Fran’s Food Series: Purchase power and palm oil

Fran’s Food Series: Purchase power and palm oil

Fran’s Food Series: Purchase power and palm oil

This blog is the first in my Fran’s Food Series. I have never considered myself a major foodie. However, recently I’ve been drawn to exploring how you can cut carbon emissions through thinking about your food from a different perspective of favouring care over convenience. 

My journey to enlightenment will therefore explore, and try to successfully complete, a series of lifestyle changes that will make eating not just a basic human need, but a thoughtful process. Influenced by The DoNation and its series of DoActions that enables people to sponsor friends through carbon-cutting pledges, I have followed their advice to explore becoming less carbon-consuming, and more carbon-caring, in regards to the environment.

This will include actions such as: eating seasonably; eating more locally sourced produce; cutting major brands from my life, and; convenience versus caring where I’ll cut food wastage (and packaging) by shopping daily for a fortnight, and then shopping only once a fortnight (meaning a lot of forward planning) to compare experiences. I promise not to cut corners, or ostracise oddly shaped aubergines, but embrace my new-found foodie fanaticism.

Some blogs may be exciting and insightful, or political and thought-provoking, whilst others may state the obvious, like eating locally is more rewarding and clearly more sustainable. But, that is the point of this journey; to look at emissions saving through food from the everyday person’s perspective who is slightly carbon conscience, but also enjoys convenience and has to-date let convenience outweigh conscience. Bear with me as this is going to be a learning process and a work-in-progress!

So, let the emissions savings begin!


First instalment: Purchase power and palm oil

Inspiration for the first in my series came from The Malua Biobank, a rainforest reserve set  in the heart of Borneo that seeks to rehabilitate and preserve 34,000 hectares of critical habitat for orangutans and other wildlife. At Life Size Media we’ve been working to promote the reserve, and a key reason for Malau BioBank’s existence is the protection of the precious habitat against the increasing encroachment of palm oil plantations. Sadly, this is an increasing phenomena happening widely across much of Indonesia and Malaysia.

These destructive man-made landscapes are becoming a fast-growing trend as developing nations cash in on the lucrative exports of palm oil to global consumer brands based in developed countries. According to Greenpeace, over 70% of the world’s palm oil production ends up in food.

Hmm…food for thought.

I’ve never been an animal activist – I even admit I’m not a big fan of pets –but having immersed myself in the Malua Biobank project to understand its importance, I have become quite attached to our furry friends, the orangutan.I wanted to see how I could be affecting them through both ignorance and denial by consuming food containing palm oil.

Me dressed as Osmawani Orangutan -a resident of Malua BioBank -at our Christmas partI wanted to see how I could be affecting them through both ignorance, and denial, by consuming food containing palm oil.

I began by researching the palm oil industry and its negative consequences and found a whole host of articles and NGO information pages on the destructive nature of the industry. The Independent posted an article in 201o titled “The Guilty Secret’s of Palm Oil,” which stated that palm oil was used in at least 43 of Britain’s 100 bestselling grocery brands. And, whilst  Malaysia dominates the palm oil market (holding around 45% of its share), its neighbour Indonesia has also been cashing in on palm oil production, leading to 90% of its wildlife disappearing when the forest is replaced by palm plantations, creating biological deserts.

Before joining Life Size Media I had a vague idea of palm oil, but compared to many students who become impassioned by the wrongs of the world, I admit that I was in denial and chose to forget that I knew palm oil was pretty bad for the environment and probably in much of what I ate. Food shopping and morals have not been high on my environmental awareness radar so far. My greatest success previously was vegetarianism for a grand total of 10 days in an attempt to reduce emissions. I’ve also been put off changing my diet because like most people I  know that some of my favourite foods have the worst carbon footprints, like chocolate, but don’t want to have to stop eating it!

My Christmas chocolate collection!

My love for chocolate can clearly be seen by my disgraceful Christmas collection that fills an entire drawer at home! Influenced by an article I read on the sustainability of chocolate (or its lack of sustainability) I have decided to explore how unsustainable some of my favourite foods are and particularly which ones are most guilty of containing palm oil.

