These folk are hewers of trees and hunters of beasts; therefore we are their unfriends, and if they will not depart we shall afflict them in all ways that we can. - J.R.R. Tolkien
I’ve been open about the fact that Big Spoon Roasters is, in many ways, a reaction to the over-industrialization, homogenization, and commoditization of our food system, and of my beloved peanut butter and other nut butters, in particular. I’m no luddite, though, and I recognize (as any rational person should) that scale and efficiency mean important progress if we are talking about improving the systems that feed our communities in sustainable, humane ways. The day I had the idea for Big Spoon Roasters, I realized that all of the peanut butters available to me at even the best specialty and natural food grocers fell into one of the following categories:
- Unbalanced and/or bland in flavor
- Not fresh, e.g. not freshly roasted and/or milled
- Too sweet due to added sugar, corn syrup, or processed honey
- Containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, aka Crisco, used to decrease natural oil separation and sabotage otherwise good nutrition.
- Containing palm oil, which, like hydrogenated corn, cottonseed, and soy oils, is solid at room temperature and used to decrease oil separation.
Why was palm oil an issue? This is the subject of this post.
The palm oil used in nut butters is in its oxidized (processed) form, which means that it not only provides zero useful nutrition or flavor, it also could have negative health effects. Processed palm oil has been linked to psychological and biochemical health issues, including reproductive and organ toxicity, impacting the function of kidneys and lungs. Read more about the science behind these findings, peruse this free article by the Plant Foods for Human Nutrition journal.
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Palm oil is specifically chosen by nut butter manufacturers for its neutral flavor. It is simply added as a low-cost way to halt natural oil separation and as a filler to boost margins. From the FDA: “Where peanut butter must be at least 90% peanuts, peanut spread is less than 90% peanuts (usually around 60%).” That leaves a lot of percentage points for hydrogenated oils and/or palm oil.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit, which grows on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms originated in West Africa and they tend to flourish wherever it’s hot and humid. They were brought to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 20th century, and production expanded with the British industrial revolution, which created more demand for the cheap, edible oil. In 1910, 250,000 tons of palm oil were exported annually from Southeast Asia. Today, it’s close to 70,000,000 tons, and 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Thanks in large part to a growing demand for “no stir” nut butters, worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double again by 2050 to 240 million tons. New plantations are being developed and existing ones are being expanded in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Asian countries, as well as in Africa and Latin America. Unfortunately, little regard is being given to sustainability in palm oil production, and this expansion comes at the expense of tropical forest – which forms critical habitat for a large number of endangered species.
Production = Environmental Tragedy
Conditions around palm oil production are far from pretty. In fact, the situation is ugly and getting worse. The palm oil industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers in less than 3 years. Currently, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered critically endangered because of this unsustainable development rapidly encroaching on their habitat.
Animal Welfare Toll
More than 300,000 different animal species live in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, and many of them are injured, killed, or displaced during deforestation. Additionally, palm oil development increases accessibility of animals to poachers and wildlife smugglers, who capture and sell the animals as pets, use them for medicinal purposes, or kill them for their body parts. This destruction in the name of cheap convenience is therefore not only a conservation emergency, but also a major animal welfare crisis. The beautifully charismatic orangutan, which has become an icon for deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra, is also at the center of the palm oil crisis. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and as such, is considered “a conservation emergency” by the UN. An estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year for palm oil development. According to WWF, the orangutan is a “keystone species” that plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Government data has shown that more than 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades, which represents a period of rapid growth in the U.S. consumption of palm oil in so-called “natural” and “specialty” nut butters. However, the orangutan is not the only species affected by palm oil development, as their situation represents the story of thousands of other species facing the same fate in Southeast Asia.
Other animals that suffer as a result of this development include species like the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard, and Proboscis Monkey. Road networks that are constructed to allow palm oil plantation workers and equipment access to the forest also increase accessibility of these areas to poachers that are looking for these kinds of valuable animals. This allows poachers to comfortably drive to an area to sit and wait for their target where previously they may have had to trek through inaccessible areas of forest.
Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change. The widespread removal of the native forests for palm oil development involves burning timber and forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere and making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
Human Welfare Toll
Palm plantations are often promoted ways of bringing development to poor, rural regions communities, but in reality, the industry has had devastating impacts on the people in these areas. In many cases, palm oil producers have been allowed by governments to take the land owned by indigenous peoples for their own financial benefit. The palm oil industry is also linked to major human rights violations, including child labor in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, where children are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours a day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion, cuts, and bruises from climbing thorny oil palms are commonplace in this harsh environment. Typically, children receive little or no pay for their efforts.
Sustainable Palm Oil? Not So Fast
“Sustainable” palm oil claims have arisen recently to represent an approach to oil palm agriculture that aims to produce palm oil without causing deforestation or harming people. However, “sustainable palm oil” has rightly been under fire for several years from environmentalists and organizations that have compiled evidence that such claims are nothing more than greenwashing schemes.
Unfortunately, as of a 2022 update to this blog post, the "sustainable palm" lobby has only grown stronger. For an ingredient that adds zero nutrition, zero flavor, and zero textural benefit to what should be a simple, natural food, palm oil has a tremendously strong and deep-pocketed industry behind it. By far the most well-known and well-funded "sustainable" palm organization is the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), formed in 2004. The RSPO is a not-for-profit organization and currently the largest sustainability-focused organization within the palm oil sector. Not until 2018, after years of public outcry, did RSPO's standards ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations. RSPO's standard now adopts the High Carbon Stock Approach, which we applaud, but a true commitment to reversing the damage done by the deforestation and environmental catastrophes caused by the palm plantation industry would involve advocating for shrinking the demand for palm in food products like nut butter, where it has no place. Consumers who care about wildlife and the health of our ecosystem should not accept the presence of palm oil in nut butters as the status quo.
How can we help?
Read labels, educate yourself on where your foods come from, make the most responsible decisions you can, and “vote with your wallet” to support businesses aligned with your values. Please also choose nut butters that might need stirring once in a while. Your taste buds, doctors, and planet will thank you.
Co-Founder & President, Big Spoon Roasters