Friday, September 17, 2010

What's On Your Cupcake? Veganism and the Problem with Palm Oil.

"What if a monkey made you a sandwich? Would you eat it then?"

This always makes me laugh, but it's a similar question I'm asking today: "What if primates and other animals were routinely displaced, even killed, for your cupcake. Would you eat it then?"

Reader Shell recently wrote: I have been reading bad (really bad) things about palm oil not being vegan-friendly (has to do with the harvesting and the wipeout of the habitat of many animals). Have you heard of this? I usually use Earth Balance margarine for so many things, including baking, but it has palm fruit oil! Can you recommend a margarine and shortening?

As I read her question, I realized that no, I couldn't recommend products I felt really comfortable with. And further, I knew about the habitat destruction caused by palm oil, and continued to ignore it.

Palm oil is derived from the oil palm tree, which has been grown in West Africa for hundreds of years, and became widely used in Southeast Asia in the 1960's. It comes in two forms: palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the seed, and palm fruit oil, which comes from the surrounding fruit (the palm is structured similarly to an avocado). In its natural state, palm oil has a reddish cast, due to its high beta carotene content, but most palm oil we buy is bleached and colorless. Prized for its texture, the oil is frequently used in vegan shortenings, margarines, and baked goods. If you buy any vegan margarine or non-hydrogenated shortening, vegan dessert with frosting, or commercial vegan cheese, you're probably consuming it.

But that's not the end of it. Palm oil plantations are notorious for habitat destruction, particularly in areas which support many times more species than North American forests. Numerous species, most notably orangutans, are affected by the deforestation that makes these plantations possible. And palm oil is widely used for biodiesel, which isn't necessarily so green after all. Groups like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, are working to create guidelines for an otherwise fairly unregulated industry, but "sustainable" is often difficult to define, and doesn't always include standards of care for animals. For more details on the issue, including some excellent links, read this article from

No disrespect to the many cupcake hipsters out there (I count myself among them!), but this is an issue vegans can't overlook. I first heard about it several years ago, when faced with a table of activists discussing the problems with palm oil. "Well, I'm vegan," I told them, "so, you know, the damage I do to animals and the environment is pretty minimal." They patted me on the back for a good decision, and my conscience was pacified. For a while.

But my argument--that I wasn't doing any direct harm--was weak. As vegans, or as generally conscious people, we're always moving toward a life that is more compassionate, more true, and more liberating (for all). It's nice to believe we've arrived at the crux of right living, but there's always room for growth. Even if our diets are stellar, we can always rely less on animal products (like those involved in ground and air transport), make better vegan food, and stand up to things like sexism, racism, and speciesism, which are all so connected.

In response to Shell's question, I contacted several companies which use palm oil in their popular vegan products, asking something like the following:

I really enjoy [your product], and have become more interested in the use of palm oil in vegan foods. In many cases, it sounds like forests are cleared to facilitate palm growth, which often results in the displacement or death of primates, elephants, and bird species. As a vegan--who often uses palm oil products--this poses an ethical issue. I wonder if you would comment on this, and on any practices [your company] has to prevent deforestation and habitat loss. Thank you!

Here are the responses I received:

From Jungle, makers of Jungle Organic Non-hydrogenated Shortening:

Hi Joy,

Thank you for your interest in our Jungle products and for taking the time to write. Your questions are very important to us and I will certainly help as best I can.

Rest assured all of our products are fair trade certified. The forests from which we get our oil from are sustainable and diverse, we do not support plantation grown oils. This would include protecting animal species and plant diversity in the forests.

I hope you find this information useful. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.

Best regards,
Bethany Medieros

Note: Jungle Shortening is made from a mixture of organic palm and sunflower oils. All of Jungle's other palm oil products are sourced from West Africa, where palm oil has been harvested small-scale for generations. Although not noted specifically above, their shortening is also sourced from West Africa.