So, this time I will not fail and last only 10 days in my efforts to explore my carbon footprint and the impact my food consumption has in distant places. A simple journey to the supermarket has become a more confusing, time-consuming and overwhelming experience than ever before in my hunt to track down palm oil.

To make it a little easier for myself I decided to buy a weekends worth of food that I would usually eat for my three meals a day, plus snacks. Please, don’t judge my diet.

My meal plan:

Breakfast: Kellogg’s Special K Nut clusters, slice of toast from a seedy loaf, plus either Nutella or Flora Margarine, and Alpen.

Morning snacks: Soya yoghurts, Go Ahead fruit bars/slices, fruit.

Lunch: soup, sandwich (usually tuna/chicken), bag of popular brand of crisps.

Afternoon snacks: Doritos, a variety of cereal bars, Cadbury Dairy Milk bar.

Dinner: chicken casserole/pasta with ready-bought tomato sauce.

My verdict?

Well, apparently I could eat over 99% of supermarket food and could easily consume all of my items, because according to the ingredients list, everything contained only vegetable oil. Excellent!

Sustainable or unsustainable palm oil?

I only managed to find one item on my list that stated it contained palm oil and that was Sainsbury’s own brand chicken stock cubes. I picked up the nearest stock cubes (OXO) which contained no vegetable oil, only chicken fat. Easy.

Sainsbury’s estimates that 2,000 of its own brand products contain palm oil, and that only 10% of that comes from sustainable sources  according to an interview with them by the BBC Panorama team. At least they’re honest, but it doesn’t really help the consumer to be able to choose responsibly because the label on the stock cubes didn’t state whether the palm oil was sustainable or unsustainable. Could I have eaten them guilt-free?

Everything else on my shopping list was free from palm oil though, so I could have had free rein of the supermarket but thought it best to err on the side of caution by putting back many suspect ‘vegetable oil’ containing items.

Doing some internet surfing at home, I started to find that many of my items included palm oil but because of UK laws brands don’t have to state they use it. Therefore, in reality at breakfast the only items I could have eaten were Nutella (because their website stated they do not use palm oil) and Alpen (because clearly no one wants oil in their oats)!

Kellogg’s Special K, Unilever’s Flora Margarine and Warburton’s bread were all found to contain palm oil by the BBC and Independent. However, according to Unilever their palm oil is GreenPalm certified which is good as it’s more responsible. But, demand for palm oil by companies such as Unilever to meet ever-increasing consumables production, continues to makes producing palm oil in developing countries so attractive. How well then can we ensure good practice is enforced from headquarters in Europe and the USA just by singing up to certificates, if plantations continue to creep into habitats like Malua BioBank to meet these companies demands?

According to the BBC Panorama investigation, Cadbury, Unilever and Warburtons (plus many more) still aren’t using 100% sustainable palm oil, it simply remains an aim of theirs rather than a definitive target to reach by a certain date (even though for Warburtons that date was 2011 so it has been and gone). Perhaps I will follow up with Warburtons to see how they’re doing?

I found my morning snacks weren’t much better than breakfast. The BBC interviewed Cadbury about their use of palm oil, uncovering that Dairy Milk does actually contain palm oil (even though the packaging only told me vegetable oil). Cadbury – in answer to why palm oil is in its products stated: “The texture and flavour created by this use of vegetable fat is generally preferred by UK consumers.” This seems like a get-out-of-jail-free card to me. I very much doubt consumers would notice a difference if non-palm oil was used. It’s clearly all about cutting costs and with it, consumer purchasing power.

My soup and sandwiches claimed to contain no palm oil once again. My regular M&S tuna sandwich only contains vegetable oil.  Searching for Doritos online, their oil options included soya, sunflower and corn. No mention of palm oil,  but that doesn’t mean that packets stating ‘vegetable oil’ aren’t actually using the blanket description to hide their ‘guilty secret’. My Walkers’ Chicken and Thyme crisps clearly stated only sunflower oil, so I allowed those into the trolley, and none of my cereal bars contained any oil so they passed the test too.

