Nutiva make a vegan shortening product that’s made from palm oil and certified by Palm Done Right – I bought some at the Grocery Outlet and tried it out. Somebody asked me to review Earth Balance, so I decided it might be useful to review two palm oil products as a comparative case study in palm oil sustainability.
First, I’ll let you know how it worked out. I used the Nutiva Shortening as intended – as a shortening for baking. I made typical pie pastry, following Maida Heatter’s recipe, which involves just four ingredients – flour, shortening, salt, and iced water. The pastry is made by cutting the cold shortening into the salted flour and then adding just enough water so that it holds together.
I’ve made this pastry with regular dairy butter and also with vegan butters – Kite Hill and Califia plant-butters. Making it with Nutiva shortening was not much different to using the other plant butters and I’m realizing that vegan baking isn’t difficult. I would prefer if Nutiva used packaging typical of butter – i.e., waxed paper and perhaps cardboard – instead of this tub. As you can guess, I would prefer the paper packaging from a sustainability perspective, but it would also make the measurement easier than scooping the cold hard shortening out of the tub.
As it turned out, scooping it out of the tub wasn’t such a big deal and it resulted in curls of shortening that were easy to incorporate into the flour. Bottom line: I’ve had pretty good results with any of the fats that I’ve used – the Nutiva Shortening produced a pastry that was as good as the dairy- or plant-butters. I think that, for an amateur baker, getting the technique right is more important than choice of fat. Having said that, all of the products I compared were pretty high-quality to begin with.
So, I’m pretty happy with the baking results and might buy the product again if the packaging was improved. It cost $2.99 for a 15-ounce (425 g) tub at the Grocery Outlet, compared to a normal price of $6 or $7. For me, the critical thing is to evaluate sustainability of the product, since it’s made from palm oil, so I’ll get to that next.
Can you trust Palm Done Right?
Nutiva Shortening is certified by Palm Done Right, one of the newest certification schemes for palm oil, covering both sustainability and social impact. I’ve written about the issues with palm oil and older certifications such as RSPO or GreenPalm. My conclusion at the time was to continue avoiding palm oil in the vast majority of cases, with one exception being products that are certified by Palm Done Right.
Alfons van der Aa, CEO of Natural Habitats, a producer of organic palm oil in Ecuador, sought to establish a “proper” set of social and environmental standards for palm oil. What emerged was Palm Done Right, which combines existing certifications – Organic and Fair for Life – with specific rules for key issues like deforestation and also guidelines on things like biodiversity and community development.
Here’s a brief description of what the Palm Done Right certification covers:
- 100% organic. The organic certification is awarded and monitored by an independent organization (USDA, etc.) This includes the planting of nitrogen-fixing cover crops to enrich the soil; the use of palm leaves and outer “husks” for compost or as fuel for processing.
- Deforestation-free. Obviously certified sustainable palm oil should not involve deforestation, and yet RSPO has failed to fully safeguard against this.
- Supporting biodiversity. Palm Done Right emphasizes the need for biodiversity by dedicating a portion (15%) of farmland to supporting native species. Complementary crops are encouraged like cacao or native plants that encourage beneficial insects and provide habitats for local wildlife.
- Fair Trade. The palm oil is certified by Fair for Life, a certification scheme that’s very similar to Fair Trade but wider range of crops.
I haven’t conducted any kind of investigation into Palm Done Right, other than online research. One thing that gives me some confidence is that the companies that have signed up so far are mission-driven companies that I would rate highly: Dr. Bronner’s, Jovial Foods, Wholesome Bakery, and others.
At a minimum, you’re buying a product that’s certified Organic and Fair for Life, and these certifications are independent to Palm Done Right. They cover the essentials of both the social (Fair for Life) and the environmental (Organic) impact, meeting requirements that aren’t met by the vast majority of palm oil products.
What is Fair for Life and can you trust it?
Ethical Consumer did a good evaluation of Fair for Life, so I’ll refer you to that article – it basically concluded that it’s a worthwhile certification from a legit organization that’s similar to Fair Trade International.
Fair for Life tends to only certify small companies and the Ethical Consumer article brings up a quandary that I’ve raised here several times: what happens when a smaller brand is acquired by a larger company?
If a company which has the label then becomes part of a bigger company then we have to assess the whole group and not just the smaller company,” explains Louisa, “we’ll be reassessing Pukka in the autumn so we’ll have to wait and see. – Ethical Consumer.
In the case of our Nutiva Shortening, you can look up Nutiva on the Fair for Life site, and find an overall rating as well as individual scores for things like working conditions, traceability, and environmental impact.
Should you support Palm Done Right or just avoid all palm oil?
Well, that’s your call but I like the idea of supporting companies certified by Palm Done Right for these reasons:
- Palm Done Right is the only certification that covers the essentials for palm oil, as far as I’m aware.
- Palm “done wrong” is one of the most harmful products for the planet and human rights.
- Palm oil is not going away soon, so we desperately need to shift to an ethical version of palm oil, and RSPO membership is not enough.
- Because palm oil is the highest yielding oil crop it can actually help reduce our land footprint.
- Palm Done Right has improved social conditions in farm communities. Fair trade, organic and deforestation-free palm oil can help communities (e.g., in South America and Africa) develop sustainably.
Nutiva Shortening – Ingredients
Organic Palm Fruit Oil, Organic Unrefined Red Palm Oil, Organic Unrefined Virgin Coconut Oil
Ethical rating for Nutiva Shortening
Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Nutiva Shortening, which I’m scoring 4.5 Green Stars:
- Palm Done Right is a certification for palm that I think is worthy of support, because the palm oil industry needs to transition.
- The Palm Done Right certification includes independent Organic and Fair for Life certifications, covering many of the main social and environmental issues. Other issues such as the maintenance of forests and biodiversity are addressed by additional Palm Done Right requirements and guidelines.
- Nutiva gets a high score from Fair for Life, covering labor conditions, trade practices, and some environmental issues. The USDA Organic certification independently certifies farming practices.
- Based in Richmond, California, 80% of Nutiva’s workforce is represented by ethnic minorities and 50% of senior managers are women.
- Nutiva’s social impact includes support of local organizations like Planting Justice, which helps folk transition to life after prison though programs like urban farming and landscaping.
- One of Nutiva’s other social contributions that I liked was the introduction of schoolyard orchards to all 28 public schools in Richmond, CA.
- Nutiva contributes 1% of sales revenue to support regenerative agriculture systems. One example in 2019 is the development of climate-resilient, transparent supply chains for organic avocado oil in Ethiopia.
- Nutiva is a contributing member of One Step Closer and a member of the Climate Collaborative, both aiming to make agriculture and the food industry more sustainable.
- Container is polypropylene – not post-consumer recycled. I imagine that this shortening could be packaged in wax paper and cardboard, like other kinds of butter and shortening such as Miyoko’s vegan butter. That’s the main reason why the rating is not 5 Green Stars.
- John Roulac, founder of Nutiva, stepped down as CEO in 2017, but stays on as Chief Visionary officer and Chairman of the board. Roulac will spend his extra on projects such as to bringing back California’s giant kelp forests “as a way to restore our ocean and create blue-green jobs.”Roulac was previously instrumental in a legal victory against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2004, which paved the way for the legalization of hemp-based foods. Nutiva has also directly supported education and approval of hemp.
Summary scores (out of 5) for Nutiva Shortening
- 4 gold stars for quality and value
- 4.5 green stars for social and environmental impact
If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )