Palm oil: The hidden surprise in Easter eggs

Earlier this week, SBS reported on consumer backlash against palm oil in hot cross buns. Today we look at that other culinary staple of Easter -- chocolate.

Earlier this week, SBS World News Australia reported on consumer backlash over Coles and Woolworth's brand hot cross buns containing palm oil. Today we look at that other culinary staple of Easter -- chocolate.

It is the biggest time of year for chocolate sellers. Research from IBISWorld says Australians will spend about 50 per cent more on chocolate over the holiday that during any other week of the year.

There's a lot of focus on chocolate, and in particular what's in it.

A picture doing the rounds on Australian social media lists various Easter products purportedly palm oil-free, collated by the Orangutan Project.

However it's not complete. Some smaller chocolate companies, like Australian chocolatier, Haigh's, use zero palm oil in their products but are not listed. This is a concern for Angela McDougall, policy advisor for consumer watchdog CHOICE.

“They're not on the list and I think they're a growing presence in the retail chocolate market so I think it potentially misleads consumers to rely on a list that isn't necessarily comprehensive,” says Ms McDougall.

When SBS spoke to the Orangutan Project they said they were in the process of re-releasing the list with Haigh's added.

(To find out what the controversy behind palm oil is, click here.)

Ms McDougall says it's “really difficult” for consumers to make an informed choice about buying chocolate because of the lack of mandatory labelling.

She says if there is no vegetable oil listed in the ingredients, or if cocoa butter is present as an ingredient in chocolate, then it's probably palm oil free.

“The concern arises when the ingredient states “vegetable oil”. Some manufacturers will voluntarily say that it's palm oil -- for example Woolworth's says in all of their products if the vegetable oil is palm oil, and they're to be commended for that.

“But otherwise you just wouldn't know. So the message is really if a consumer is concerned about palm oil, they need to be avoiding products that say vegetable oil because they just can't be sure.”

LOW SCORING CHOCOLATE

Among the Easter goodies listed on the Orangutan Project's sheet, are the ever popular Lindt gold chocolate bunnies and Cadbury hollow Easter eggs.

Earlier this week the Guardian reported a survey of over 70 chocolate brands found a number of famous brands -- including Lindt -- ranked poorly when it came to sustainable palm oil use.

The survey, conducted by Ethical Consumer magazine and charity Rainforest Foundation UK, gave only two products full marks (20 points) for not using any palm oil in their products.

Only 23 products scored above 10 -- including industry giant Nestle. Mars, Kraft and Ferrero were some of the more famous poor performers.

Lindt -- who scored just one point -- does however feature in the social media list of palm oil free products.

The Guardian reported Lindt received a low score in the chocolate survey because they allegedly supplied “inaccurate figures” to Ethical Consumer.

Where Lindt product ingredients list “vegetable fats/oils” in a filling, there is a proportion of palm oil included. Plain chocolate and coated chocolate does not contain any.

Lindt chocolate does contain a proportion of palm oil in some of its fillings, but lists the ingredient as "vegetable fats/oils". Plain Lindt chocolate does not contain any palm oil.

Spokesperson for Lindt & Sprungli Nathalie Zagoda told SBS the company is “fully aware of the negative impact of the uncontrolled expansion of palm oil plantations, and we are actively engaged in the area of palm oil,” adding they look for alternatives fats to use in their products and hold all suppliers to a code of conduct.

Lindt & Sprungli are also a member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), however they are not yet certified, still aiming for a 2015 deadline set by the industry-led group.

Cadbury -- who in 2009 switched cocoa butter for palm oil in their plain chocolate, but reversed the decision almost immediately in the face of consumer complaint about the taste -- did not return calls for comment, however a post on the company's Facebook page states the following:

Our Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate is Palm Oil free. For Cadbury chocolates containing fillings, caramel and wafers, for the moment we are unable to make these without the inclusion of small amounts of sustainable palm oil. You can be assured that the palm oil we use in Cadbury products is certified as sustainable. We do not buy crude palm oil and are committed to working with producers, the food industry and governments to develop a viable supply of sustainable palm oil. We buy fats derived from palm oil from specialised suppliers who participate in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) who develop and enforce standards for sustainable palm oil production. Buying sustainable palm oil helps growers and producers work in responsible and sustainable ways to limit their impact on the environment.

Nestlé doesn't make Easter-themed chocolate, but a spokesperson for Nestlé Australia told SBS they do use palm oil in “some” of its products.

“In Oceania, right now over 40 per cent of our palm oil is sustainable and traceable,” said Margaret Stuart, Corporate and External Relations Manager.

Ms Stuart also said the company is on track to meet RSPO goals two years ahead of the 2015 deadline.

“We are working towards a significant increase in the amount of sustainable and traceable palm oil (it takes several months to get an increase in place). The rest of our palm oil is GreenPalm certified.”

INDUSTRY LED SELF-REGULATION 'BETTER THAN NOTHING'

The GreenPalm certificate is an offset trading scheme. Growers of RSPO certified palm oil earn certificates, which can then be traded on the global market with manufacturers who purchase the certificates to offset the non-certified palm oil they use.

The funds go to certified plantations and farmers to increase the use of certified palm oil.

CHOICE acknowledges there is much criticism of the RSPO from action groups because it is an industry-led, self-regulating body, but says it's better than nothing.

“We do support industry commitment where they are trying to do the right thing,” says Ms McDougall.

“But there needs to be a level of transparency and representation of other interests to make it a really countable process. I think there's a level of interest now in palm oil that the RSPO is under the spotlight.

"I think that's a really good thing for consumers because I think there are a lot of groups who are really active on palm oil issue who are carefully watching the RSPO and are likely to hold it to account over the next few years.”

Ms McDougall says until there is mandatory labelling, concerned consumers can call up companies and ask for themselves. CHOICE hopes mandatory labelling will force companies to declare palm oil as an ingredient.

“It would then be up to the company to provide any additional information. I think once you have mandatory palm oil labelling it does put an incentive on companies to source sustainable palm oil and mark it as such.”

Source: SBS

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