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Palm Oil: The Good, the Bad and the Coy

27 Nov Palm Oil: The Good, the Bad and the Coy

A recent call in France to boycott Nutella had many Italians going nuts. “We should stop eating Nutella,” French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal urged in a television interview. Her reason: the iconic chocolatehazelnut spread by Italy’s Ferrero Group is made with palm oil. “Oil palms have replaced trees, and caused considerable damage to the environment,” she said, adding that palm oil should be replaced with another ingredient. In response, Italian Environment Minister Luca Galleti wrote in a tweet: “I’ll be having bread and Nutella tonight for dinner.” Scores of Nutella fans in Italy as well as France also jumped to its defence, prompting the French minister to later “offer 1,000 apologies” to end the row.

Essentially, Ms Royal picked the wrong target for her boycott call. Since the start of 2015, Ferrero has met its target of sourcing 100 per cent certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). In other words, the palm oil used in its products, including Nutella, Ferrero Rocher and Kinder Bueno, can be traced to audited plantations and mills that are certified to be sustainably and responsibly managed. Even the most hard-to-please campaign group Greenpeace acknowledges Ferrero as “one of the most progressive consumer-facing companies with regard to palm oil sourcing”.

But Ms Royal is not wrong that the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in the tropics has led to massive loss of rainforest, which is home to many endangered species and generations of indigenous people. When fire is used to clear vast tracts of land quickly and cheaply to prepare for planting, dense clouds of toxic smoke often cloaks the region, choking lungs, stinging eyes, adding to carbon emissions and contributing to climate change.

However, singling out palm oil for boycott is unlikely to save the environment and public health. Instead, it would add to the flawed notion that palm oil is bad, when it is the way it is produced that is to blame.


Palm oil, which can be found in many things that we eat and almost every cleaning product that foams, is no stranger to mudslinging. Since the 1980s, the star export for Indonesia and Malaysia has been on the receiving end of negative campaigning, first driven by American soya bean oil producers and later, largely by environmental groups in Europe.

Many have cast a spotlight on palm oil’s high saturated fat content, which makes it a riskier choice than most other vegetable oils for those with high blood cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. But does it help if we replace palm oil in Nutella, for instance, with an unsaturated oil?

Palm oil gives the Nutella spread its creamy consistency and is naturally semisolid at room temperature. If an unsaturated oil, which is liquid at room temperature, is used, hydrogen atoms would first need to be added to the oil to harden it. This process of hydrogenation would result in the formation of trans fats, which not only increase our bad cholesterol level but also lower our good cholesterol when consumed in excess. Palm oil thus appears the lesser of two evils when compared to any healthier oil that has been hydrogenated.

Another popular line of campaigning centres on the palm oil sector’s destructive role in tropical deforestation. This releases huge amounts of trapped carbon into the atmosphere and wipes out large swathes of natural habitat for endangered animals such as Sumatran tigers, rhinos and orangutans. But by now, most environmental groups including Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have broadly agreed that growing other oilseed crops in place of oil palm could sacrifice even more land and consequently cause more damage to ecological diversity. Oil palm is by far the most high-yielding vegetable oil crop. For every hectare of land that it occupies, it produces four to ten times more oil than the likes of soya bean, sunflower and rapeseed, making it our best bet at meeting the ever-soaring global demand while keeping land use in check.

As such, rather than supporting a blanket boycott on palm oil, it might make more sense to support sustainably produced palm oil. The question then is: can consumers in Singapore and elsewhere tell the good from the bad?


A straight-forward way to identify the good is to look out for the RSPO trademark on product packaging.

RSPO, which stands for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is a multistakeholder body that promotes the production and use of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). Its member companies that have their supply chain certified can apply for a license to carry the RSPO trademark. The trademark, if not misused, is an indication that the product is made with CSPO, or the company that manufactures the products has contributed to CSPO production. The use of the trademark is not mandatory in Singapore.

