Rapeseed, Sunflower & Vegetable Oil

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 31 cooking oil brands.

We also look at GM, neonicotinoids, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and give our recommended buys.

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This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying cooking oil:

  • Is it organic? Use of pesticides and other chemicals harms workers, wildlife and the environment. Opt for organic oil.

  • Is it GMO free? If you have concerns about GMO then check the label as any GMO ingredients must be labelled. Oil produced from crops grown within the EU will not contain GM sources.

  • Is it local? There is a rapeseed oil boom in the UK, so find your local supplier.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying rapeseed, sunflower & vegetable oil:

  • Is it packaged in plastic? While it is not as simple as ‘glass good, plastic bad’, we recommend buying glass packaging and recycling after use. See our bottled water guide for more on plastic vs. glass packaging.

  • Is it grown using pesticides? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals, and to support sustainable farming practices.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

The market for edible oils is expanding. The five most popular types of oil are vegetable, rapeseed, sunflower, coconut and olive oil.

Vegetable/rapeseed and olive oils are bought by about four in ten people, while a third buy sunflower oils. Demand for coconut oil has grown rapidly in recent years, although it is still only purchased by 7% of consumers. 2017/18 saw demand dip slightly, although only time will tell if this is a trend.

What is vegetable oil?

In the UK, most versions of this enigmatically named oil will actually be rapeseed oil. This is true of all the major supermarkets’ own-brand vegetable oils, except Morrisons’, which is made from sunflower oil.

KTC is another exception: its vegetable oil is made of GM soyabean oil with an added anti-foaming agent, while Mazola’s oil is made from corn.

Rapeseed, sunflower and vegetable oils

The EU produces most of the world’s rapeseed oil while the leading provider of sunflower oil is Ukraine, followed by Russia and the EU.

Presumably due to where they are grown, you don’t really get Fairtrade versions of these oils.

Supermarket own-brands make up the majority of the market, standing at 57% in 2016/17. The other major player in the market is Edible Oils, a company that is jointly owned by Princes (Mitsubishi), and the Archer Daniels Midland Company.

From the sales of its top three brands: Crisp ‘n Dry, Flora and Pura, it holds about 32% of the market for general cooking oils.

Organic Rapeseed

In order to support the most sustainable farming practices, we recommend you buy organic, especially from brands that ranked highly in our table, although most supermarkets now offer organic own-brands.

However, although a large amount of rapeseed is produced in the UK, organic rapeseed oil is thin on the ground.

The only organic rapeseed oil grown and produced in the UK that we could find was Stringers Organic Rapeseed Oil, a venture between J Stringer & Sons and Yorkshire Rapeseed Oil.

The bad news is that, due to poor yields, stocks are currently sold out. But we have been assured that they will continue to produce organic rapeseed oil in future, so keep your eyes peeled.

Refined vs. cold-pressed

Most oils are refined, meaning that the oil has been extracted through a process involving chemicals and high temperatures. However, recent years have seen the advent of cold-pressed oils, especially rapeseed, where oil is extracted by simply pressing the crop.

Cold-pressing is not only a more ecological method of production but also creates a healthier oil, preserving the naturally occurring vitamins and anti-oxidants, which would be destroyed through the process of high-temperature refining.

The only downside to cold pressing is that it is much less efficient.

According to Hillfarm Oils, a company that produces cold-pressed rapeseed, cold pressing abstracts 70% of the oil from the seed, compared to 98% abstracted through the refining process. Consumers are therefore likely to pay a higher price, but higher demand has meant cold-pressed oils are now widely available, with many new brands coming from UK producers, such as: Borderfields, Hillfarm Oils, Stringers/Yorkshire Rapeseed, and Farrington’s Mellow Yellow.

GM rapeseed oil

Farmers in the EU are prevented from growing most GM crops, including rapeseed.

In February 2019, the French authorities found minute quantities of GM seeds in batches sold by Dekalb, a brand owned by Bayer. The product was recalled, but some of the seed had already been sown, resulting in farmers proceeding to dig up the thousands of hectares of contaminated land: about 8,000 hectares in France and 3,000 hectares in Germany.

However, the importation of products made from GM inputs is allowed, so long as it has been designated as safe. Thus, if you wish to avoid oils made from GM crops buy products that are produced in the EU. Any products that do contain GM inputs must also state so on the packaging.

Companies that have openly stated their support for GM are: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and KTC.

Image: bee chasing pesticide spray he says buzz off!


A major problem with the production of sunflower oil and rapeseed oil is the high level of pesticides and other chemical inputs used. 

In 2013, the EU put in place a moratorium on three types of neonicotinoids, a pesticide used heavily in the production of rapeseed, as mounting evidence showed that these chemicals were a substantial risk to bees and other pollinating insects. In 2018, Brussels extended the ban on neonicotinoids to cover all crops, although the chemicals can still be used in permanent greenhouses. 

The UK government has stated: ‘Unless the scientific evidence changes, the government will maintain these increased restrictions post-Brexit’.

Although the ban on neonicotinoids was a triumph, there remain a host of other chemicals used. A 2018 study suggested that chronic exposure to sulfoxaflor, an insecticide that looks likely to replace neonicotinoids, has ‘severe sublethal effects on bumblebee colonies’.

Table highlights

The following companies received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies: Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, KKR, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Mitsubishi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, and Walmart (Asda).

Many of big companies use their finances to gain political influence, something which we mark companies down for, under our Political Activities category. The following (and their employees) donated to political parties: ADM, The Co-op, KKR, Mitsubishi, Walmart (Asda).

In the Co-op’s case, this was only donations to the Cooperative Party. In the US companies are banned from directly donating to political parties but often do so through their employees, including large donations from senior staff. In the 2018 election cycle, ADM gave a total of $329,265 in political donations. Of that, $108,251 went to Democrats and $197,667 went to Republicans.

ADM declares on its website:

“ADM’s Board of Directors believes that participation in the political process is an important element of our business, one undertaken for the benefit of all company stakeholders.”

How do cooking oils compare?

So, which type of oil should the ethical consumer buy? We would argue that the main issue is not which type of oil but, rather, which brand.

There are, however, some factors that may influence your decision on type. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the difference is not that significant, particularly as oil is itself likely to be a very small portion of your carbon footprint, although coconut oil produces the lowest emissions and olive oil the highest, as shown:

Oil Type UK GHG emissions (kgCO2e/kg) 
Coconut 2.1
Rapeseed 2.9
Vegetable 3.2
Sunflower 3.3
Olive 4.5

If you are wanting to buy from UK farmers, then rapeseed is really your only option, although supplies of organic UK rapeseed are few and far between. Generally speaking, the vegetable oils rapeseed and sunflower oil use the most pesticides and fertilisers, but this can be avoided through the purchasing of organic oil.

The environmental impact of five different oils

Table: environmental impact of vegetable oils with pesticides and fertilisers

The table above gives an idea of the typical environmental impacts in the production of five crops used to produce widely used oils.

Fertilisers are generally used for all crops but are relied upon least in the production of coconuts and palm fruit. The production of coconuts and palm fruit also requires extremely few pesticides. This explains why organic coconut is so widely available.

Olive production generally uses a notable amount of pesticide, but this figure is relatively low in comparison to the amount used in the production of rapeseed and sunflower oil. Organic rapeseed and sunflower oils are available but are less common than organic olive or coconut oils.

It could be deduced from this table that the oil with the least environmental impact is palm oil, due to its high yield and low amounts of fertilisers and pesticides used. There is some truth in this, and its high yield is one reason, alongside its versatility, why it has been favoured by so many companies.

However, thus far palm oil has been produced in an incredibly unsustainable way, resulting in the mass destruction of habitat. 

Palm oil

Palm oil is found in many products, although it is little used in the UK as cooking oil. None of the vegetable oils viewed by Ethical Consumer contained palm oil. However, many of the companies used palm oil in their other products.

If you wish to avoid buying oils owned by companies who received our worst rating for their palm oil sourcing, these are the brands to avoid:

  • Crisp ‘n Dry,
  • Mazola,
  • Pura,
  • Goldenfields,
  • Sunita,
  • Hellenic,
  • East End, and
  • Optima.

Avoid plastic packaging

For single-trip packaging, we recommend buying oil in glass bottles and recycling after use. Or you might find a place to refill a bottle. See our guide to bottled water for more on plastic vs glass.

Company Profile

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is one of the world’s largest agricultural traders and processors. 
It produces a range of products such as soy proteins, corn, oils, and animal feeds. In 2017, the company had revenues of over $60bn, finding itself placed 48th on Fortune’s list of biggest corporations in the US. In 2017, the company’s CEO pocketed $17.7m.

ADM jointly owns Edible Oils Ltd with Princes Ltd, a company ultimately owned by Mitsubishi. Edible Oils produces several big brands such as Crisp ‘n Dry, Mazola, Olivio, Pura, and Flora, a brand actually licensed by Upfield, the new name for Unilever Spreads. 

ADM’s website talks about its commitment to sustainable palm oil, but on the RSPO website, it had not disclosed key information about its palm oil practices, stating: “No volumes [are] stated in this report as this is business sensitive information and confidential.”

The company also owns 25% of Wilmar International Ltd, an agribusiness involved in palm oil that has been heavily criticised for land grabs and human rights violations.34

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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