Friday, 30 July 2010

Using Palm Oil is a Slippery Slope Approach to Sustainability and Health

I was there when the Rt Hon Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment gave her maiden speech at the first Global Biodiversity of Business Symposium in London. [1] It was a positive message with good intentions and the gist of it can be found in her article, “We must reap the benefits of palm oil, but manage the environmental costs.” [2] For the most part, I disagree with her mind set though. In order to explain my position, I will focus on palm oil in the food industry. Although her plan is good, it is not enough. We cannot manage unsustainable practices. We need sustainable alternatives!

First of all, a general comment. It is not set in stone that we MUST reap the benefits of palm oil. We always have a choice. It may not be an easy one. It may be that the choice is between a rock and a hard place. But it’s a start to acknowledge that there is always a choice. The no-choice attitude is a restricted, limiting, closed mind one.

The Secretary of State is backing corporate business interests when she refers to margarine as the spread of choice which is one food product that may contain palm oil. Unilever was also at the symposium and has margarine products such as I can’t believe it’s not Butter!, Flora, and Bertrolli. To be frank, margarine is a big con. It’s not good for health and designed to replace butter. If butter is eaten in a balanced whole food diet, it is good for health. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) tells us that “it's OK to eat a small amount of butter as part of a healthy balanced diet, but you might find that using low-fat spreads will help you reduce the amount of fat in your diet, and contribute to an overall healthy diet.” [3] As I will briefly explain, this is misleading and unhelpful.

Dr Cass Ingram, one of the world's leading experts in natural remedies, tells us that butter is one of the few sources in the diet that contains regenerative substances with the so-called factor X activity. [4] Among other things, decreased factor X activity may indicate fat malabsorption, liver disease and Vitamin K deficiency.[5] “Butter … is a natural food and one of the best sources of important fat-soluble vitamins.” [8] Organic butter is best in order to avoid as much as possible, the drugs, chemicals and GMOs used in food production today.

In addition, Dr Ingram tells us that cholesterol, which is found in butter, is a critical nutrient and is the building block for the production of steroid hormones which make us strong. It is the key substance for strengthening cell walls, especially in the brain and spinal cord. And, it is also important in digestion, including the digestion of fat, and absorption of nutrients. [7]. So, why is cholesterol given such a bad name then? Dr Ingram attributes it to the pharmaceutical industry wanting to boost the sale of drugs. I would agree because the research methods used today are flawed, singular, narrow, incomplete, and even inconclusive. [8] But this research is then manipulated and used by corporations and governments as scientific evidence when it is far from it to support products such as medicines.

In contrast to butter, margarine is a cheap, highly processed product that may still contain unhealthy trans-fatty acids along with many chemical additives. Because of the trans-fatty acids problem caused by the hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oil, modified palm oil is now a key ingredient instead. [9] And, even the FSA recognises that palm oil is high in saturated fat (which they claim raises blood cholesterol). Although chemicals and the processing of food are not acknowledged by everyone as harmful to health, by encouraging us to use margarine, the government is encouraging us to use a product that when using their criteria is at least as questionable as butter in respect to health. And if the margarine has palm oil rather than hydrogenated oils, the government is encouraging us to participate in unsustainable environmental practices. A recommendation for a simple healthy diet would be to advise consumers to use butter which is produced in the UK, but caution not to use too much, and caution against using margarine as well. Many people think it’s OK to eat loads of margarine, because it’s advertised as good for us (like Flora) when there’s nothing much good in it for health at all.

Unilever is promoting its image with the sustainably resourced palm oil platform. On its website, Unilever claims that it will source all its palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015. As the Secretary of State says that only 4% globally is currently sourced by sustainable means, and Unilever uses 4%, [10] I wonder how Unilever will manage this when Sainsbury and others are claiming the same thing. [11] Furthermore, Robert Mela of Unilever in the Netherlands, sits on the Scientific Advisory Committee of Nutrition which provides advice on nutrition to the FSA. This may explain why the government seems to prefer margarine over butter by allowing questionable advertising of margarine and suggesting it as a preferable replacement for butter.

