Couple put palm oil in the spotlight

Eileen and Cecil Segar Braudo

Palm oil is unhealthy and unethical, say ninety-something-year-old food lovers Eileen and Cecil Segar Braudo.

Tripping over each other’s words with a pile of Gourmet magazines between them, the Green Point couple is boycotting products that contain palm oil.

For over a year they have approached food producers and supermarkets in their quest to find food, and other items, made without palm oil, but have received “no joy”.

Ms Segar Braudo says they started scrutinising the ingredients on packaging after noticing a change in taste of favourite brands of wholewheat bread, cream crackers, ginger biscuits and chocolate – except for imported brands. They were horrified to find they all contain palm oil, she says.

Now the Segar Braudos say they are losing weight because they cannot find food and restaurants that don’t use it.

Berna Harmse of Panorama Dietitians says palm (olein) oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the palm tree fruit. It’s the fat often used in take-away shops and restaurants in South Africa, she says. She recommends that it’s better to use an alternative, such as canola or sunflower oil. Palm kernel oil is often used for baking of biscuits in the commercial industry, she says.

Hayley Cimring, senior dietician at the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA, says palm oil is better than butter and industrial-made fats such as lard, but sunflower and canola oil should be the first choice.

Steve Wilson, of Claremont, has been dealing in edible oils for 20 years and says he won’t deal in palm oil. Massive tracts of virgin forest in Borneo and surrounds have been destroyed to make way for palm plantations, he says. This loss of habitat has resulted in orangutans being added to the critically endangered list.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species, global palm oil production is affecting over 193 threatened species.

Mr Segar Braudo says South Africa is using its foreign currency to import palm oil and people are losing jobs when we could be using locally produced oils.

Palm oil trees, Elaeis guineensis, are native to Africa, says Elizabeth Clarke of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), but 85% of global supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. And increasingly in equatorial countries in Africa and South America. Palm oil plantations cover 20 million hectares, the equivalent of five Switzerlands.

Mr Wilson says fast food chains use palm oil to deep fry their foods, because it’s cheaper and lasts longer and it has a better “mouth feel” (when warm). He adds that it’s not available on supermarket shelves because consumers don’t need long frying life.

It’s extremely versatile, says Ms Clarke. A look at packaging shows that palm oil is in almost everything, from biscuits and bread, baby food, pastry and chocolate to washing powder, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and lipstick.

It is semi-solid at room temperature, she says, so can keep spreads spreadable, lipstick smoother and keep ice-cream from melting. It has a longer shelf-life, is stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy, crunchy texture and it’s odourless and colourless.

Ms Clarke says palm oil production destroys the habitat of orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos. Also, the conversion of carbon rich peat soils are throwing out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change.

Chairperson of Beauty Without Cruelty SA, Toni Brockhoven, of Table View, has a slightly different take on the matter. “Many argue that the environmental destruction palm oil causes makes it unacceptable, but this is a huge oversimplification of an incredibly complex issue. To start with, the sheer size of the human population is such that no matter what we eat, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid some sort of environmental impact. So we have to look at the most effective ways to reduce that impact – and singling out specific plants is not necessarily the answer.

“Palm oil is not the drive behind rainforest destruction, as only 3% of cleared Malaysian rainforests were replaced with palm oil and of that, 80% of the product produced from the plantations are used as livestock feed. If you want to see where the Malaysian rainforests have gone, you’ll find it in the cardboard packaging of cereal boxes, and furniture, because it’s timber that’s the main drive of the forest clearing.”

Mr Segar Braudo says they contacted manufacturers and supermarket chains but no one returned their calls.

Pick * Pay says any product containing palm oil is clearly marked on their labels. As an example, most bread use very little palm oil, which assists with shelf life.

Woolworths food technologist, Latiefa Behardien, says palm oil trees have the highest yield per hectare compared to canola, sunflower or soy. It also provides livelihoods for around 4.5 million small-scale producers in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Trees don’t need to be cut down to produce palm oil. Ms Clarke says in 2002, WWF began negotiating with palm oil producing traders, manufacturers, NGOs, banks and investors. In 2004 WWF facilitated a meeting resulting in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which has over 3 000 members who are responsible for half the world’s production.

Ms Behardien says they were the first South African retailer to join the RSPO, in 2011. They use about 3 500 tonnes of palm oil annually in various Woolworths food products, she says, just over 90% is certified sustainably sourced.

Pick n Pay says, as a member of the Consumer Goods Forum, they are committed to sustainable sourcing of commodities such as palm oil and working with its supply chain to mitigate impact on deforestation. Pick n Pay is working with suppliers to see they are certified members of RSPO by the end of 2022.

“We have also committed to ensure that all palm oil, palm kernel oil or palm oil derivatives used in Pick n Pay branded products are sourced from sustainable palm oil suppliers by the end of 2021.”