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The only way is ethics: avoiding unsustainable palm oil

Categories: Behind the stalls

Zoe Roberts on the devastating impact of industrially-produced palm oil—and how companies like her stall, Butter Nut of London, are finding tasty and ethical alternatives

Elaeis guineensis; hydrogenated palm glycerides; stearic acid; sodium kernelate. These are just four of the dozens of names palm oil appears under. Like Moriarty, this versatile yet potentially destructive crop assumes a different guise with almost every product in which it appears. “It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the products you find in the supermarket contain palm oil,” says Zoe Roberts of Butter Nut of London, her nut butter stall in Borough Market.

As well as priding herself on the flavours of her nut butters—almond and coconut; cashew, maple and turmeric; ABC (that’s simple, smooth peanut butter); hazelnut and cacao—she is proud of their ethical credentials. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked. “The reason I set up Butter Nut was because I loved peanut butter, but thought I could be more creative. I’ve always tried to make ethically-conscious decisions about what I buy, so my business was always going to take that path—but it did prove complicated.”

Finding nuts that had been produced organically and sustainably, from suppliers who paid and treated growers fairly, was just one of several obstacles en route. Another was industrially-produced palm oil: beloved of the vast majority of peanut butter brands you will have seen in supermarkets for its ability to bulk out more expensive ingredients (the nuts) and for its effects on the texture.

A science and an art
“If you think of the peanut butter brands of your childhood, they have a smooth, thick texture which is easily spreadable.” That texture isn’t created by the nut blend itself, Zoe continues, but by the addition of oil—and palm oil, being relatively cheap, is the most popular. “It also extends the shelf life and brings down the cost.” Recreating that characteristic peanut butter texture without the use of oil has been no mean feat, she says. “I’ve done a lot of experimenting: different temperatures, roasting times, salt—I’ve even tried raw nuts,” she says. “It’s a science as much as an art, to perfect it.”

There is nothing wrong with palm oil, per se. Indeed, it has played a fundamental role in west African cuisine since time immemorial, used—like olive oil—as both a cooking fat and a flavouring. Sustainable, small-scale production is both possible and—particularly in those traditional heartlands where it remains an everyday staple—prevalent. The problem comes from industrial-scale producers seeking to meet the western food giants’ increasingly insatiable appetite for its oily gifts. “That has huge environmental and social impacts,” says Zoe. “It only really grows in a tropical environment, so to be able to meet this growing demand there is deforestation on a large scale in places like Borneo and Sumatra.”

The effects of this are felt not just for the forest itself and the extraordinary biodiversity of its flora, but for the animals living there. “Orangutans are the most well-known,” says Zoe, sadly. Indonesia and Malaysia, home to the largest, albeit rapidly dwindling populations of these vividly-hued primates, have also become the world’s biggest producers of palm oil, with devastating consequences for the ancient, radiant rainforests for which they are more popularly known. And there’s worse still.

Greenhouse gases  
“After the trees have been cut down, they are burnt—releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Zoe continues. Indeed, reports suggest deforestation contributes toward a staggering 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Not only does the burning of each tree release carbon stored inside it, it reduces the forests’ capacity to absorb, in much the same way as smoking does your lung capacity. Then, you’ve soil erosion, Zoe adds. “Without the dense low-level flora of the rainforest to hold it in place, all that top soil gets eroded and washed away.”

If it sounds like an unmitigated environmental disaster, it is. But there is hope, in the form of Zoe and other producers who are either finding sustainable sources of palm oil or eschewing it altogether. “It’s the most commonly asked question: is there palm oil in your nut butters?” she says. “People are more informed now than they were even a few years ago.”

If a prospective customer questions why her peanut butter is so much dearer than those household brands, she takes them through it: the sourcing of the nuts, their ethical and sustainable credentials, the fact she uses “neither refined sugar, nor butter, nor palm oil.” She tells them about the ramifications of unsustainable palm oil production. Then, if at the end they decide not to buy, “at least it’s an informed choice,” she says simply—“but most of the time, people are actively seeking out delicious, ethical alternatives.” At Butter Nut, they can’t go far wrong.