To find out how widely-used it is, SIIA examined two local supermarkets – Cold Storage in Plaza Singapura and FairPrice Xtra in Ang Mo Kio Hub – in search of the RSPO trademark. After browsing hundreds of brands of cooking oil, instant noodles, chocolates, chips and personal care products, only one brand of potato chips, Lorenz, was found to state its use of CSPO. But there was not a single sighting of the RSPO trademark, not even on Nutella.

Does this mean all of these products are made with unsustainable palm oil? Not quite, as was found out after a check with the RSPO secretariat. According to the RSPO team, a good number of companies are already using CSPO and are licensed to carry the trademark. But most of them, ironically, would rather leave out the eco-label to avoid drawing attention to the very existence of palm in their products. Such deep-seated concern explains why many brands remain coy

about labelling palm oil as it is. Many still prefer the euphemism “vegetable oil”. Some market their “premium blend oil” with canola as its top billing ingredient and palm oil in the fine print, but one seldom comes across proclamation of a 100 per cent palm oil product.

This points to the need to overcome the misguided belief about palm oil after a few decades of negative campaigning. Companies will not “risk” carrying the RSPO trademark so long as the stigma remains, and this would make it difficult for consumers to reward sustainable brands over others.

Alternatively, the more serious green consumers can refer to the RSPO website ( for a list of companies that are licensed to use the trademark. Here, they will see that Ferrero Trading Lux is a licensee, although it has yet to include the trademark on Nutella’s jars. Consumers will also see that Laboratoires M&L is a licensee, which means its L’Occitane range of products would likely carry the trademark. This method works if we know the companies behind their public-facing brands, but it is likely too much work for the average consumer.

A sustainable shopping guide might be more intuitive, but many existing guides in the US and Europe point to palm-free products, many of which are not brands that Singaporeans are familiar with. In Australia, a non-profit group Palm Oil Investigations (POI) has gone one step further by building an app which allows consumers to scan for a product’s palm oil content, and the certification model that its company has opted for. This app, however, is not available for download in Singapore.


It would be good if a similar app can be developed for Singapore consumers. But before it is ready, supermarket retailers can help by dedicating a section to ecocertified products, the way some of them have done for organic produce. This would allow brands that use sustainable palm oil to go on the shelves as their parent companies continue to weigh the pros and cons of using the RSPO trademark. Consumers who would like to make sustainable purchases would then find it much easier to identify sustainable products. When eco-certified products are displayed together in retail outlets and their online stores, consumers might also be sensitised to a wider range of eco-labels, such as Bonsucro for cane sugar and UTZ for cocoa and coffee. This would hopefully help take eco-consumerism to a higher level in Singapore.

Some initiatives are now underway to help promote the uptake of eco-certified products, such as the haze exhibition organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). The roving exhibition seeks to give the public a more regional perspective on the causes of transboundary haze, and attempts to suggest ways in which residents in Singapore can help to end the longstanding issue. Supporting sustainable resource production by buying eco-certified products are among the suggestions. On this front, the Singapore Government has recently announced that it will review its procurement process and will do more to promote green procurement – a significant step forward in encouraging higher demand and greater support in Singapore for sustainable resource production.

Today, around one-fifth of the world’s palm oil supply is certified sustainable, but only half of it has found buyers in the certified market, a clear sign that there just isn’t enough demand for sustainable palm oil. Singapore is small but it is the ninth largest palm oil importer in 2014 according to the United States Department of Agriculture. We also import most of what we eat and what we use. As a major refining hub and consumer country in the region, it is important to support sustainable products, without which any calls for sustainable production would not mean much to the producing countries.

Cheong Poh Kwan and Lau Xin Yi are respectively Assistant Director, Sustainability and Executive, Sustainability, SIIA. This article was originally published in ENVISION (Issue 9, November 2015) and is also available online as a 
PDF download and as an Issuu e-flipbook

Photo Credit: / CC BY 1.0