This may seem a wee bit like trashing the work of Santa Claus or Mother Teresa. But what I’m suggesting today was inspired by American dentist-turned-nutritionist Dr. Susan Rubin and her essay on why she has decided to no longer purchase U.S. Girl Scout cookies. In fact, she claims that not only will she not buy these cookies, but she actually wants their entire cookie fundraising program to “go extinct”.
And this isn’t just because those American Girl Scouts sell Tagalongs, Thin Mints, Samoas and DoSiDo cookies that are not healthy. They are cookies, for Pete’s sake, and as an occasional treat, Dr. Rubin has little quarrel with treats. But there is one ingredient in these cookies that endangers planetary health as well as personal health. Dr. Rubin explains:
“The more I’ve learned about food and food systems, the more I’ve learned about our fragile environment. Every single flavor of Girl Scout cookies this year contains palm oil. While it is a saturated fat, that’s not why I don’t want my kids eating it. The issue is environmental.”
Dr. Rubin goes on to say that to grow palm oil, we destroy rainforests. And that means destroying the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems, home to millions of indigenous people, rare plants and endangered animal species like orangutans, and creating runaway climate change that may impact our very future on this planet.
I wondered about our own Canadian Girl Guides, who also sell cookies to raise much-needed funds to support valuable Guiding programs. So I contacted Lucie Page, who works in Cookie Customer Service at Girl Guides of Canada. I asked her: “Lucie, do our Girl Guide cookies contain palm oil like those American Girl Scout cookies do?” She replied:
“Yes, they do. Palm oil is being used in both Girl Guides’ Classic and Mint cookies.”
Oh, no, Lucie! Not the Girl Guide Mint ones! I love those cookies. The only good news about Girl Guide cookies is that they no longer contain artery-clogging transfats, following growing worldwide pressure to reduce or eliminate this deadly fat in all processed foods. Maybe it’s about time we now asked the same hard questions about this palm oil.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil on earth. It comes from plantations grown in huge destroyed tracts of tropical rainforests throughout Southeast Asia and Central America, but particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for 83% of palm oil production.
Palm oil is also a common ingredient in about 50% of all processed products we consume. Unilever uses palm oil in its Dove soap, Vaseline skin cream and Slim Fast diet products. It’s also in most granola bars, cookies, crackers, pastries, cereals, microwave popcorn, lipstick, detergents, ice cream – and even bio-fuel.
But in the U.K., their Girl Guide cookies are already far ahead of North America when it comes to getting rid of palm oil ingredients. Paterson Arran, the company that bakes cookies for the U.K.’s Girl Guides, leads the U.K. biscuit industry in finding replacements for palm oil. Instead, they use olive and rapeseed (canola) oil. Allan Miller, Sales Director of Paterson Arran, explains that the company’s transition away from palm oil wasn’t easy in the beginning:
“On the first attempt at a palm oil-free chocolate chip cookie, all the chocolate chips fell out! Fortunately, we persevered and managed to overcome the problem. Interestingly, the switch isn’t just good for Indonesian and Malaysian orangutans; we calculated changing from palm oil resulted in a 60-70% reduction in saturated fat.”
In 2006, North American regulatory agencies began to crack down on food manufacturers who were adding unhealthy trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (a major risk for heart disease). Processed food packaging must now list all trans fats, so many manufacturers are seeking to eliminate trans fat by switching to other cheap oils - and there’s no oil cheaper than palm oil.
And that’s why demand for palm oil has tripled since ’06, resulting in increased clearcutting and burning of rainforests for palm oil plantations.
By the way, those American Girl Scout cookies also contain cottonseed oil. Dr. Rubin warns:
“Cotton is not a food. It is loaded with pesticide residue; in fact, cotton is one of the most highly sprayed crops. Since cotton crops are under far less chemical regulation than crops used specifically for food, many pesticides and chemicals can be used on cotton crops that are illegal for use on food crops. In addition to the pesticide residue, cottonseed oil is extremely high in inflammatory Omega 6 oil.”
She then adds:
“Now that my girls are older, I can look forward to the future when I will be a grandma. I hope to take the time to bake cookies with my grandkids, just like my grandma did with me. If we keep plowing down rainforests in the name of cheap palm oil to put into cheap cookies, I might never get a chance to see grandkids.”
