Peanut Butter, Donuts, and Forests

I like peanut butter. It’s delicious on toast and makes for a healthy snack. I often buy the varieties that contain only peanuts and salt to avoid added sugars. The labels say, “oil separation is natural.” Just because oil separation is natural, though, doesn’t mean that it’s not annoying. Those natural peanuts butters take a lot of stirring to mix in the oil. If you don’t stir all the way to the bottom when you first open the jar, then it will be nearly impossible to spoon out the last of the refrigerated peanut butter at the bottom.

In recent years, several brands have released no-stir natural peanut butter. These newer products meet consumer’s desire for convenient, easy-to-use “natural” foods. The no-stir peanut spreads don’t even require refrigeration after opening. I took a look at the ingredient list on a jar: peanuts, sugar, palm oil, salt, molasses. The list is short, which is usually a good sign, and the ingredients are simple. No artificial flavors or hydrogenated oils. But there’s a problem beyond the added sugar. Palm oil is one of those red flag ingredients, linked to deforestation in Indonesia and the exploitation of workers and farmers in that part of the world.

The gut reaction to discovering that a product causes health or environmental problems is often to ban it. Implementing a ban seems like an easy answer that will quickly erase the problem, but the real story is always more complex. If people can no longer manufacture or buy product A, what will they use instead? Product B might be just as bad.

As I mention in my book, Get the Lead Out, the FDA banned the toxic additive bisphenol A (BPA) from plastic baby bottles in 2012. In response, the plastics industry switched to a different additive, bisphenol S (BPS). Both baby bottles and reusable plastic water bottles marketed to children and adults now contain BPS instead of BPA. Unfortunately, BPS also causes health problems. Why not refrain from adding either chemical to the plastic? BPA and BPS are plasticizers that soften the plastic, allowing it to be molded into the desired shape. Without a plasticizer, the plastic would crack during manufacturing.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just published a report on palm oil and biodiversity explaining why banning palm oil will likely result in unintended consequences. It’s a problem when growers cut down tropical forests and plant palms to meet the demand for palm oil. But a ban on palm oil would increase demand for other types of oil sources—rapeseed, soy, or sunflower—crops that require much larger areas of land to grow.

Palm oil appears not only in peanut butter but a wide variety of processed foods and functions as frying oil. When I was researching my book, I interviewed Ryan Kellner, the owner of Mighty-O Donuts, and he told me about his search for ingredients to make organic, vegan donuts. When Ryan started his business in 2003, it was hard to avoid hydrogenated oils, but to get its donuts into stores like Whole Foods, Mighty-O Donuts couldn’t use them.

The industry-standard product at the time was called donut frying shortening, a blend of hydrogenated corn and soy oils combined with various additives. Ryan found the stuff disgusting, so he looked for another option. He found organic palm oil.

As the food industry transitioned away from trans fats, they eventually turned to palm oil because it was similar enough to the hydrogenated oils they knew. Demand for palm oil exploded. Despite trends toward healthier eating, deep-fried foods remain popular. By frying in pure vegetable oil, restaurants boast that their foods are free from trans fats, and their customers feel a little less guilty about eating fries or donuts.

When Ryan heard about the social and environmental problems associated with palm oil, he became concerned and investigated further. He was relieved to learn that the organic palm oil in his stores wasn’t coming from Indonesia. It was coming from South America, from companies with sustainable practices, using acreage that was already farmland rather than cutting down old forests.

According to a 2017 report by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, over 20 percent of palm oil worldwide is “sustainably and responsibly produced.” The IUCN’s 2018 report, however, says that today’s certified palm oil still causes some level of deforestation. Still, certified palm oil is better than uncertified, especially if farmers continue to develop more sustainable farming practices. The authors of the IUCN report recommend implementing government policies that protect the forests and improving consumer awareness in countries that produce palm oil. They also advise against using palm oil as a biofuel, as doing so would increase demand further.

What’s the upshot? Convincing consumers around the world to abandon fried foods is not a realistic option. Banning palm oil will only shift the problem elsewhere and make it worse. Despite its bad reputation, palm oil represents a more efficient use of land than other vegetable oils. The answer is not to make palm oil disappear, but to make it better.

What about peanut butter? The palm oil in peanut butter is such a small fraction of total palm oil consumption that avoiding peanut butter with palm oil won’t make a significant difference. If you’re willing to stir and refrigerate your peanut butter, great. If not, buy easy-to-spread peanut butter with certified organic palm oil and say “no, thanks” the next time a waiter asks if you want fries with that burger.