Science, Tech & Environment

French grad student goes palm oil free for a year


Adrien Gontier, a Ph.D student in geochemistry, went palm oil free for a year, but discovered it was in widespread use in countless products. (Photo courtesy of Gontier's blog,

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

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

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, Adrien Gontier, 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.

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.

Nutella in its deconstructed form.

The picture was taken by 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 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 he 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 even Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Gontier notes, though, 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 percent vegetable fuel, and some of that generally comes from palm oil.

Gontier has 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 guidebook, 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.

Maybe something to try at home with the kids.