From Spectrum Organics, which is owned by Hain Celestial, makers of Spectrum Organic All Vegetable Shortening:

Dear Ms. Tienzo,
Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding our Spectrum Product. We strive to maintain the highest quality products and appreciate your patronage. The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., a leading natural and organic food and personal care products company, is committed to protecting the environment and reducing our environmental footprint. There is considerable and growing awareness that some products derived from oil palms come at a significant cost to the global environment. Of primary concern is the tropical deforestation associated with increasing palm production in certain countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Deforestation is thought to contribute heavily to global climate change, destruction of endangered species’ habitats and the displacement of indigenous and local communities.

Given the complex nature of the palm market, sustainable initiatives are most effective when undertaken at the international level and all participants in the supply chain practice environmental conservation and sound land management through sustainable planting, harvesting and processing systems in a manner that is sustainable for economic, social, and environmental viability. Hain Celestial palm oil suppliers are affiliated with globally recognized environmental programs such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), ProForest and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

Palm oils and/or palm derived products used and marketed by various Hain Celestial brands are obtained from sources that support organic and/or sustainable palm practices, which protect natural forests and wildlife. For example, Spectrum Naturals® products come from organic oil palms grown in Colombia on lands that were previously used for agricultural purposes (cattle, rice, bananas, etc.). As we acquire new brands and businesses, we thoroughly review all new suppliers to ensure compliance to our stringent standards.

Hain Celestial supports concern for the environment and will continue to work toward having all our palm oil suppliers participate in globally-recognized or other independent certification environmental programs. As a leading manufacturer, marketer and seller of natural and organic food and personal care products, Hain Celestial will continue to increase our efforts to minimize the environmental impact of all of our products.
Thank you for your continued support. If we can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact us at 1-800-434-4246, Monday through Friday from 7AM - 5PM Mountain Time.

Consumer Relations Representative

From Tropical Traditions, which sources their palm oil from Africa (where palm oil has been traditionally grown for generations in a sustainable manner) and South America (where the trees are grown in areas previously used for cattle grazing or banana crops). The palm oil used in their shortening is from South America:

Hi Joy,

Thank you for contacting Tropical Traditions! Palm oil comes from a tropical palm tree (elaeis guineensis - NOT the same as coconut palm trees), which is native to the tropical areas of Africa, where it grows wild. It is a traditional oil used for more than 5000 years in African countries, where small-scale family farms flourish. The palm oil palm was introduced to South East Asia in the early 1900s, and Malaysia is now the world leader in exports of palm oil (Tropical Traditions does NOT source palm oil from there.) Being an introduced crop to Asia, they are mainly harvested from large plantations. Tropical Traditions Virgin Palm Oil comes from West Africa, NOT South East Asia. Our Virgin Palm Oil is produced by small-scale family producers in Africa that are certified organic. When you purchase Tropical Traditions Virgin Palm Oil, you are supporting small scale family producers in Africa, and NOT large corporate plantations in South East Asia. You may read more about the history of palm oil here:

I hope this has been helpful. If you have additional questions, please reply to this email or contact us at our toll free # 1-866-311-2626 ext. 2 and a representative will be happy to assist you. If we’re busy helping other customers, please leave a voice message with your name, phone number and a convenient time to reach you, and we will return your call.


Tropical Traditions Customer Service

I sent a number of emails to GFA Brands, makers of popular Earth Balance spreads and shortenings, but have yet to receive a reply (other vegan bloggers have had similar experiences). Maybe some of our readers will have better luck; Earth Balance can be contacted at 201.421.3970 or If you receive a response, please share it in the comments.

If you're also concerned about corporate ownership of "organic" and "natural" companies, or wonder who owns your favorite organic products, check out this handy Organic Industry Structure chart.

