“The big ‘free-from’ deception”: Palm oil-free foods higher in saturates and less sustainable, finds study

Food brands are profiting from ‘free-from’ fake news, claims an Italian consumer rights organisation, after its study found ‘palm oil free’ products were higher in saturates and less sustainable than their palm oil counterparts. 

Palm oil is found in a wide range of food and non-food products on supermarket shelves. The ingredient is odourless, high yield, and takes the prize for the most consumed vegetable oil in the world.

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However, when unsustainably sourced, palm oil is far from the perfect ingredient. Irresponsible production has caused mass deforestation and biodiversity loss in the tropics, and is the leading cause of orangutan extinction.

These negative associations, along with focus on palm oil’s high saturated fat content, have prompted some retailers and food manufacturers to phase out palm oil from their supply chains.

The move towards ‘palm oil free’

Rather than commit to sustainable palm oil, a number of retailers and food brands have boycotted the commodity in favour of animal or other vegetable substitutes.

Last year in the UK, Iceland became the first supermarket retailer to pledge to eliminate palm oil from its own label products. Coming at it from a sustainability angle, Iceland said it was phasing out the commodity until “all palm oil causes zero rainforest destruction”. 

In Italy, the first retailer to take the ‘palm oil free’ plunge was one of the country’s largest: Coop Italia. The supermarket cooperative lent on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s concerns that palm oil was less stable – and potentially toxic – at higher temperatures than other vegetable oils.

Italian pasta giant Barilla is another company to have outlawed palm oil from its products. Where palm oil is removed from a products formulation, however, it is invariably replaced with two components: a substitute ingredient and a palm oil free label. It is this free from label that attracted the interest of a consumer rights organisation in Italy.

According to the FreeForChoice Institute, free-from claims are often used to persuade consumers that the absence of one ingredient improves the product in some way. The intention is to communicate that the excluded nutrient should be avoided because it is harmful, whereas its substitutes are better. In a bid to determine whether palm oil free products are in fact more sustainable and lower in saturated fat than their palm oil counterparts, ForFreeChoice conducted a comparative study.

Read the full story by Flora Southey of Food Navigator HERE

For Free Choice aims to promote scientific information and method in public discourse. For Free Choice also defends consumers’ choice rights against the smear and demonizing campaigns which aim to confuse them and benefit specific interests.

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