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Q. Dear Umbra,

Recently I’ve been growing more concerned about the rainforest deforestation associated with the palm oil in trans-fat-free margarines. Are there any trans-fat-free and rainforest-deforestation-free butter substitute options for when I’m accommodating my vegan friends (and that I could suggest they use instead)?

Paul
Bar Harbor, Maine

Photo by Angelica.

A. Dearest Paul,

Your question is quite pertinent this week, when our besotted peers are loading up on 58 million pounds of chocolate for their sweeties, much of it packed with palm oil. (Look, here is one guide [PDF] to candy with and without this controversial substance.)

You are accommodating indeed, to be giving so much thought to the edible-spread needs of your vegan friends. Your query leads us down a greasy hillside of deforestation, pollution, human-rights infringements, hydrogenation, and marketing shtick. As a side bonus, however, we get a shamelessly cute video of baby orangutans, and a few promising recipes for homemade vegan “butter.” Yum.

First, for the uninitiated, why are we concerned about palm oil? As every good Girl Scout knows, the cultivation of this crop is causing major devastation [PDF], especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is scorching the earth and unlocking carbon. It is ousting people from their homes. And it is also ousting such endangered creatures as tigers, elephants, and orangutans from their lush habitat. All to satiate the hungers of this “developed” world of ours.

Outrageous, we cry! So we make up our minds: We won’t buy products containing palm oil. But then we learn that almost half of packaged goods contain it, from cookies to pizza, lipstick to laundry detergent. And we further learn that it sometimes goes by secret spy names such as palmitate, stearic acid, and the cleverly deceptive “vegetable oil.” Hard to avoid, this stuff.

But let’s give it our best go. First, do try to find out all you can about the butter substitute you are currently enjoying. Some companies that use palm oil are trying to be transparent about things. Earth Balance, a popular product line among the vegan set, offers a public explanation of its palm-oil position [PDF]. One blogger wrote to several other manufacturers and got these responses. You will commonly find companies touting their membership in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which has been dismissed by many activists as a feel-good cover for companies engaged in bad practices.

If you decide the store brands of margarine aren’t doing it for you, whether on palm-oil grounds or because they contain unhealthy hydrogenated oils, I urge you to look into making your own. All hail Mattie from Veganbaking.net, who offers several recipes for vegan butter, from the basics to beyond (white chocolate butter! kimchi butter!), as well as a thorough description of when and why butter is necessary to life. Most of the recipes I’ve seen contain some form of soy (except for this one), and soy has its own problems. In the words of Grist food editor Twilight Greenaway, “Big Palm versus Big Soy is kind of a toss-up.” But she says organic soy is more likely to be a known quantity at this point.

Hm. What else can you do? For spreads, how about skipping the “butter” altogether and upping the yumminess factor with good old olive oil, avocado, hummus, almond butter, or peanut butter (watch out for palm oil in some nut butters, though). For baking, you can use various vegetable oils as substitutes, or coconut oil. I am no shill for Earth Balance, but they have a coconut spread [PDF] that’s purportedly good for eating and baking. I hear tell that another good option is prune puree. (Note to self: possible stage name.)

Finally, Paul, you might ask your vegan friends for other creative ideas. They’re probably painfully aware of the palm-oil dilemma — and they’ve no doubt developed skills for surviving and thriving in a butter-free world.

Heartily,
Umbra