Enjoy Life Foods is an allergy-friendly foods powerhouse, producing several CPG items that are free of problematic ingredients that commonly cause reactions.
Now, the Chicago-based brand owned by Mondelez is starting to cut out another ingredient that is the root of problems: palm oil.
Enjoy Life Foods just became the first food company to be Certified Palm Oil Free by the International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme (POFCAP). The company’s new Grain & Seed Bars are its first product to be made without palm oil, and its reformulated Protein Bites — being launched in June — will be the second. At that point, eight SKUs from Enjoy Life Foods will carry the certification.
“Our goal is to demonstrate that there are opportunities to create delicious foods without having to utilize an ingredient that increasingly more consumers are looking to avoid,” Joel Warady, Enjoy Life Foods’ general manager and chief marketing officer, told Food Dive in an email. “While several global food brands have made commitments to source sustainable palm oils — ourselves included — we believe that we can take our quest for sustainability to the next level.”
He said the response from the company’s retail customers has been “overwhelming” so far.
“They recognize the growing consumer awareness of palm oil in products, and they are pleased that we have developed a product that allows them to meet the needs of their consumers,” he said.
It took sustained research and commitment for the company to get to this point, Warady said.
“The first thing we needed to do was to develop a great-tasting product that not only was gluten-free and free from 14 allergens, but now was also palm oil-free. That was our greatest challenge,” he said.
While the company has committed to making items that are palm oil-free, many of its products still contain the ingredient. However, all of the palm oil it uses is certified sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
How companies get certified
The POFCAP certification program was set up in August 2017 and is the only international program to certify food products palm oil-free. The Australia-based independent group has approval in the U.S., U.K., Spain, Austria and Sweden and has applications pending in nine other countries.
“POFCAP team members have been involved with the highly complicated issue of palm oil for about a decade,” co-founder and program manager Bev Luff told Food Dive in an email. “Many companies make their own palm oil-free claims and until now there was no international, independent, government-approved certification program, so we developed one.”
Luff noted that the certification is product-based, not brand-based.
After a company applies for certification and completes the required documentation, an assessment team reviews it. Any potential palm oil-derived ingredients are researched back to their source, she said.
POFCAP then submits a report to the applying firm. If all requirements are met, the company receives a three-year license to use the certification trademark. Profits from the fees are distributed to partner organizations working to support rainforests and animals in areas where palm oil is harvested.
To date, POFCAP has certified 239 individual products and five companies as being palm oil-free. Luff noted that the organization’s goal is to have its Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark recognized along with other major international certification trademarks such as Fair Trade and Gluten Free.
“While several global food brands have made commitments to source sustainable palm oils — ourselves included — we believe that we can take our quest for sustainability to the next level.”
General manager, chief sales and marketing officer, Enjoy Life Foods
In addition to the environmental considerations, Warady said such certifications can bolster brand loyalty and a food maker's bottom line.
"More and more people are loyal to brands that earn certifications for their products — it shows a level of transparency that they trust, so there’s no guesswork. According to Nielsen, 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for products from a company that’s committed to making a positive social and environmental impact," he said.
The problems with palm oil
According to the Rainforest Action Network, palm oil is the most used vegetable oil in the world and is also one of the most common ingredients in U.S. food products. About 85% of all palm oil is produced and exported from Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
When rainforests are cleared and burned to plant oil palms, it destroys habitat for wildlife such as tigers, elephants and orangutans. Forest-dwelling people are also impacted, and deforestation creates greenhouse gas emissions, the WWF said. According to the United Nations, palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia are a major source of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
Indonesia plans to convert 18 million additional hectares of rainforests to palm oil plantations by 2020, the Rainforest Action Network reported. That’s about 44.5 million acres, or approximately the size of Missouri, the group said. In 2016, Indonesia had about 11.9 million acres of oil palm plantations, which is three times more than in 2000.
Palm oil plantations are also notorious for using child labor, as well as forcing adults into working. According to a November 2016 report from Amnesty International, Wilmar, the world's leading palm oil processor and merchandiser, sets quotas so high that many children are forced to work alongside their parents and don't go to school. Adult workers are paid low wages — which are often deducted if quotas are not met — and are exposed to toxic chemicals. Wilmar supplies manufacturers including Kellogg, Nestlé and Unilever, Amnesty International says.
POFCAP said that despite all the companies and non-governmental organizations working on the issue, just 17% of all palm oil being used today is “non-conflict” — meaning causing no harm to the environment and free from human rights issues.
The ongoing controversy has prompted a number of large food manufacturers to seek out sustainable sources and reduce their use of palm oil. Danone pledged to source 100% sustainable palm oil by 2015 and has reached that goal, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which keeps score.
Other U.S. food makers making progress on the WWF’s most recent palm oil scorecard were Conagra, Mars, Hershey, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo, Mondelez, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg. Nestle, Smucker, Campbell and Tyson's Hillshire Brands all still have work to do, according to the scorecard.
“For those companies considering such a certification, we would urge them to take the plunge to be a part of a larger movement toward environmentally sustainable food production.”
General manager, chief sales and marketing officer, Enjoy Life Foods
Wilmar pledged in November to improve access to school for children near its plantations, but critics said the company was not doing enough to prevent child labor in the first place.
Critics also say voluntary pledges only go so far and food companies must be held to account to make sure such commitments are met.
Enjoy Life Foods’ Warady said one of the reasons his company sought the POFCAP certification was to pave the way for others to recognize the larger issues involved with palm oil use.
“For those companies considering such a certification, we would urge them to take the plunge to be a part of a larger movement toward environmentally sustainable food production,” he said.
“When we first became Certified Gluten Free, we were the first company to take this step. Now, there are thousands of brands that make this claim, and a new door has been opened for [the] gluten-intolerant and celiac community," Warady said. "We feel this certification can carry a similar outcome, creating [a] cascading effect of companies committing to a more environmentally sustainable food future.”