Why include palm oil in so many products?

This vegetable oil has many properties that make it a particularly versatile raw material: it is solid at room temperature, resistant to high temperatures, particularly during frying, and is highly resistant to oxidation, which means that it keeps longer. In addition, it has a plastic and soft texture that is necessary in many applications. Its relatively neutral flavour also allows use in a variety of applications without altering the taste of these applications.

Moreover, its nutritional profile is relatively balanced compared to many other fats, including butter, which explains why many food producers opt to use this fat.

But the main reason for its use in many products however, is that it is about the only non-hydrogenated natural, solid vegetable fat available in sufficient quantity, most other oils being liquid and therefore unable to provide a solid texture. As such, palm oil was the solution which enabled the replacement of partially hydrogenated fats rich in trans fatty acids, whose harmfulness is well established.

Can we make a margarine without palm oil?

Objectively, no. No other vegetable oil boasts as many combined properties. While there are many other fats with saturated fat levels that are high enough to be used in the manufacture of margarine, their nutritional and/or environmental impacts are no better than palm oil.

From a nutritional point of view first. Given that animal fats are no longer in favour among our customers, particularly because of the “mad cow” food crisis, and hydrogenated vegetable oils are often associated with trans fats (though wrongly when the oils are completely hydrogenated) and therefore a danger to health, there are only a few alternatives to obtain this level of saturated fatty acids required to secure the solid texture of our products. Yet the majority of the possible alternatives, such as coconut oil for example, contain even more saturated fat than palm oil.

And then from an environmental point of view. As, despite cultivation methods that still need to be better regulated, if we want to replace palm oil with any other plant, it will take between 6 to 10 times more farmland to obtain the 65 million tonnes produced annually. In addition, palm oil is a major source of development in South East Asia and Africa.

Is a product with a "No palm oil" label better for my health?

Maybe. Or maybe not… In fact it is not necessarily related to the absence of palm oil in the product. It all depends on the fat that has been used to replace the palm oil. Some of these alternative oils are actually even richer in saturated fat than palm oil. While palm oil may contain significant levels of saturated fats, it is first and foremost due to our excessive consumption of meat and dairy products that we eat too much saturated fat.

The absence or presence of palm oil is therefore not a criterion for defining the “healthy” character, what matters is the overall nutritional composition of the product. This information is found in the table of nutritional values that must now appear on the label of every foodstuff. It is therefore necessary to consult this information to limit consumption of saturated fats.

Many food producers or retailers have decided to play on the controversial nature of palm oil to promote their products by using “no palm oil” labels. Sometimes without ever having previously used them. We, for our part, choose to defend the economical use of palm oil because it is simply the most honest approach towards the consumer.

What is sustainable palm oil?

Sustainable palm oil has to meet a whole series of environmental criteria, but not only. Since 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), groups of companies, NGOs and political organisations have collectively developed a set of criteria to be met to qualify for product certification.

For example, the RSPO certified palm oil has to meet certain environmental principles to protect the fauna and flora of primary forests. Its production must also respect the rights of the local workers and population. “Segregated” sustainable palm oil can also be traced back to its source in order to identify the exact origin of the palm oil used.

At Aigremont, we believe that this RSPO certification is only one step and that the sustainability criteria can be further strengthened. But it is, however, an important and necessary step. It is in this context that we clearly support the use of RSPO certified palm oil but, at the same time, we are among the founding members of the Belgian Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil, which sets out to promote the implementation of more ambitious criteria.

What is the difference between butter and margarine?

Butter is fat of animal origin. It is therefore a milk derivative. Like each fat, butter has its strengths and weaknesses. On average, butter contains 82% fat, constituted of 2/3 of saturated fat. Among its main advantages: taste. At Aigremont, we also use butter in certain mixtures, to combine its properties with those of fat of vegetable origin.

When speaking of margarine, you are talking about a mixture of oil and water (sometimes supplemented with powdered milk but it is not the case at Aigremont). A conventional margarine thus contains 80% fat, generally of plant origin, and 20% water. It is mainly due to the addition of emulsifier in the recipe that the mixing of water and oils becomes possible. Compared to butter, the main benefits of margarine are its plasticity and its modular nutritional profile, which depends on the oils implemented. Some margarines are also used in certain diets to reduce cholesterol.

At the end of the day, each fat has its place in a healthy, balanced diet. The most important thing is to moderate consumption in general and to vary our intake of fat for the body to draw on the benefits of each.