Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
Dunkin’ Donuts is changing it recipes, though customers may not notice much difference the next time they bite into a cruller. In response to pressure from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the company recently announced that it will set a goal of using only 100 percent sustainable palm oil in making its donuts.
New York State's public pension fund owns around 50,000 shares of Dunkin' Donuts stock. DiNapoli earlier persuaded Sara Lee to make a similar commitment.
Palm oil consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, and environmentalists blame expanding palm plantations for the destruction of tropical rainforests in Asia. They say deforestation is accelerating climate change, while pushing endangered species like the orangutan closer to extinction.
“In a grocery store that you walk into in the United States or Europe today, over half of the packaged goods contain palm oil. So it’s used for everything from cookies to laundry detergents,” said Laurel Sutherlin of the Rainforest Action Network.
Sutherlin applauded Dunkin’ Donuts’ move, but added, “there’s still an issue that ‘sustainable’ means many different things to many different people.”
Dunkin’ said it will purchase 100% sustainable palm oil, or purchase the necessary number of GreenPalm certificates to cover its non-sustainable palm oil purchases.
But why has demand for palm oil surged? It’s not particularly delicious – in fact, palm oil doesn’t have much flavor at all, according to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. What it does have is a soft, yet thick texture.
“And so it’s very useful for products like oreo cookies that have a filling, so that you can put this oil in the filling and it stays solid at room temperature and doesn’t run,” Nestle said.
In the old days, hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats, did this job. But in 2007, another New York politician – New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – banned trans fats in restaurants. Nestle said many popular food brands voluntarily replaced trans fats with the best available substitute – palm oil.
“It’s quite ironic,” Nestle added.
Or maybe just the law of unintended consequences. One reason for the palm oil boom, and the felling of ancient rainforests, could be a Mayor who only wanted to make his city healthier.
New York’s State’s Comptroller DiNapoli said he’s not done with palm oil yet. He’s planning new shareholder resolutions, but won’t say what company he’s targeting next.