This guide includes 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.