Taking palm oil out of your life

What’s wrong with palm oil?

I've said it so many times but it feels pertinent to say it here again- for all the new-age-connotations of this- veganism is a journey. Most of us weren't born vegan, so when you start out on that route, you're saying "I have a problem with doing what I've done for the past xy years, and I need to change that today." When I made that decision I felt like I was seeing and thinking properly for the first time in my life. I'd blocked out so many of the thoughts I'd had over the years- the kind of "you know chicken is a chicken right?" thoughts  Jonathan Safran Foer mentions in Eating Animals, along with all the visceral reactions I'd had to smelling bacon and the sorrow seeing any animal suffer would bring. 

When you go vegan you're letting yourself feel that and you start learning there's a ton of other stuff you need to react to as well. You get more and more specific until you're happy, and you keep learning every day. So when one of my best friends shared something about palm oil on Facebook, the old me wouldn't want to know. In all honesty I wouldn't have wanted to have to bother with something else that would upset me or, being totally frank, possibly inconvenience me. That's the way things were. But being vegan means you're already listening. And I can't continue to consume palm oil at the rate I am, knowing what I do after spending just a few hours reading into it.

I don't want to repeat or paraphrase what's already been said so it's probably best to read for yourself about the nature of harvesting palm oil- there's some great articles here and here. The key things I took away from these pieces is that while palm oil does make up a huge part of culinary tradition in certain areas in the world like West and Central Africa, it's the rate we're consuming across the world that is doing irreversible harm. It's added to packaged food because it's convenient, but there are ways of avoiding consuming and therefore paying for its production. 

Just as I've taken meat, fish, eggs and dairy out of my life, it's also time to get as much palm oil out of my life as possible. I'm saying 'as possible' because it really is in so much stuff- and so I want to start with a tangible goal: to stop buying any products that are labelled with palm oil. This does mean if I am staying with family or friends I may have to use palm oil. But by cutting it out of my own consumption, (and my boyfriend has just agreed to stop buying it too... wow!) then palm oil is effectively loosing two consumers. I will be supporting other companies that do not use palm oil and buying their products, which means those that choose not to use it will gain two new consumers. It's small and it's simple, but it's a start. 

This is a guide to cutting palm oil out of a vegan lifestyle- I hope a lot of the products here overlap with other lifestyles.

Where will you find palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil. It's high in saturated fat, along with coconut oil, and is semi-solid at room temperature. It's popularity with pre-prepared foods is down to the fact that it's cheap and that it's an alternative to trans-fats, which now have to be labelled on food packaging. So using palm-oil is a low cost way of making something look a bit better for you, essentially. 

The problem with cutting out palm oil is that at the moment it can still be disguised in products. Anything that lists 'vegetable oils' or 'vegetable fats' but doesn't give any more detail could include palm oil. Next year,  food producers in the EU will have to label products with the specific type of vegetable oil used, and they won't be able to use the generic terminology any longer, so it should become much easier to trace.

The major thing I have realised from looking into this for vegans is that because of a lack of butter, vegan pre-prepared food involves a lot more palm oil. So if you're buying something that would traditionally include butter or margarine, chances are it's got palm oil instead.

How do I swap it out?

As with going vegan- the best way to cut something out for good that I've found is to just take it one product at a time until you found something you're happy with as a replacement. At the moment I'm in the process of working out everything I eat that could have palm oil in it and switching them for items without.

A term that crops up a lot is RSPO certification. This stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The group was established in 2004 and is working to make all palm oil sustainable. In essence it's a great movement that's managed to get huge corporations like Unilever, Carrefour and Walmart to commit to only using RSPO certified palm oil. However, the RSPO has faced criticism over how far it can enforce rules in a voluntary organisation, and also that it's difficult to argue that any large-scale farming of palm oil is sustainable after being taken to the levels it has in the last thirty years. The WWF now estimates 50 per cent of packaged supermarket goods contain palm oil. Many NGOs argue the RSPO risks becoming a way of large corporations to white-wash (or, to use a Greenpeace term, 'greenwash') using palm-oil as sustainable, when it may already be too late to claim it's being farmed responsibly. It's easy, as a consumer, to see 'sustainable' and feel fine about putting whatever it is in my shopping basket. But palm oil trees can only start baring fruit of a sufficient size after 30 months, so the rate of growth and consumption just doesn't add up, and it's not as black and white as "bad palm oil" and "good palm oil".

Here's what I've found so far- I hope to add to this list as I discover more products vegans can eat, as well as any that contain palm oil I couldn't think of. Please tweet or email me if you come across any too!

Veggie sausages

I eat these a fair amount and unfortunately the Linda McCartney brand I use does contain palm oil. Yes, the straight palm component used by the company is RSPO certified sustainable, but this is mixed with palm fractions to "form the ingredient" that they use in some of their products (their words, not mine), and palm fractions are not RSPO certified. According to Linda McCartney they are working to get a fully sustainable palm ingredient by 2015, but that depends on how much trust you put in the RSPO certification. I would personally rather do without. 

So- the brand I've been trying out it instead is called V Bites and I bought two different flavours from the freezer section of Holland and Barrett. At first I thought they were more expensive than Linda McCartney- over £2.00 for a pack, until I realised you get eight per pack, so actually better value. The sage and marjoram ones are especially good with mash and balsamic onion gravy!

Peanut Butter 

Peanut butter is the fuel my flat runs on. Cycling 14 miles a day means I usually want something to eat the minute I get home and peanut butter ensures I get at least a good dollop of protein in my diet a day. My boyfriend and I are going to have to swap our fave Sainsbury's basics brand for Sun-Pat, but you gotta love that clear labelling. Obviously it's much tastier, because it's also about £1 more expensive.

Vegan mayo // vegannaise

Although a lot of palm-oil free blogs are concerned about finding palm-oil free mayonnaise, I'm happy to report the vegannaise I use, Tiger-Tiger MAY-O is already, as far as I can tell, palm oil free. {WOOP}.

Vegan margarine

From what I have found, all the major vegan margarines in the UK include palm oil. I use Vitalite as I also find it's great for vegan baking, but it lists 'vegetable oils' without any specifics in the ingredients list, so until 2015, when I can find out for sure what that means, I'm just going to give up all vegan margarine, or make my own. 

Potato products- hash browns, waffles, smiles

The good news is everyone's favourite fry-up bestie, the hash brown, is palm oil free- at least if you're buying it from Sainsbury's and Tesco- Morrisons and Asda do include palm oil in some of their hash brown products, and McCain have some pretty shady/vague claims to how they "prioritise" palm oil suppliers.

Vegan pastry 

My-go-to fave brand Jus-Roll does use palm oil, so another one bites the dust. I love pastry, but I want to see if I can just cut it out instead of trying to replace it. I'll be making stews with other kinds of toppings like polenta and mashed vegetables instead, and maybe have a go at doing my own pastry with homemade vegan butter.

Vegan chocolate

The big-namers all sound pretty guilty- Lindt and Green & Blacks both use palm oil in their products. Divine Chocolate, however, is palm oil free. 

Cereal, granola and muesli

Yep- pretty much any mix I would usually go for because it's dairy-free in fact involves palm oil. It makes me feel crap that I've actually probably been consuming more palm oil since turning vegan- so I'll also be making my own granola and muesli from scratch with rapeseed oil instead.

Beauty products

A quick tour of my bathroom products also made my heart sink. Palm oil is in EVERYTHING. Thankfully I also found this awesome website, which gives you a handy guide to the big name companies you might be using and their relationship with palm oil. Lush gives a brilliant statement and so I'll be using their cosmetics, toiletries and soaps, all of which are palm oil free.