Dr. Susan Rubin ends her essay with this dramatic plea:
“Parents: please don’t have your kids sell these cookies.
“Take some time, make some real cookies, make a donation to the Girl Scouts, a great organization. But I’d like to see their cookies go extinct. There are so many other worthwhile fundraisers that are good for people and for the planet.
“Please pass this on to anyone you know who cares about the fate of the earth – and who hopes to have grandkids one day.”
Here in Canada, our own little Boy Scout Beavers sell* healthy apples as an annual fundraiser - not palm oil-loaded junk. Let’s face it – we’d give those kids money if they were selling dandelions to us.
Even if you can’t bring yourself to say ‘no’ to those cherubic little cookie salesgirls, at the very least, you can become a keen label reader from now on. Look for ingredients like palm or cottonseed oil in any processed products you want to purchase – and then vote with your wallet by not buying them.
- this article from the Center For Science In The Public Interest for more on the chief environmental and health impacts of palm oil, as well as suggested oils that are better for both human and environmental health
- Dr. Susan Rubin’s original essay called Girl Scout Cookies: Epic Fail
- the Survival International website for their short film about the Penan people of Sarawak, Borneo – whose very way of life in their rainforest home is being destroyed in the name of that palm oil in your Girl Guide or Girl Scout cookies
- the even shorter film linking Dove products with the destruction of rainforests for palm oil (a brilliant spoof on Dove’s own ‘Onslaught’ ads)
- The Top 10 Hazardous Foods In Your Kitchen
CANADIAN GIRL GUIDE COOKIE UPDATE – April 19, 2010:
I received this note from sharp-eyed reader David Sims who reports: “After reading your item on Girl Guide cookies, I e-mailed them and here is their response:
“Dear Mr. Sims:
“Thank you for contacting Girl Guides of Canada Consumer Response regarding the oils used in our cookies.
“You commented on palm oil; our fat and oil suppliers are members of an international organization called Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, established in 2003. The main goal of this organization is the ethical and sustainable practices in the production of palm oil. The suppliers are using old plantations and revitalizing them, rather than
clear-cutting new ones.
“We do not use cottonseed oil in our cookies.
“We thank you for your time and interest in Girl Guides of Canada
Girl Guides of Canada
Cookie Customer Service
Thank you, David. Although Christina’s letter to David appears to clear up any controversy over palm oil in these (Canadian) cookies, it’s important to remember that until three weeks ago, membership in this Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil was approved upon completion of a “self-assessment and self-declaration” application process.
In other words, let’s say a palm oil plantation owner in Indonesia or Malaysia facing growing threats to profits because of the growing consumer backlash decided it would be good PR to claim membership in this eco-friendly association. Instead of third-party accreditation by a regulating agency- the only type of valid accreditation that’s meaningful – the owner could simply answer questions like: “Are you revitalizing old plantations rather than clear-cutting new ones?” with a resounding self-declaration of “YES!” in order to be officially accepted for membership. This type of officious-sounding greenwashing is a particularly offensive corporate reputation management tactic. More to come on this topic. . .
NEWS UPDATE October 22, 2010:
I received an additional note from another reader today:
“I was a Brownie leader for five years and faithfully went door to door selling Girl Guide cookies. Not once in all those years did I check the ingredients. I just assumed that the ingredients used would be healthy.
“The other day, I bought a box of cookies from my neighbour’s daughter. Nope, I did not check the ingredients. My daughter, on the other hand, did check because NO PALM OIL enters our house. If it gets in, it ends up in the garbage.
“What a shock that the Girl Guide Chocolate Mint cookie lists palm oil THREE TIMES:
- the chocolate covering
- the cookie itself
- the filling
“So I sent an e-mail to Girl Guides of Canada and to Dare.
“The reponse I got from GGC is similar to yours. I have not heard from Dare.
GGC is fooling themselves and trying to fool others by saying that they sell a cookie that should be treated as a treat. Yeah, who eats just one?
“I will continue to support the Girl Guides, I’ll pay the cost of the box of cookies as a donation, but let them know why I will not take the cookies.”