We all use it in our kitchens, but have you ever thought how sustainable your cooking oil is?
It’s often these essential items in our life that get overlooked and taken for granted from a sustainability point of view. A bit like what happens with our bank accounts (is yours an ethical bank?) and when buying coffee (is your coffee responsibly sourced?).
From extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil to sunflower oil and rapeseed, there’s a variety of cooking oils out there to choose from. So how do you know which ones are eco friendly and which ones are bad for the environment and local habitats? Carry on reading of course, and I’ll try my best to help you get the information on the most sustainable cooking oils out there.
By the end of this post, I hope you’re in a much better place to make an informed decision on your cooking oil.
Types of cooking oil to consider
I’ll be taking a look at the following five types of common cooking oils in the UK. For each I’ll assess how they are grown, where they are grown and the sustainability credentials of each.
- Olive oil
- Sunflower oil
- Vegetable oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Coconut oil
I’m not considering palm oil in this blog post as it’s not often used purely as a cooking oil in the UK. It may however find its way into some vegetable oils.
You’re likely to have heard and read about palm oil’s horrendous track record with deforestation of ancient rainforests. Sustainably-produced, organic palm oil does exist, but as a whole, avoid palm oil where possible.
Considering sustainable cooking oil
Before we dig into the oils, it’s important to consider that there are a number of overriding factors that apply to each oil when considering how sustainable it is.
- Is the oil organic? – Buying organically produced oil is one of the best ways forward. Approved by the likes of the Soil Organic Association, an organic product ensures that it has been grown without the use of artificial chemicals and environment harming pesticides.
- Is the oil Fairtrade? – Paying farmers and producers a fair price as well as ensuring good working conditions is important for sustainability.
- How is the oil packaged? – Glass packaging is much more sustainable than the likes of plastic, although it does weigh a lot more, which has more embedded energy costs during transport. But on the whole, glass material is 100% recyclable and has a high recycling rate of 80-90% in Europe.
- Extra virgin, unrefined or cold-pressed – these are the most sustainable methods of extracting the oil from the fruit or seed. They involve mechanical pressing of the oil, and don’t go down the road of using chemicals and solvents and other methods to process and ‘refine’ the oil.
Olive oil: Is olive oil sustainable?
Olive oil of course comes from the humble olive, a small stone fruit from the Oleo tree.
Olive trees need warm weather. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t grown in the UK. 95% of all olive trees in the world are in the Mediterranean, with around 70-75% coming from EU countries. Spain is the top EU producer.
Olive oil can be produced on a sliding scale of intensity:
- Traditional – low levels of input and tree density
- Super-intensive – high levels of fertiliser, pesticides and water, and very high tree density.
Intensive olive oil production is not sustainable and not good for the environment. It’s been heavily linked with soil erosion, desertification, eutrophication of water systems and general over-exploitation. It has a high reliance on heavy machinery.
Even more, night time intensive harvesting has been shown to kill millions of birds every year. Ethical olive oil companeis now avoid night time harvesting. If you want sustainable olive oil, do not buy intensively produced varieties.
Instead, you should opt for extra virgin olive oil that’s also organic. Firstly, anything that’s not extra virgin means it has been processed and refined.
Organic farming is much better for the environment as synthetic fertilisers and artificial pesticides are not used. It also lacks the intensity and impact of mass produced crops. Organic favours traditional, human methods, although machinery will still be used.
On a personal note, extra virgin olive oil is my favourite. I always try to buy organic extra virgin olive oil in a glass bottle.
Sunflower oil: How sustainable is sunflower oil?
We all know the instantly recognisable sunflower plant and the bright yellow fields they produce when in bloom.
Sunflowers are grown by schoolchildren, gardeners of all skills and by UK farmers – but none of this for the sunflower’s oil.
By far, the two biggest producers of sunflower oil are Ukraine and Russia.
The UK is not even in the top 80 producing countries, something which I was surprised by. When you see sunflower fields in the UK, they are generally for bird feed!
In general, the production of sunflower oil involves a lot of chemical and pesticide use, plus huge amounts of water. It’s also a low yield oil crop and requires a lot of energy to harvest it. From an ethical standpoint (and I’m not one to make assumptions), but I’m also not sure what the working and welfare standards are like in Ukraine and Russia agriculture.
If you can, buy organic sunflower oil, but I’m afraid sunflower oil is not a very sustainable option.
Vegetable oil is a vague catch all term. It refers to any oil extracted from grains, seeds and legumes.
When you buy vegetable oil from the supermarket, it’s likely to be rapeseed oil or sunflower oil. It may even be soybean oil, corn oil, sesame oil, safflower, palm oil or a mixture of a few different ones.
In terms of land use, crop oils come second only to cereals in the amount of area they take up. And get this: more land area is dedicated to growing vegetable oil crops than fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, roots and tubers combined.
Between 20-30% of all agricultural land area is devoted to vegetable oil crops, yet they provide very little in the way of nutrition. As vegetable oils take up so much land, they are also heavily associated with deforestation, habitat destruction, high carbon emissions and air pollution through the fires used to clear land. This is the opposite of the regenerative agriculture standards we now need.
If you are buying vegetable oil, go for Fairtrade and organic if possible. If these aren’t available then I’d try to avoid.
Most of the world’s rapeseed oil is produced in Canada and the EU. Top producers in the EU include France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
On a side note, rapeseed oil can also be known as canola oil.
The UK also produces rapeseed oil and it’s really the only type of oil that you can buy from UK farmers. The main problem with this is that you don’t come across many organic rapeseed oil varieties from the UK. For some reason, organic production is lagging behind in the UK, although it is rising slowly.
In fact, rapeseed oil generally requires a large amount of pesticides and other chemicals. Neonicotinoids – the pesticide that greatly impacts bees and other pollinators – was used a lot on rapeseed until it was banned in the EU on all crops in 2018.
Rapeseed oil tends to be highly refined, which requires the use of chemicals to get the oil out. Instead of this, try and buy cold pressed and organic whenever available.
Is coconut oil sustainable?
Coconut oil has been lauded for its lack of pesticide use – coconut trees don’t need much enhancement to produce their fruit. This is why organic coconut oil is widely available.
Does this mean coconut oil is sustainable?
The catch with coconut oil from a sustainability point of view is where it comes from and how this has come about.
The three biggest producers of coconut oil are the Philippines, India and Indonesia. Of course not inherently bad, but it’s important to make sure all workers and growers are paid fairly and treated well. With this is mind, make sure you buy Fairtrade coconut oil.
As well as worker condition issues, important coastal mangroves have been known to be removed and replaced with coconut trees for the production of oil. So, opt for an ethical producer.
Virgin or extra virgin organic coconut oil is the best.
This means that it has been dried quickly with a small amount of heat and pressed with a machine to extract the oil. This differs to refined coconut oil which uses a machine first to release the oil, then it undergoes a series of treatments using heat and chemical solvents.
What is the most sustainable cooking oil?
Ethical Consumer magazine explains that the main issue is to do with the brand, rather than the type of cooking oil.
This being said, in terms of sustainability I’d definitely be avoiding vegetable oil and probably sunflower oil now, which I was not expecting to conclude.
The most important factors when buying a more sustainable cooking oil alternative are to buy organic, Fairtrade versions in a glass bottle.
For me, I’ll be sticking with extra virgin organic olive oil or coconut oil in glass that’s produced by an ethical brand.