Palm oil labelling

How can we make healthier and sustainably sound choices if manufacturers don't make it clear that their products contain palm oil?
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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 with a saturated fat content of 51%, the health implications are just as dire – it’s very poor compared with other vegetable oils, such as canola (7.6%), sunflower (11.2%) and olive (16%).

Palm oil is the most consumed edible oil in the world, accounting for 33% of total production in 2009 (olive oil accounted for just two per cent). India was the largest consumer of palm oil in the world in 2009. With the country's consumption more than doubling from 2005 to 2009, its population’s obesity rates are growing alongside. 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. Specific time frames for this project weren’t available at the time of publication.


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

We spoke with major food manufacturers in Australia 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, Aldi labels palm oil as vegetable oil, while Coles and Woolworths both specifically identify it. But it’s the use of palm oil in Aldi and Woolworths’ products marketed for children, with spruiked nutritional benefits, that’s of greater concern. 

Some of Woolworths’ recently released organic Mini Macro products, sold in the health food aisle in its supermarkets, contain palm oil. When asked why, Woolworths claimed palm oil tastes better and is more widely available than other organic oils. But Australian Organic (formerly Biological Farmers of Australia) disagrees, telling CHOICE: “Australia has a wide range of certified organic oils, including sunflower, available to food processing industries.” 

Aldi similarly uses palm oil in products for children, including its potato chips, which it recommends as part of its balanced lunchbox campaign

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, such as palm oil, to be stated. Transitional arrangements are in place until this new regulation comes into effect in 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. 

The Heart Foundation and Dietitians Association of Australia both warn against the saturated fat content of palm oil, yet the Australian Food and Grocery Council claims palm oil is an important ingredient for the food and grocery manufacturing industry, and in 2010 fought against the proposed Truth in Labelling (Palm Oil) Bill.

What we want

We believe that in order for consumers to make an informed decision to avoid palm oil, access to accurate labelling is vital. For a product with such high levels of saturated fat, we think it’s important to clearly and specifically label, rather than leave it up to the consumer to decipher fat levels on the nutritional panel. Further to this, labelling palm oil in the ingredients list would be much clearer and in line with FSANZ objectives.

Read more about our food labelling campaigns

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