Sustainably sourced palm oil could provide confectionery sector answers

With sustainability of cocoa sourcing remaining high on the sector’s agenda, confectionery consultant Graham Godfrey asks if responsibly farmed alternatives to cocoa butter, such as palm oil, should be considered

There has been a debate about the sustainability of many aspects of the confectionery business and in particular about cocoa.

However, none of these has actually asked the most significant question – why do we continue to grow large amounts of cocoa for cocoa butter production when technology has for many years been able to produce fats of virtually identical properties from other sources?

There are a wealth of different chocolates and formulations, but ultimately around 80 per cent of the cocoa bean required for a tonne of chocolate is for something (the added fat) which could be obtained from alternative, sources with almost no impact on the product quality.

While cocoa trees (and associated best practice harvest and primary treatment) are unique as a way of producing cocoa flavour, they are an extremely inefficient way of producing vegetable fats.

The obvious alternative source for fats for chocolate manufacture is palm oil or other suitable mass produced vegetable oils. While this product is widely demonised, the oil palm is just about the most efficient way of converting sunlight into vegetable oils.

There are other mass vegetable oil sources which may be adapted for use as a substitute for cocoa butter, particularly those grown in other areas less sensitive to environmental change, but without a regulatory change at least on the horizon the necessary investment in technology is unlikely.

Typical land use figures for cocoa, for example in Ivory Coast, 0.53 tonnes of beans per hectare, yield 0.21 tonnes of cocoa butter. Compare this with typical palm oil yields per hectare for Malaysia, which are 4.5 tonnes per hectare.

Thus, in land use terms, cocoa butter production requires something like twenty times the land area to produce the same amount of other vegetable fats.
Even if losses in processing palm into cocoa fat replacers are introduced, there is still a radical difference in land area requirement.

This could become increasingly significant if climate change or other factors force cocoa agronomy into new areas from those currently occupied, this will in essence be new land in tropical environments required mainly to produce cocoa fat.

In very simple terms, cocoa for flavour requires about 2.5m hectares (using Ghana/Nigeria output figures) whereas cocoa for fat requires about 6m hectares (using Cd’I output figures). This fat demand could be met from less than 1m hectares by palm oil and would represent a tiny fraction of current palm oil production.

As regards water use, this is a more difficult factor to evaluate because the mix of natural rainfall vs irrigation and local water demand will be very varied. The website “” records that water footprint of cocoa fats is 34,000 m3/t , while that for palm oil is 5,000 m3/t.

This very high water demand magnifies the likelihood of climate change affecting the viability of some existing areas for cocoa agronomy whilst the impact on palm oil is likely to be less.

Cocoa is a relatively labour intensive crop, and many areas where cocoa is grown on a large plantation basis are relatively short of labour. In addition to this workers on cocoa plantations are relatively poorly paid because of the basic level of the work. Workers can often earn more by working on rubber or oil palm (the resulting labour shortage has had a significant impact on the viability of cocoa growing in some areas, notably peninsular Malaysia). This can also lead to the controversial employment of young people on cocoa plantations.

While a move to using technology based fats for chocolate will have a significant economic impact, the best flavour cocoas, which would continue to be valuable are, by and large produced by small farmers who operate on a cash crop basis rather than by extending the acreage under cultivation.

The most vulnerable members of the supply chain would therefore be protected to a large extent. Plantation based cocoa, much of which is used primarily for cocoa butter production could be phased out and some used for more efficient and cost effective crops.

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