French Ph.D Student Gives Up Palm Oil for a Year, Experiments with Recipes

If you eat cookies or cupcakes, or if you even use cosmetics, chances are good that you're consuming palm oil.

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The stuff is everywhere these days, and it's also very controversial.

Oil palm plantations have been blamed for widespread deforestation in Southeast Asia.

Some palm oil growers have begun to clean up their act, but many people think the industry isn't changing fast enough.

Among them is a young Frenchman who set out to go a whole year without consuming palm oil.

Turned out to be a tricky proposition because palm oil shows up in lots of products.

Take Nutella, for example, that creamy chocolate and hazelnut spread that many kids, especially in Europe, eat for breakfast.

A morning at my house may go like this:

ME: Hey what do you boys want for breakfast?

Boys: Nutellaaaaaa!!!!!

Okay, I admit it. My sons Felix and Victor often ask for Nutella on toast, pancakes, and rice cakes.

I asked Felix what he likes best about Nutella and he answered "I'd go with the chocolate part, it's very chocolaty." Victor likes that it's very smooth and creamy.

That creamy-ness comes from palm oil. Not that I ever thought Nutella was a healthy snack. And I do feel a bit guilty letting my children have Nutella so often. But now that I have seen a photo of "deconstructed" Nutella, I may stop serving it altogether.

The picture was taken by Adrien Gontier, a Ph.D student in geochemistry in Strasbourg, France. He figured out the proportions for the ingredients in Nutella, and stacked them in easy-to-see layers in a jar. The visual is pretty striking: thin layers of powdered milk, powdered hazelnuts and cocoa, and a thick layer of sugar, roughly 40 percent of the spread. There's another thick layer … of oil – Nutella's roughly 20 percent palm oil.

Now, palm oil is high in saturated fat.

But Gontier says didn't give up palm oil for a year out of concern for his health.

"It was really because of my concern for the environment," he said. "In fact, I also stopped buying soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, and cleaning products that contain palm oil."

Gontier says he's concerned about deforestation in Southeast Asia where most of the world's palm oil is produced and its impact on biodiversity and water resources there.

So Gontier went palm-oil free last July.

It proved more difficult than he anticipated because many major brands use it. Gontier said he found it in Pringles, Kellogg's and Ferrero—which makes Nutella— Oreo cookies, Nestle, and Häagen-Dazs. Though Gontier notes that palm oil isn't in every product marketed by these brands. But he says many French chocolates, packaged breads, cookies, store-bought pie doughs, sauces and baby-formulas contain it. Gontier even found it in some packaged raisins. He studied labels carefully, but he says it wasn't always possible to tell whether palm oil was an ingredient.

So Gontier's first step was to give up processed foods and cook fresh ingredients at home. And when it came to eating in restaurants, he said he was very selective about his entrees. "I would order a salad rather than dishes with sauce or quiches and other pies," he said.

In spite of all his efforts, Gontier says half way through the year, he realized his car was also a palm oil consumer. Diesel fuel, which is used widely in European cars, can contain up to 10% vegetable fuel, and 1% generally comes from palm oil.

Gontier has now completed his palm-oil-free year, but he still avoids it when he can. He says he plans to write a book about his year, but only after he finishes his doctoral thesis.

For now, Gontier has put together a little guide book .. in French .. on how to steer clear of palm oil products.

And he also came up with a recipe for home-made Nutella.

"I used hazelnuts, cocoa" he said," and agave syrup as a substitute for palm oil."

Gontier says the consistency is just right – not too soupy, not too solid. Just creamy.

Hmm… Maybe something to try at home with the kids.

Recipe for Homemade version of 'Nutella'
This is converted from grams in a French recipe so some slight modifications may be required, adjust to taste.

powdered milk: 25g (about one ounce).

Cocoa powder: 60 g (about 2.5 oz)

Powdered hazelnuts: 95 g (about 3 oz)

Agave syrup: 100 g (roughly 3.5 oz)

Sugar cane syrup: (50 g water et 100g cane sugar) = cane syrup made with 3.5 oz cane sugar and 1.75 oz water.

Gontier says his home-made chocolate and hazelnut spread contains no fat and less sugar than the store-bought kind.

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    Adrien Gontier, a Ph.D student in geochemistry, posing in front of the periodic table. (Photo:

  • nutella_deconstruction.jpg

    Adrien Gontier's own reconstruction of the five ingredients in Nutella, the chocolate hazelnut spread. Starting from the bottom: Powdered milk, powdered cocoa, powdered hazelnuts, palm oil and sugar. (Photo: