French Minister of Ecology Ségolène Royal Wants Us to Boycott Nutella… Do We Have To!?

Nutella’s environmental impact has recently come under scrutiny from France’s Minister of Ecology Ségolène Royal, because one of its main ingredients is responsible for much of the world’s deforestation.

In an interview with Canal+, Royal stated, “We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil. Oil palms have replaced trees, and therefore caused considerable damage to the environment.”

Interview with Ségolène Royal, courtesy Canal+

Royal is partially right, in that palm oil production is often terrible for the environment. Many producers of the stuff cut down countless hectares of oxygen-producing, planet-cooling rainforestry to replace it with oil palm trees, which do very little to benefit global homeostasis.

All this deforestation has had an impact on animals too, including endangered species like tigers and orangutans, by basically destroying their habitats. (Many companies also exploit child workers for cheap labor.)

Why all this damage, just for a vegetable oil?

The reason palm oil has reached such popularity, and subsequently caused so much destruction, is that it’s incredibly inexpensive to produce, and its yield-per-acre is higher than any other vegetable oil currently on the market. Since trans fats have almost entirely been removed from Western diets, food producers needed something to replace them with. Most chose palm oil.

However, oil palms require a specific environment to thrive. It just so happens to be the same climate in which our rainforests live.

Palm oil plantation in Indonesia, courtesy World Land Trust
Palm oil plantation in Indonesia, courtesy World Land Trust

What’s worse, palm oil is in almost everything. Check out your nearest Nutrition Facts sheet — do you see “palm oil” under the ingredients? There’s a fifty-fifty chance that, if you bought it at a supermarket, you will. It’s even found in many non-food products, including body lotions, lipstick, and some biofuels.

So should you stop eating Nutella?

Not necessarily. While Royal’s concern about palm oil is legitimate, she may not have chosen the best target at which to aim.

Last year we reported on an organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which works toward the sustainable production of palm oil by offering strict certifications (that must be renewed every five years) to companies across the globe. Nutella’s parent company, Ferrero, has been a member of the RSPO since 2005.

The certification seeks to limit deforestation, promote best practices, encourage environmental consciousness (for both the natural habitat and surrounding communities), and to commit toward continuous improvement in all aspects.

RSPO’s Eight Principles for sustainable palm oil certification, via Facebook

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Every two years, RSPO releases a scorecard of all member companies to inform consumers of who is and who isn’t doing their part to keep their products sustainable. The last scorecard, released in 2013, gave Ferrero a score of twelve out of twelve (12/12) — a perfect score. Other companies didn’t fare as well. Kellogg, for instance, scored a mere two (2/12) on the scorecard, and withheld pertinent data.

So what SHOULD you be eating?

Well, ultimately that’s up to you, as the consumer. Demand for palm oil is high, so boycotting it altogether may not have a significant impact on the environment. According to Greenpeace, you’re better off seeking products that are committed to traceable, sustainable palm oil.

If you’re a fan of Nutella, that’s good news, because Ferrero is one of the leading companies when it comes to sourcing responsibly produced palm oil. Earlier this year, the company announced they have reached their goal of 100% RSPO-certified palm fruit oil.

Stay informed about which companies are committed to sustainable food production, and stay away from the companies that aren’t.

Here’s a scorecard from the Union of Concerned Scientists that rates the world’s top companies based on commitment to sustainable palm oil.

And here’s RSPO’s 2013 scorecard for its member companies (some of the company names are obscure conglomerates, but if you investigate you may find that you use many of their products).

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