While the palm oil in some shortenings may be more sustainable than plantation-grown oil, the same isn't always true for commercial vegan cheeses. Many of them contain palm oil, and the origin is often unclear. Vegan cheese is convenient, but making your own is economical, easy, and delicious. Try my recipes for Chévre, Cayenne Crumb Baked Macaroni, Cashew Nacho Sauce, or ferment your own cheese. There are numerous cheese recipes out there, from Joanne Stepaniak's The Uncheese Cookbook to Tanya Petrovna's excellent house cheese from Native Foods. Make your own, and you'll forget those oil-laden, packaged versions even exist.

If you do choose to abstain from palm oil products altogether, there are plenty of alternatives.

This is a terrible option, so I'll get it out of the way first thing. Crisco is entirely plant-based, and made of a blend of cottonseed and soybean oils, which are hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature. (For more information on hydrogenation, read here.) It's awful stuff, but Crisco is vegan, and widely available.

Coconut Oil
For glazes and spreads, coconut oil is an excellent alternative. It can be used any time melted shortening or melted margarine is called for, particularly in sweets and baked goods, and provides fat in a surprisingly healthy medium.

For coconut-based frosting recipes, check out Erin McKenna's Babycakes Cookbook, from the bakery of the same name. I can't speak for the home recipes (reviews are mixed, and readers claim results can be inconsistent), but the in-house frostings at both LA and NYC locations are creamy, delicious, and free of palm oil.

Olive Oil
For savory uses and adding flavor, extra virgin olive oil is without rival. While it's hardly ideal for applications like frying (the smoking point is too low), good quality olive oil is the perfect adornment for your foccacia, mashed potatoes, or savory biscuits. It doesn't spread like vegan margarines do, of course, but a fresh, sharp olive oil will have you rediscovering the joys of dipping in no time.

Here's my favorite olive oil dip, which can also be spread on cut halves of ciabatta and baked for a classic garlic bread.

Garlic Infused Olive Oil
about ½ cup

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped mixed fresh herbs (rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme), or 1 ½ teaspoons dried
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon fresh pepper

Combine all ingredients, and drizzle or dip as you like.

Other Vegetable Oils
These include soybean, canola, peanut, and safflower. Palm-based shortening is excellent for deep-frying, but many refined oils yield comparable results. When used in baked goods, vegetable oils like canola can easily replace shortening or vegan margarine (use just slightly less than the amount of shortening or margarine called for).

Look for organic vegetable oils, as most non-organic crops used for oil are genetically modified. To go a step further, seek out expeller pressed or cold pressed oils, which are processed without the use of harsh chemicals or high temperatures.

Whipped Coconut Cream
Skip the vegan margarine on your pancake in favor of a more humane--and more decadent--option. Whipped Coconut Cream is surprisingly sturdy, and can also be used on cupcakes and desserts where conventional shortening-based buttercreams are called for. For a chocolate version, fold sifted cocoa powder into softly whipped cream, or try a smooth coat of Ganache for the perfect finish.

Raw Cashews
Raw cashews can be soaked and blended to make thick, spreadable buttercreams and frostings. A cashew buttercream is the perfect match for raw desserts (it's featured generously on the Carrot Patch Cake below), but it works on your cooked desserts too. I sometimes use this on fresh baked cinnamon rolls instead of tofutti-based cream cheese frosting, and no one guesses its raw.

Lemon Cashew Buttercream
about 5 cups
3 cups raw cashews, soaked for 1 hour or overnight, and drained
2 cups (about 20) pitted Medjool dates, soaked for 15 minutes and drained
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 ¼ cup water

In a blender (a high-speed blender is the very best tool for this), process cashews, dates, fresh lemon juice, zest, and about half the water until very smooth. Add remaining water, and blend again. The consistency should be just softer than a conventional buttercream; it will thicken slightly when refrigerated. Cover and refrigerate at least 20 minutes or until ready to use.

So, what do you think? Are palm oil-free alternatives good enough? Are these company's responses good enough? And will you do anything differently? After researching all of this, I feel squirmy about something I once found so easy to overlook, and more compelled to seek out alternatives. How about you?