Several suppliers have told BB that supermarkets have raised the bar on palm oil because of the strong link in consumers' minds between the ingredient and destruction of orang-utan and rainforest habitats. However, cutting palm oil completely in presents technical challenges,
"Retailers are telling us that new products must be palm oil free, while we must work on removing it from all existing lines. It's because of all the press. Consumers see 'palm oil' [on the label] and just think orang-utans and deforestation," said the R&D manager at one bread and confectionery company. "It's very hard to remove palm oil from some products, because there isn't an alternative beyond hydrogenated fats, but nobody wants those. It's crazy."
Hydrogenated fats fell out of favour with consumers and supermarket buyers when health concerns were raised about trans fats, ironically prompting many suppliers to switch to palm oil.
Waitrose told BB that it was "working with suppliers to either remove palm oil where possible or replace it with certified sustainable palm oil", while an M&S spokesperson confirmed that it had asked suppliers to "look for alternatives to palm oil when it is not necessary for the product".
Stan Cauvain, MD of bakery consultancy BakeTran, said ingredients costs could rise with a move away from palm oil. "More importantly product quality will change, if you cannot use trans fats, hydrogenated fats and palm oil. Butter would remain an option, but is a poor incorporator of air. Liquid oils require an emulsifier and you cannot make laminated products with them. End-products would be smaller (with less lift), less tender to eat and would not keep as long."
Paul Morrow, Bakels' purchasing and R&D director, said: "We need to make sure we do not repeat the trans fats situation again. Partially hydrogenated fats contain trans fats, fully hydrogenated fats do not. However, all hydrogenated fats had to come out and were replaced with palm oil. We do not want to go down the hydrogenated fats route again."