credit: PA

One study published in the journal Current Biology earlier this year found that half of Bornean orangutans were affected by logging, deforestation, or industrialised plantations, with 100,000 lost between 1999 and 2015.

Humans in these communities have also suffered with the displacement of indigenous people with both communities and livelihoods destroyed by the trade.

Palm oil is also said to be detrimental to health with one tablespoon equating to 55% of the daily recommendation for saturated fat.

How do I know that a product contains palm oil?

Items are not always labelled as containing palm oil. Credit: PA

The WWF says that many products that include palm oil are not always clearly labelled.

Palm oil can also be described as the following on labels:

  • Vegetable Oil

  • Vegetable Fat

  • Palm Kernel

  • Palm Kernel Oil

  • Palm Fruit Oil

  • Palmate

  • Palmitate

  • Palmolein

  • Glyceryl

  • Stearate

  • Stearic Acid

  • Elaeis Guineensis

  • Palmitic Acid

  • Palm Stearine

  • Palmitoyl Oxostearamide

  • Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3

  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

  • Sodium Kernelate

  • Sodium Palm Kernelate

  • Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate

  • Hyrated Palm Glycerides

  • Etyl Palmitate

  • Octyl Palmitate

  • Palmityl Alcohol

Consumers can look for the RSPO label on products to ensure the palm oil comes from certified sustainable suppliers.

Should you avoid palm oil altogether?

Malaysian workers protest the European Union (EU) ban on unsustainable palm oil. Credit: AP

Palm oil is the most efficient oil crop in the world as the trees stand tall using up a relatively small amount of space for the size of the fruit that is produced.

Cutting out palm oil altogether could also have a detrimental effect on the growing country's economy and reduce employment for some of the world's poorest communities.

Some environmental campaigners believe that palm oil can continue to be used at a sustainable level, ensuring that tropical forests are no longer sacrificed to make way for plantations.

Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution stipulating that only sustainable palm oil can be imported into the EU after 2020.

The WWF is working with companies to promote sustainable palm oil producers.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2001 to work with high-street names like Unilever, Cadbury’s, Nestlé and Tesco alongside traders including Cargill and ADM to move towards the sustainable production of palm oil.

Palm oil is the most efficiently grown oil crop in the world. Credit: AP

But Greenpeace has raised concerns RSPO members are still relying on unsustainable suppliers.

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven, said Iceland's move was a direct response to the palm oil industry's "failure to clean up its act".

He said: "As global temperatures rise from burning forests, and populations of endangered species continue to dwindle, companies using agricultural commodities like palm oil will come under increasing pressure to clean up their supply chains.

"Many of the biggest consumer companies in the world have promised to end their role in deforestation by 2020.

"Time is running out not just for these household brands but for the wildlife, the climate and everyone who depends on healthy forests for their survival."