“Palm oil free”: unlawful labels?

The “palm oil free” label now found on a huge variety of food products is the result of a purely commercial operation with the clear aim of shaking up a market that has been sluggish for years now. By getting rid of an ingredient, companies are convinced they will be able to win over slices of the market from their competitors, masking this aim as a desire to safeguard consumers’ health and protect the environment.

This is entirely false. It is sufficient to compare products that have replaced palm oil with other ingredients to see that there has not always been any improvement in terms of nutrition (click here to compare saturated fats). This is probably why customers are told the products are “palm oil free”, but there is no such emphatic mention of what it has been replaced with.

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In fact, in the USA, in the 1980s, after the war waged on tropical oils by the lobbies supporting other American vegetable oils, it became clear that palm oil could be an ideal alternative to hydrogenated and trans fats, considered dangerous to health and widely used until then. The continued demonisation of palm oil made no sense from a scientific and nutritional point of view. (See here for more info)

If we look at the environment, where palm oil has been accused of causing all manner of natural disasters, the production of this raw material has now reached levels of certified sustainability in almost all the countries where it is produced. So why can’t sustainable palm oil be used, given its ready availability on the market? Turning the question around, we might ask the companies that have replaced it: how sustainable is the fat you have replaced palm oil with? Companies – large and small – do not know the answer. They mumble a confused response about “saving animals”, or launch environmentalist slogans.

At last, even in Italy, we are seeing a ray of hope: the Ministry of Economic Development has issued an official notification on the use of the expression “palm oil free”, which is illegal in the USA. (To read the notification from the Ministry, click here).

According to the Ministry, there must be specific, accurate grounds for the emphatic nature of the declarations by manufacturers on the packaging of food products, aimed at highlighting the absence or presence of certain ingredients. To put it simply: if the words “palm oil free” are present, this must offer an actual advantage for the consumer; otherwise, it is misleading advertising.

Companies are perfectly entitled to change or to remove ingredients, but when such a choice is emphasised, they must be able to demonstrate an objective, significant improvement. In the case of palm oil, as our research shows – download it here – in many products where palm oil has been eliminated, there is little or no improvement. This means that most of these labels are providing consumers with information that is at best inaccurate, with the clear intention of misleading them.

This is also the conclusion reached by the Ministry of Economic Development, which clearly states that consumers must be given complete, exhaustive information in order to be able to make unconditioned choices in complete freedom.

Why is the expression “palm oil free” not permitted in the USA? Because it is considered discriminatory and misleading for the consumer, as established by the US Food and Drug administration, the FDA (find out more here). When will we in Italy start following this positive lead, re-establishing scientific truth once and for all?

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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