Palm Oil: The Facts
This letter was published in The New York Times in reply to an advertisement by CSPI
In an advertisement published in your newspaper on Tuesday, March 21, 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) accuses palm oil producers of wantonly destroying wildlife habitat and killing orangutans. With respect to Malaysia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, these accusations are untrue.
In Malaysia, the areas converted to palm cultivation over the past two decades came from pre-existing rubber, cocoa and coconut farms, or from logged-over forests of areas zoned for agriculture. Today, 64% of Malaysia remains forested. Taken together with perennial tree crop areas, such as palm farms, about 80% of Malaysia is covered by forests and trees. The lush habitat of palm farms encourages and sustains biodiversity.
The Malaysian oil palm industry is subject to and strives to comply with a wide array of environmental laws, including the Land Conversion Act of 1960, the Environmental Quality Act of 1974, the Pesticide Act of 1974, the National Park Act of 1984 and the Environmental Quality Act of 1986. For example, the clearing of 500 hectares or more of land requires permission from the Malaysia Department of Environment and an environmental impact assessment study. In large areas of the country jungle is not allowed to be cleared for palm cultivation. In cases where logged-over forests are converted to palm cultivation, strict regulations prohibit open burning and require careful treatment of logging debris. The industry uses environmentally-sound practices in connection with fertilization, pest control, land and crop management, and waste management.
Malaysia’s wildlife protection and rehabilitation programs include the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, where displaced orangutans, especially the young, are allowed to develop before returning to the wild. These sanctuaries include other species as well, including sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, gibbons, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and hornbill birds. Other collaborative wildlife protection projects include an Asian Rhino Elephant project, a fish and aquatic life conservation project in oxbow lakes, and a conservation project for the slow loris. Recently, two forest reserves, Ulu Segama and Malua which cover a total area of 237,777 hectares and form the heartland of Sabah’s orangutan population were designated sustainable forest management areas to preserve the areas biodiversity.
CSPI also incorrectly claims that palm oil promotes heart disease. Although palm oil is used world-wide for cooking and food preparation, in the United States it comprises a very small component of edible oil consumption, and is used primarily in baked goods and prepared foods. Recent concerns about health risks posed by trans fats, and new FDA regulations requiring disclosure of trans fat content in foods, have increased the use of palm oil by US food manufacturers. Palm oil provides food manufacturers a more natural alternative to hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats and, as CSPI concedes, palm oil is a more healthful alternative to partially hydrogenated oils.
Palm oil does not promote heart disease. Controlled human studies in the US, Europe and Asia consistently found no signifi- cant increase in serum total cholesterol levels when palm oil is substituted for fats in habitual diets. In some of these studies, the substitution of palm oil was found to significantly increase the level of beneficial HDL cholesterol.
There is no evidence that palm oil, by itself, promotes heart disease. Americans should choose a healthful, balanced diet and consume in moderation many of the prepared foods that contain oils & fats. There is no credible justification for avoiding altogether foods simply because they contain palm oil as an ingredient. Research carried out in the US using a blend of 50% palm oil, 40% soya oil and 10% rapeseed oil resulted in attainment of the ideal fatty acid composition of 1:1:1 ratio of saturated, monoun- saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acid profile as desired and recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA). This blend has produced a patented result of improving the cholesterol profile of subjects eating such dietary oil blends, and the cholesterol profile improvement claim has been approved by the FDA.
Most fat blends used for cookies in the USA containing palm oil as an ingredient have fatty acid composition approaching this ideal blend with the expected optimum benefit on cholesterol profile.
It is ironic that CSPI, not knowing the science behind the ideal blend is discouraging consumers from benefiting from the nutri- tionally beneficial fat blends and opportunity for trans free fat products as well. We look forward to work with CSPI to serve the best interest of consumers.
Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron
Chief Executive Officer
Malaysian Palm Oil Council