Palm oil labelling

How can we make informed, more sustainable choices if palm oil labelling isn't mandatory?
 
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01 .Label the truth or palm it off

Palm oil labelling

It’s versatile and cheap, prolongs the shelf life of products, and the crop grows quickly. So it’s no surprise that palm oil is an appealing ingredient to manufacturers of consumer goods, both edible and non-edible. 

Despite these favourable traits, there is a dark side to palm oil. With only 14% of the oil produced globally certified through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, environmental damage caused by deforestation is catastrophic. And it's high in saturated fats to boot.

Palm oil is the most consumed edible oil in the world, accounting for 30% of total production in 2013. According to the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil is present in about half the packaged products on Australian supermarket shelves – including everything from bread and biscuits to chips, chocolate and even personal care products such as shampoo. The Australian Food and Grocery Council estimates an even larger presence – about 80%. 

However, you’d never know this as Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) allows palm oil to be labelled simply as vegetable oil.

Why no label?

In 2008, FSANZ was presented with a proposal to label palm oil by name for health and environmental reasons. However, it rejected the proposal, claiming environmental issues sat beyond its scope of regulation and that consumers concerned about the saturated fat content in palm oil could see this in the nutrition information panel of food labels. A private member’s bill, proposed by SA senator Nick Xenophon in 2010 to provide clear, accurate information about the inclusion of palm oil, was knocked back by the government, which estimated it would cost industry $150m and breach Australia’s World Trade Organization obligations. 

In 2011, following a comprehensive review of food labelling, it was recommended that palm oil be specifically labelled. In response, FSANZ announced that the development of a technical evaluation and advice based on this recommendation would be a priority.

 
 

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Who currently labels palm oil?palm-oli-fatty-acids-statistic

We spoke with major food manufacturers in Australia in 2013 and found little desire to go beyond FSANZ labelling requirements when it comes to palm oil. Leaders in the mainstream grocery market, including Arnott’s, Coca Cola (SPC Ardmona), Goodman Fielder, Nestlé, Simplot, Unilever and General Mills, all use palm oil but label it as vegetable oil. 

When it comes to private label goods, Coles and Woolworths both specifically identify palm oil, while Aldi labels it as vegetable oil. 

On a comparative global scale, international palm oil labelling standards seem to serve overseas consumers better than Australian ones. The Food Information Regulation, published by the EU, requires the type of vegetable oil used in food to be stated. Transitional arrangements are in place until this new regulation comes into effect in December 2014. Taking this one step further, the French government is even said to be seeking to impose a tax on palm oil (as well as coconut and palm kernel oil). The US and Canada also require palm oil to be labelled.

Sustainable but still unhealthy

Many large food manufacturers have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which aims to encourage those using palm oil to purchase from sustainable sources. All the companies we spoke to responded to questions about the labelling of palm oil with information about their sustainability commitments. But just because palm oil can be sourced sustainably doesn’t make it better for your health. 

Although palm oil is rich in carotenoids (antioxidants), it contains more than 50% saturated fat. It doesn't contain cholesterol, but can cause raised total cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol levels, depending on the levels of other fats in the diet.

The WHO believes there’s convincing evidence that palmitic acid (which is found in palm oil) contributes to an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, and for heart health the Heart Foundation recommends steering clear of high saturated fat ingredients, such as palm oil.

What we want

We want labelling laws to make it mandatory for food labels to list palm oil in the ingredients list, rather than hiding it as unspecified vegetable oil. We’d like food manufacturers to replace palm oil wherever possible with healthier oils that are sustainably sourced. Where no suitable alternative exists, manufacturers should be required to use only certified sustainable palm oil. 

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