No such thing as a (palm oil) free lunch

Of all the foods that are laden with guilt – palm oil has to be up there at the top. It’s in everything and, as I’m vegan, ‘everything’ is already a vastly reduced portion of what humans can eat. Would trying to cut out palm oil lead to slow (but scurvy-free) starvation eating only fruit and veggies?

I have been on a mission to find a palm oil free margarine as above all else on planet earth, I love Marmite on toast. Giving up palm oil would mean giving up this truly wonderful food combination and that is never gonna happen.

We been using Vitalite since going vegan last October and although it says it uses sustainable palm oil in it, it’s still palm oil.

Finding a palm oil-free vegan margarine is not easy though. I’ve spent ages searching and the only one I can find is this new Natural’ spread that’s just gone on sale in Sainsbury’s but isn’t yet available online.

Before I gave up on the idea of ever being able to enjoy my favourite snack guilt-free, I thought I’d look into things a bit more.

Since starting this blog I’ve been continually surprised by how little I know about what I eat. All I knew about palm oil was that it was very bad for rain forests in South East Asia and that by eating it I was pretty much killing orang-utans with every mouthful.

After a bit of reading, I learned some very interesting things though:

  1. Palm oil produces a yield nine times greater than other oils such as rapeseed and soya. According to the Orangutan Land Trust (and many other sources)“palm oil is the highest-yielding edible oilseed crop, with yields nine times or more than that of other oilseeds like soya and rapeseed. If we were to replace palm oil with other oilseed crops in order to meet worldwide demand, then we will have to be prepared to have at least nine times as much land given over to grow these crops.” Although this is great in theory, crops like rapeseed can be grown pretty much anywhere (my Uncle is a farmer in North Yorkshire and grows it there), palm oil can’t.
  2. It also needs less pesticides and fertilisers to grow compared to other vegetable oil crops.
  3. Beef causes much more deforestation than its three nearest rivals, soy beans (much of which is grown to feed animals), palm oil and wood products. Deforestation for beef = 2.71 million hectares a year, deforestation for palm oil = 270,000 hectares a year.
  4. Boycotting palm oil will do very little as it’s used in thousands of different products. Not using it may make the deforestation problem worse anyway (see point one).
  5. Sustainable palm oil may not actually be sustainable.


The last point is very interesting and also very confusing. Below is what I found out when trying to get to the bottom of whether Vitalite spread actually uses sustainable palm oil.

It says on the packet that it does:

Vitalite packet

But I had my suspicions – if it does contain sustainable palm oil then how can they sell it for less than a pound in some supermarkets? Surely if sustainable palm oil was that cheap, it could be used in everything?

I emailed Dairy Crest and got a standard answer, featuring much of the same information they have on their website:

  • We are working members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), supporting the production and uptake of sustainable palm. RSPO covers the whole supply chain and our suppliers are also members.
  • Since January 2016 all the palm oil we buy comes from RSPO-certified sustainable sources.
  • Our spreads production facility is fully certified against the RSPO certification standard – RSPO Principles and Criteria.
  • We are working closely with our palm supplier which is striving to transform the sector towards more sustainable practices and encouraging transparency throughout the supply chain.

The RSPO sounds like it should be a good thing. I assumed it was the equivalent of having Fair Trade certification but it’s not. It’s a little confusing and a little dodgy – a quick search in Google brings up headlines such as:

RSPO: Completely Worthless, or Just Mostly Worthless?

Sustainable palm oil? RSPO’s greenwashing and fraudulent audits exposed

RSPO Touts Progress on Sustainable Palm Oil, But Critics Aren’t Buying It

Although some of these are from a few years ago, it doesn’t take much looking to find article after article stating how the RSPO isn’t doing its job.

I emailed the WWF to find out what ‘sustainable’ means. I’ve been a member of the WWF and given them £15 month since 2003, when I was snorkeling at Nigaloo Reef in Western Australia and accidentally snapped a stem of coral. i felt so bad about it I’ve been paying the WWF to ease my guilt ever since.

A lady from the WWF messaged me back:

Reply from WWF

So, according to the WWF the RSPO is a good thing, but then they would say that as they helped set it up. I’ve used the WWF’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard before and it is a handy way to quickly see which companies are at least trying to use sustainable palm oil in their products.

Back to Vitalite, I took a look at their parent company’s (Dairy Crest) RSPO submission form. Again, this was super easy to find on the RSPO website. According to the form, Dairy Crest use Mass Balance palm oil.

There are three types of ‘sustainable ‘palm oil:

  • Identity Preserved – sustainable palm oil that’s grown at one certified source and is kept separate from non-sustainable palm oil throughout the whole supply chain
  • Segregated – sustainable palm oil from a number of different certified sources that is kept separate from non-sustainable palm oil throughout the supply chain journey
  • Mass Balance – sustainable palm oil from certified sources is mixed with non-sustainable palm oil throughout the supply chain

The fourth type of palm oil is called ‘book and claim and according to the RSPO website this means:

“The supply chain is not monitored for the presence of sustainable palm oil. Manufacturers and retailers can buy Credits from RSPO-certified growers, crushers and independent smallholders.”

Nope, I don’t understand what it means either, but there is more information on this website and the book and claim credit system seems a little dodgy.

According to their RSPO submission form, Dairy Crest used to use segregated palm oil but now use mass balance. As far as I can see the problem with mass balance is that companies could use 1% sustainable palm oil in their products and still label their packaging as containing sustainable palm oil, even though only a small percentage of it is.

I contacted Dairy Crest again armed with my new knowledge and asked them whether they planned to use Identity Preserved palm oil in future or go palm oil free. This was the reply:

Good afternoon Sarah
Thank you for your email and comments which I will forward to our Marketing team.
As advised in our Position Statement we are committed to RSPO and reducing deforestation.
Thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.
Kind regards
Consumer Care Advisor
Julie isn’t giving much away and I’m not quite sure why she’s passed my comments to the marketing team, but I feel I’ve reached a dead end with Dairy Crest.
So, what’s the conclusion to all this confusion?
It’s taken me two weeks to write this blog post but I have a plan of action:
1. Stop buying margarine with palm oil in it, including Vitalite. I just can’t see that a spread that costs less than £1 is going to have much sustainable palm oil in it. Also, I makes me angry that companies can get away with saying their products use sustainable palm oil when really, consumers (and the companies themselves probably) have no idea how much of the palm oil in the products is actually sustainable.
2. Buy a packet of Naturli’ from Sainsbury’s to try. Hopefully it won’t be a million pounds and it will taste nice.
3. Look at reducing how many products we buy with palm oil in them. I’ve found some palm oil free cleaning products that don’t cost a fortune.
4. Write to the brands that we use that have non-sustainable palm oil in their products and ask them to stop. I know, one email won’t make a difference but it’s better than doing nothing.


I bought some Naturli’ and it didn’t cost a million pounds but it did cost £1.80 for a small tub which is pretty pricing but not surprising.

I tried it and it was OK, not amazing, not awful but just, OK.

Mediocre toast

It has the creaminess of butter but not the taste and, compared to Vitalite, the texture is dry and not very melty.

But it’s palm oil free so I’m going to stick with it until the next brand brings out their version of palm oil free vegan spread.

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