If you are regular shopper at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, chances are you have come across Earth Balance products. Its variety of mayos, spreads, nut butters and snacks are all vegan and, according to the company, contain heart-smart oils. And, like many companies, Earth Balance has long refused to use hydrogenated oils and now sources palm oil instead.
The increased global demand for palm oil, however, has caused its own set of environmental and social problems, from land rights to wildlife habitat destruction to increased carbon emissions. To that end, Earth Balance is in the midst of revamping its supply chain and says its goal is to source only sustainable palm oil by the end of this year.
Earth Balance has decided to join other companies in partnering with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and says it is committed to the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) in order to cease the links between palm oil cultivation, deforestation and human rights violations. In an email exchange with Adriane Little, a director at Earth Balance, we discussed the company’s shift toward sustainable palm oil.
The company currently sources from two palm oil suppliers, from which it has purchased this raw material for three years. A supplier in Colombia provides about 40 percent of Earth Balance’s palm oil, which the company says is 100 percent organic; the rest is sourced from across Southeast Asia. Previously Earth Balance worked with suppliers in peninsular Malaysia. According to Little, the company’s suppliers have already been at the forefront of responsible palm oil production, and Earth Balance will take the relationship a step further by working with RSPO and POIG on third-party auditing and verification. “Once we are confident every checkpoint has been met or exceeded, we’ll be excited to announce that our suppliers are 100 percent in compliance,” Little said.
Of course, the question often comes up: Why use palm oil in the first place? Little explained that Earth Balance receives a bevy of questions from customers every month, many of whom suggest the company just removes palm oil, period.
As is the case with many food companies, Earth Balance has been the target of its share of protests and petitions. Like many of these supply chain dilemmas, the answer is finding the best possible, or least terrible, option. American consumers have long been leery of hydrogenated oils and those ingredients are rapidly disappearing from food products. Interesterified fats, in which an oil's molecules are altered, are also not a palatable option. If you do not understand what fractionation, partial hydrogenation or interesterification means, you do not need to worry unless you keep ingesting them: An advanced degree in chemistry is not necessary to know that such modified oils are bad news for your health.
Palm oil works for companies such as Earth Balance because its consistency -- or, technically, its molecular structure -- keeps soft foods soft and crunchy foods crunchy. (If you can find 100 percent palm oil, try it for cooking: Its high flash-point makes it great for frying anything from chicken to tofu if you do not mind the reddish coloration.)
Earth Balance says it uses 0.05 percent of the world’s palm oil, but nonetheless it seeks leadership on raising awareness of the need to source sustainable palm oil. The trick will be to root out the suppliers that refuse to respect social and environmental concerns while convincing more companies to purchase palm oil from reputable suppliers.
“Our customers and brand advocates expect a lot from Earth Balance, and we hope they are as passionate about this commitment as we are,” Little said. “Furthermore, we are excited about all of the collaboration this commitment will entail and hope to help other brands in our industry take similar steps towards responsible palm oil sourcing moving forward.”
Image credit: Earth Balance
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.