Another alternative message that the Secretary of State could promote is for us not to eat processed foods that contain palm oil. Processed foods with palm oil as an ingredient are mushrooming at an alarming rate. Highly processed foods are unhealthy and have less nutrition than whole foods. Again, as this message would not sit well with Unilever and other such companies with their many processed food products, it is understandable why she does not do this. However, giving the consumer an overwhelming choice of cheap processed, manipulated novelty food products which contain palm oil, as well as, little nutrition and few health benefits; but lots of saturated fats, sugar and salt, can only lead to a continuation of the downward decline of the nation’s health, hardly a welcome outlook for any government.

And in any event, we have to ask, what does 'sustainable' mean in this context? Does it include sourcing from vast monoculture plots of Genetically Modified (GM) oil palm trees that are pesticide resistant to the red palm weevil? GM palm trees are on the horizon and about the farthest we could get from an environmentally sound solution. The European Mediterranean Member States recently discussed the control and eradication of the red palm weevil [12] and Malaysia is doing research into genetically modified palm trees. [13] It all points to a continued vast destruction and contamination of the natural environment. [14]

To aid this desperate situation, it is a good plan to map the sustainability of palm oil, which hopefully does not include GM oil palm trees. But much more is needed. Our government officials should use butter and be strong; and get tough on the corporations that are exploiting the use of palm oil by introducing a tax on all products containing or made with palm oil and introducing civil sanctions on the use of non-sustainable palm oil. This would be a focused and a totally justifiable proposition, unlike the proposition to tax saturated fat in food, much of which has professional support for health benefits (such as organic butter as I have shown, but also organic meat, organic whole milk and organic whole cream). The civil sanctions should be high enough not only to be an effective deterrent, but also to help pay for the mapping plan and the enforcement of the sanctions.  By so doing, we will set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Finally, our government needs to get health and nutrition facts straight and advise its citizens accordingly. A healthy diet in the United Kingdom does not require palm oil, and indeed, palm oil is mostly being used in unhealthy food products. Margarine is not a safe substitute for butter. By decreasing our consumption of palm oil, we will increase the sustainability of it immediately, and probably increase our health as well. So, a message to everyone: LOOK at the label, and if the product contains palm oil, please don’t buy it!


1. Global Biodiversity of Business Symposium, Excel, London on 13 July 2010.

2. Spelman, Carolyn, “We must reap the benefits of palm oil, but manage the environmental costs.” The Guardian, 13 July 2010,

3. Food Standards Agency, Eat Well, Be Well, Helping you make healthier choices, Fats and Sugars, Ask Sam,

4. Ingram, Cass, Eat Right 4 Your Metabolic Type, 4 body types – 4 plans for perfect health through balancing the endocrine hormone system, Knowledge House Publishers, Illinois, 2008.

5. “Butter, Vitamin E and the ‘X‘ Factor of Dr. Price” by Royal Lee,

6. “Butter Versus Margarine,” by Lawrence Wilson, MD,

7. Ingram, note 5, pp172-178.

8. For ideas on improving research, see for example “Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods: Considering the Possibilities for Enhancing the Study of Chronic Diseases,” by Ann L Casebeer and Marja J Verhoef, Chronic Diseases, Canada, Volume 18, No.3 -199,

9. “What's best for your bread? Leonie Nimmo chews the fat,” Ethical Buyers Guide to Margarines and Spreads, Jan/Feb 2009,

10. Ibid.

11. The Slippery Business of Palm Oil” by Fred Pierce, The Guardian, 2006,

12. Europa website, Food and Feed Safety,

13. Friends of the Earth report on Malaysia and palm oil,

14. This recent article shows a glimpse of desperation of the situation. “Save The Destruction Of Palm Trees In Nianija” By Fabakary B. Ceesay on 16-02-10 Foroyaa online,