But, most items had to be put back. As most of the items with vegetable oil in are ready-made foods, i.e. crisps, margarine, jarred sauces etc. I realised one’s diet is both limited, but also potentially healthier, by cutting out palm oil. Dairy, meat, fish and fresh vegetables have no ingredients labels as nothing else goes into them. So, along with my non-palm oil stock cubes, my casserole was a delight of veggie and chicken goodness!

However, I felt pretty disappointed after my challenge. I actually felt it wasn’t a challenge at all because had I taken my food at face value, I could have eaten everything except the stock cubes. But, how could I take palm oil seriously and send a message to brands that use of unsustainable palm oil is unacceptable if, like my experience, 99% of products contained only ‘vegetable oil’. Either I was going to go home and starve if I chose not to buy any products containing vegetable oil incase that meant palm oil. Or, I could have had total freedom to pick and choose what I wanted. The hidden nature of palm oil makes it very difficult to understand the extent of its use in consumables and destructive nature.

My battle to avoid palm oil consumption and limit it as best I can does not end here though. As my Fran’s Food Series continues, eating locally sourced produce, cutting major brands from my diet, and eating seasonably may altogether add up to what could be a pretty revolutionary (for me) change in diet and consumption habits. As this was the first installant and a bit of a mish-mash of ideas, hopefully as my series goes on, my thoughts, feelings and journey towards lowering my emissions and understanding how I can reduce my social and environmental impact through eating, will develop a little more succinctly and encourage others to think more about their habits.

Care will hopefully begin to outweigh convenience!


For more information visit Malua Biobank’s website. Click here to visit Malua’s Facebook page and befriend Osmawani Orangutan!


A mini vegan adventure

I shall follow-up next week with a proper, more insightful blog post on my two week vegan challenge but,  for now a few comments will have to do.

I decided to go vegan for two weeks as, after all, my Fran’s Food Series had stated I was going to set myself challenges and this certainly was going to be a challenge! The main reasons for going vegan were to cut my emissions by not consuming dairy or meat products and to explore alternative foods and food consumption practices/places that you would probably overlook at the expense of convenience.

So, here’s a short summary of the good, the bad and the ugly of going vegan:

  • Good: I felt healthier in the second week. I had lots of energy, I didn’t feel that my body was missing out on any key foods and because I was eating lots of natural foods/wholegrains I felt like my body was getting rid of lots of toxins. I also realised how much sugar my diet.
  • Good: I’ve now found lots of alternatives to dairy like rice milk, soy milk (I have now forever given up dairy based coffee drinks) and sunflower spread (which I prefer to butter). Giving up dairy was much harder than giving up meat as I found it to be in absolutely everything that was shop bought. This made me realise just how much dairy society consumes and therefore, how great the impact must be on both the environment and animal welfare. To produce enough dairy to make the multiple products it’s an ingredient in means its production has to be highly unsustainable.
  • Good: I made a very tasty and healthy carrot cake that the Life size Media team devoured very quickly. I shall put the recipe up in my next blog. I’ve realised vegans don’t have to miss out on everything nice!
  • Bad: It was depressing having to check everything I ate. I failed to notice honey in products a number of times. However, I justify consuming honey because I became vegan to cut out dairy and meat for environmental reasons. I also don’t think bees are too guilty of mass greenhouse gas emissions when setting about pollinating flowers and making honey. Please, correct me if I am wrong.
  • Bad: A lot of product replacements for example Tofutti, a vegan cream cheese, contain a lot of oil including palm oil. So, removing meat and dairy form my diet made me feel better but I became increasingly concerned by how much palm oil was in my substitute foods.
  • Ugly: I’m not a huge fan of beans/pulses etc. I like them occasionally but going vegan meant I had to have these a lot more often to source some protein for my body. This I really didn’t like. I now don’t know if I can face baked beans again! Also, I was very hungry in the first week and had quite a few headaches (although I think this was down to poor eating rather than cutting foods from my diet).

Overall, I enjoyed the experience and will elaborate a little more on some of the main issues I found when cutting dairy and meat/fish from my food consumption practices.

So, until next time!