• Palm sugar is generally regarded as having a sustainable environmental impact. (Getty Images)
'Palm' is a four-letter word these days, but palm sugar isn't produced in the same way as palm oil. And that makes a whole world of difference.
By
Bron Maxabella

15 Aug 2018 - 10:49 AM  UPDATED 20 Aug 2018 - 10:20 AM

Palm sugar may be an integral part of making many Thai and other South East Asian dishes, but seeing the word ‘palm’ on an ingredients list is enough to make many keep browsing. The environmental havoc wrecked by the palm oil industry is becoming increasingly impossible for consumers to ignore.

Palm oil is a top export for both Malaysia and Indonesia, who account for around 86% of the world’s production, but the terrible environmental impact of its production has left the industry in crisis.

Local communities have lost access to land and resources, exploitation of workers is systematic and serious concerns have been raised about the palm oil industry’s child labour practices in Indonesia. 

A 2013 European Commission study estimated that between 1990 and 2008, 5.5 million hectares of forest were lost to palm oil plantations. Footage of orangutans desperately fighting to save their habitat, filmed in 2014 by International Animal Rescue (IAR) went viral on social media last month. Local communities have lost access to land and resources, exploitation of workers is systematic and serious concerns have been raised about the palm oil industry’s child labour practices in Indonesia.

An attempt at sustainable production

In 2003 the first Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was attended by 200 participants from 16 counties with a mission to set global standards for sustainable palm oil. Today more than 3000 members represent every link along the palm oil supply chain, and Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is recognised as having a reduced negative impact on the environment and communities.

The University of Queensland found little difference in environmental, social and economic performance between CSPO certified and non-certified plantations in Indonesian Borneo.

Most of the big producers of everyday products containing palm oil, like chocolate, shampoo, cosmetics, pet food, potato chips and even household cleaning products, are members of the RSPO and claim the CSPO certification. However, Greenpeace released a report in March this year naming the brands which were refusing to disclose where they sourced palm oil from, including Kellogg’s, Mars, Nestle, Johnson and Johnson, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive.

The source of palm oil may be a moot point anyway. Research published in Environmental Research Letters in June by the University of Queensland found little difference in environmental, social and economic performance between CSPO certified and non-certified plantations in Indonesian Borneo.

“Our analysis demonstrates that the desired goals of the program are not being realised,” the researchers concluded. “Considerable modifications need to be made to RSPO certification criteria and their monitoring and evaluation, particularly in regards to environmental and social sustainability.”

Labelling guidelines are inadequate

Adding further to the confusion, due to Australian labelling guidelines, palm oil may not even be listed as palm oil. Generic terms such as “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat” are acceptable, and chances are the "vegetable oil" you buy at the supermarket is pure palm oil, and not necessarily CSPO. The only way to make certain you are not buying palm oil is to buy a product that is clearly labelled as being from another source, such as peanut oil, sunflower oil or canola oil.

Palm oil may not even be listed as palm oil. Generic terms such as “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat” are acceptable, and chances are the "vegetable oil" you buy at the supermarket is pure palm oil.

With all the controversy and ethical considerations, it’s little wonder that Australians have developed an aversion to the word “palm” and many questions whether they should be avoiding palm sugar along with palm oil.

Palm sugar is manufactured differently

In fact, the opposite is most likely true. Palm sugar offers a viable alternative to the palm oil industry for local communities. Unlike palm oil, palm sugar is naturally produced in a sustainable, eco-friendly way, as trees are maintained for their sap instead of being cut down.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the World Bank reported that palms can produce high yields of sugar for up to 100 years of production. The report found that coconut palm sugar is, therefore, a sustainable industry, with a minimal environmental impact when harvested using traditional techniques. In fact, the FAO found that palm sugar tapping produces a more sustainable sweetener than traditional sugar cane farming.

Types of palm sugar

The predominant sources of palm sugar are the palmyra, date, nipa, sugar and coconut palms. Palmyra and coconut sugar are produced from the sap of the flowers. Harvesting palmyra and coconut palm sugar is traditionally done by small, local sugar tappers who climb to the top of coconut palms to collect sap from the palm flowers. Date, nipa and sugar palm sugars are produced from the sap of the tree itself. 

The collected sap is then cooked for several days, creating rich molasses that are left to harden into cakes. The result is an unrefined sugar, containing some useful vitamins and minerals, with a subtle caramel flavour. The longer the sap is cooked down for, the darker and more flavoured the sugar becomes. The Indonesian gula aren is almost black and has a dense, burnt caramel taste.

Unlike palm oil, palm sugar is naturally produced in a sustainable, eco-friendly way as trees are maintained for their sap instead of being cut down.

Boiled sap may be sold as palm syrup (available in Asian food stores), but most palm sugar is available in the form of bricks or cakes (available from Asian food stores and most supermarkets).

Palm sugar has been used in South East Asian and subcontinental cooking for generations. It’s a must for bringing authentic flavour to many favourite Asian dishes like Chinese dumplings, pad Thai, Malaysian sambal fish, Singapore chilli crab, Indonesian peanut sauce and Vietnamese pho.

 

While the transparency of the palm oil industry may be sour, rest assured that palm sugar industry practices have so far been very sweet indeed.

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? This week, The Chefs' Line is all about Thai flavours. Tune in 6pm weeknights to SBS and 9.30pm to Food Network and check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.

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