We Talked to Dunkin' Donuts About Palm Oil on National Doughnut Day

Today is National Doughnut Day—one of the most sacred of American traditions. I went to the biggest American dougnut hub, Dunkin' Donuts, and spoke with their corporate office about the highly controversial palm oil they use in their deep-fried...

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Jun 6 2014, 7:09pm

Photo by Rob Boudon via Flickr

Next to Black Friday and St. Patrick's Day, no other holiday in these United States of America is quite as sacred at the national day of the doughnut, celebrated every year on June 6th with liberty and doughnuts for all. But never mind the fact that it was originally created by the Salvation Army (in 1938) to honor the work of service men during World War I. Today it's less about the honoring and more about eating free shit. (OMG and take a look at all of the places where you can find them!)

But after seeing that $0.00 on the cash register, most people aren't thinking about the true cost of scarfing that fried ball of fatty, sugary dough, which is a pity because the orangutans certainly are. If you weren't already aware, palm oil "is one of the key causes of rainforest destruction around the globe" and almost every single one of your favorite doughnut purveyors uses tons of it on a daily basis.

This is largely in part to a 2006 FDA regulation that requires all trans-fats to be listed on nutritional labels. Since palm oil has the same nifty characteristic of being solid at room temperature like the now taboo hydrogenated oils, food manufacturers flocked to this vegetable oil in swarms. Derived from the fruit of the oil palm, this stuff also has the added perk of being much cheaper to produce and ship than other plant-oils such as soy. Once shunned due to its high saturated fat content, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, two thirds of the world's vegetable oil today is palm oil. Global production has doubled every decade since the 60s (translation: more and more forested land in Southeast Asia is being converted into oil palm plantations.) This is great for Krispy Kreme, and awful the for orangutans.

A lot of doughnut purveyors have already taken some public heat from environmentalists for their use of palm oil. Groups such as Greenpeace and Forest Heroes have called out chains like Tim Horton's for their use of palm oil and in 2013, Dunkin' Donuts signed a pledge to commit itself to "100 percent sustainable palm oil," whatever that actually means.

In light of the terrible destruction palm oil is wreaking across the globe and the impending horde of people who will be demanding a free doughnut on the hallowed day of the doughnut, I set about to collect thoughts on these environmental debates from those on the front lines of the doughnut war: the counter staff at Dunkin' Donuts.

"What kind of oil do you use to make the doughnuts?" I asked at the first store.

"I don't make the doughnuts," the cashier responded. "They just arrive in a truck and we put them out."

"Do you know what's in them though?"

"It should be online…"

"Okay, so where is this factory then?"

"Somewhere in New Jersey."

Not very insightful, but thankfully there are 500 Dunkin' Donuts shops sprinkled like a sugary constellation throughout New York City. And so I walked two blocks to get to another one, hoping for a more nuanced understanding of the debate.

"National Doughnut Day, eh? Bet you're going to sell a lot of doughnuts."

"The doughnuts are free with a beverage purchase," the doughnut man responded.

"So what about all the issues with palm oil and deforestation? Does that ever come up in your staff meetings or anything?"

"No, do you know your order?"

And so I headed to another fluorescently lit corner of Dunkin's doughnut universe, still intent to understand the staff's unique perspective on the debate.

"So what do you think about Dunkin' Donuts use of palm oil?"

"We use vegetable oil," he responded.

"Yes, but a lot of it is palm oil. Do you have a franchise statement about this or anything?"

"Do you know what you want to order?" He asked.

"Um a Boston Crème? And maybe that white one with the sprinkles. How much palm oil is in these?" He didn't respond. (The real answer: a lot).

"That will be $2.18."

Not that I actually expected every service staff member of this largely faceless corporation to have a nuanced understanding of the environmental policy debate surrounding palm oil. I get it. It's busy, your job sucks, and my questions are annoying. But I have to say that the complete lack of knowledge about how these foodstuffs by the people selling them was a bit disconcerting. There should be at least a baseline knowledge I thought for what was in them, just so I could make my brain aware before I stuffed my face. But the general air of ambivalence fits with the broader vibe of National Doughnut Day, and also every other day in the United States.

I wanted to find out if Dunkin' Donuts provides any sort of education on the issues with palm oil to their employees, so I called them up for an official statement. No one was able to take my call, but they e-mailed me back with a response:

"We support a moratorium on palm oil expansion in rainforests and peatlands because irresponsible palm oil production contributes to deforestation, loss of natural habitats and other environmental concerns. In addition, we are working with our suppliers to develop a plan to source 100 percent sustainable palm oil, and to ensure independent verification of compliance with our policy. We will share our progress in future CSR reports. We are in the process of drafting a formal palm oil policy. A final copy of the policy will be publicly available by the end of 2014."

I'll be waiting with bated breath until the publication of that formal palm oil policy, but it's good to know that at least the corporate office knows something about all the externalities that go into their doughnuts.

Forget that foods like these are causing deadly sickness and killing endangered species; as long as its sweet, fried, and free, we want it. Hell, we might even get in line for seconds, especially when it's free on National Doughnut Day.