Last updated: May 2016
Ethical issues concerning vegetable oil, rapeseed oil and sunflower oil
Supermarkets dominate the market for cooking oils, accounting for around 60% sales. They have been included on the score table along with the most widely available brands plus some innovative ethical alternatives.
Sunflower oil, vegetable oil and virgin/extra virgin olive oil are still the most widely bought oils purchased by 45%, 43% and 40% of consumers respectively. However, there has also been an increase in the number of people purchasing niche oils such as rapeseed and coconut.
Vegetable oil refers to plant-based oil, which may include one or a number of the following: rapeseed, soya, sunflower or safflower oil, and any other vegetable oil.
A survey of all the vegetable oil brands in this report reveals that they are all actually made from rapeseed oil, with the exception of KTC and Flora.
It is for this reason we have decided to include the rapeseed oil brands on the table with the vegetable and sunflower brands.
KTC’s vegetable oil is soya bean oil produced from genetically modified soya.
Flora’s Cuisine vegetable oil is made from a combination of rapeseed, linseed and sunflower.
Sunflower oil is just produced from sunflower seeds. It supplies more Vitamin E than other vegetable oils. Until recently sunflower oil, which is high in polyunsaturated fats, had been assumed good to cook with. However, a report released in November 2015 by scientists suggested that cooking with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower released toxic chemicals linked to several diseases.
In January 2015, The Grocer magazine produced a special report on oils which stated “more niche oils such as rapeseed are now becoming increasingly mainstream and a real threat to olive oil’s positioning.” A Telegraph article later that year stated “Goodbye, olive oil: why we’ve all fallen in love with rapeseed.” It reported that UK sales of rapeseed “rose by more than 24 per cent in the year to March 2015, while sales of sunflower oil, vegetable oil and extra virgin olive oil fell.” Rapeseed, it claimed, was the UK’s fastest growing vegetable oil.
The rise of speciality rapeseed oil has largely been driven by the different processing methods used, such as cold pressing, compared to the more common version which is likely to have been highly refined.
It is also claimed that rapeseed oil is a healthier alternative to other more commonly used oils. Rapeseed oil contains 50% less saturated fat than olive oil. It is also high in monounsaturated fats, is a rich source of vitamin E, a natural antioxidant and contains plant sterols.
British rapeseed oil and neonicotinoids
The ban on the use of certain neonicotinoid pesticides linked to bee deaths came into force in December 2013. It was based on scientific evidence that linked the pesticides to huge losses in the number of queen bees produced and big rises in ‘disappeared’ bees – those that fail to return from feeding trips. The ban was due to be reviewed by the end of January 2017.
In 2015, the National Farmers Union (NFU) was concerned that the Europe-wide ban on neonicotinoids would lead to 5% of UK rapeseed oil crops being lost.
In July 2015, the government temporarily lifted the ban after a second emergency application from the NFU was successful. The application allowed the use of two neonicotinoid pesticides for 120 days on about 5% of England’s rapeseed oil crop.
In 2016, a similiar request from the NFU for the emergency use of neonicotinoids on oilseed rape in autumn 2016 was rejected by the UK government.
However, neonicotinoids are not the only pesticides to be used on the rapeseed fields. In an investigation, The Ecologist found that rapeseed crops were treated with a barrage of herbicides, fungicides, and fertilisers. Between winter and summer, one rapeseed field it looked at was sprayed with a total of 22 different chemicals.
Despite rapeseed being the third largest crop grown in the UK, no organic rapeseed oil is produced in this country. According to the Soil Association, this is because “most of the rape that is grown is used for industrial purposes – oil for industry or for biofuels, and there is no demand for organic rapeseed oil there.”
Organic rapeseed oil brands in this market are therefore likely to have come from Europe. Mr Organic’s rapeseed oil, for example, is produced in Italy. However, there is no legal requirement for rapeseed manufacturers to state the county of origin.
Out of the three British rapeseed oil brands on our table – Borderfields, Hillfarm and Farrington’s Mellow Yellow – only Hillfarm states on its website that it does not use neonicotinoid seed treatments.
GM and cooking oil
If animal feed is the back door for GM crops, cooking oil is one of a small number of products that has walked straight through the front door without attracting any significant media attention.
Alongside imported sweet treats such as Twinkies and Reese or Lucky Charms cereal, cooking oil is the most common GM food sold for human consumption in the UK.
Soya oil (usually described as vegetable oil) is the most likely to be GM, and is widely used in the catering industry. There is also GM maize (corn) and rapeseed oil on the shelves, especially in cash and carry outlets.
The two brands that have been spotted in supermarkets (including Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) are KTC and Pride, which both also have non-GM varieties available. All are labelled GM but often in print so tiny you have to have your wits about you to spot it.
This paragraph was written by Liz O'Neill from GM Freeze
Pura Foods produces Pura Organic rapeseed, sunflower and vegetable oil. However, consumers should be aware that its parent company is not wholly supportive of organic principles.
Pura is owned by Archer Daniel Midlands (ADM) which is one of the world’s largest agricultural companies. It is often referred to alongside other big commodity traders – Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus – which are collectively known as ‘the ABCD companies’.
The company is a processor of oilseeds, corn, wheat, cocoa, and other agricultural commodities and is a leading manufacturer of vegetable oil, corn sweeteners, flour, biodiesel, ethanol, and other value-added food and feed ingredients.
It also has an extensive global network to procure, store, clean, transport and process agricultural commodities, including genetically modified grains.
ADM owns 18% of the palm oil trader and processor Wilmar, a company which has been heavily criticised for land grabbing and deforestation.
Overall ADM brands score particularly poorly across Ethical Consumer’s categories, including climate change. This is because ADM stills owns and operates coal-fired power stations to provide energy for processing its grains.
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1 The Telegraph, 7th November 2015, Cooking with vegetable oils releases toxic cancer-causing chemicals say experts
2 The Grocer, January 2015, Edible Oils Special
3 The Telegraph, 1st July 2015, Goodbye, olive oil: why we’ve all fallen in love with rapeseed
4 The Highland Council, 27th May 2015, Should rape seed be treated with neonicotinoids pesticides?
5 The Guardian, 23rd July 2015, UK suspends ban on pesticides linked to serious harm in bees
6 The BBC, 23rd July 2015, Ban lifted on controversial ‘neonic’ pesticide
7 The Ecologist, 30th January 2014,Revealed: the chemical blitz of pesticides in our fields
See our separate Product Guides for Olive Oil and Coconut Oil.