Palm Oil: The World’s Best Edible Oil?

You can cook with any number of oils on the market, but which one is truly best? Editor Chad Merchant embarks on a quest to learn the facts and determine which edible oil offers today’s eco-minded, health-conscious consumers the ideal choice. The answer may surprise you.

I still remember my first visit to Malaysia. As the plane lined up for the final approach to KL International Airport, I looked out the window and saw vast tracts of trees, all lined up neatly. As we dipped lower and lower, I could make out more details and remember thinking that these trees were attractive; certainly very palm-like and tropical-looking. That was four years ago, and what I didn’t know then was that I was looking at but a small parcel of Malaysia’s burgeoning palm oil industry. The trees, of course, were oil palms (Elaeis guineensis), and as I made the transition from tourist to resident, I learned more and more about the importance of this tree to the country and her people. Recently, I sat down with Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, to get some facts about palm oil manufacturing, the broader industry in Malaysia, and the health attributes of this oil, which is largely a mystery to most Western consumers.

Dr. Basiron, a modest but thoroughly engaging man, speaks passionately of the industry his group represents and is a wealth of knowledge, handling every question I threw at him with aplomb. I have discovered it’s easy to be confident when your knowledge is grounded in facts, and that was indeed Dr. Basiron’s unwavering approach.

To be certain, palm oil has been somewhat victimized by its much more well-known competitors in many parts of the world, such as soybean, rapeseed, and canola oils. These industries, in their bid to maintain market share, have seized on consumers’ relative ignorance of what palm oil really is, and painted a negative portrait of palm oil (or allowed it to take hold) as a profoundly unhealthy, tropical oil, overrun with saturated fatty acids and a sure ticket to heart problems and high cholesterol.

As I learned from my conversation with Dr. Basiron, this characterization is completely unfounded and inaccurate.

The mistaken notion that palm oil is a so-called “tropical oil,” like coconut oil, is easy to understand. Indeed, both of these oils come from palm trees, but that’s really where the similarity ends. The oil palm tree, apart from being a different species from the coconut palm, actually yields two very different oils itself. Palm oil comes only from the fruit of the tree, specifically from the soft flesh of the palm fruit, called the mesocarp. Much like olives, the oil palm fruits are pressed to extract their precious oils. This is the palm oil Dr. Basiron was discussing with me, and this is the oil that is used in a wide range of food products. The other oil the tree produces is from the seed of the fruit and is called palm kernel oil. Though the names are quite similar, allowing for easy confusion, the two oils are markedly different in composition.

Palm oil is, at its broadest definition, is a vegetable oil, and more specifically a fruit oil. As such, like all vegetable oils, it has no cholesterol. (This is present only in oils from animal origin.) Moreover, palm oil has a rather unique chemical profile in that it possesses a near-equal balance of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Unlike other tropical oils, whose saturated fatty acids can comprise over 90% of the oil, palm oil has only 50% saturated fatty acids, and this level is balanced with 50% unsaturated fatty acids. Owing to this composition, clinical studies have shown that palm oil tends to be “net neutral” in terms of the effect on a person’s cholesterol levels.

Palm oil is naturally very high in carotenoids, organic pigments that occur naturally in fruits and vegetables. It has been well-documented that people with diets naturally rich in carotenoids are healthier and more resistant to chronic illnesses. Unrefined palm oil in particular (which is orange-red in colour) is a powerful source of carotenoids – 15 times more than carrots, and 30 times more than tomatoes! This power-packed oil is easy to spot on the shelf, owing to its deep orange colour, and is called Red Palm Oil.

Even when refined, the unique manner in which crude palm oil is processed ensures that its naturally high levels of various forms of vitamin E are retained. In particular, palm oil is among nature’s richest sources of tocotrienols, which are members of the vitamin E family, and tocotrienols are a powerful antioxidant. Tests conducted in the United States show that these antioxidants have a number of beneficial health attributes, including lower blood cholesterol levels, prevention of plaque formation inside arterial walls, and the inhibition of the growth and spread of breast cancer cells. Most other popular vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, canola, or sunflower, do not contain tocotrienols.

Finally – and this is of particular interest to Westerners who are increasingly aware of the dangers of trans-fatty acids (TFAs) – palm oil is TFA-free. With palm oil’s unique natural semi-solid composition, fractionation during processing results in a liquid component (palm olein) and a more solid component (palm stearin). With some other oils, TFAs are formed during hydrogenation, a process that basically converts a naturally liquid oil into a solid state. (Think of corn oil that has been converted to margarine, for example.) This process forms TFAs, which substantially increase the risk of coronary disease, lower “good” cholesterol, and raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood. Health agencies worldwide have recommended that TFAs be consumed in only trace amounts, as minimally as possible. Since palm oil does not require hydrogenation to achieve a solidified oil product, it remains completely TFA-free.

Apart from its scientifically proven health attributes, palm oil is an excellent oil for frying and cooking. It has excellent stability, long shelf life, can withstand heat and resist oxidation well (its smoke point is 230°C), and has a mild, neutral flavor, which enables it to be used on its own or blended perfectly with other oils. Because of palm oil’s tremendous usefulness in the kitchen, and its comparatively low cost, cooks throughout the region have been using it for many years and it is today perhaps the most widely used frying oil in the world. So not only is palm oil vastly different from coconut oil or even palm kernel oil, it’s also surprisingly different from any other vegetable oil, as well. Truly, this is a unique edible oil.

Long before technologies existed to determine the effects of palm oil on human health, people were consuming this oil, whose tree is native to West Africa. The oil palm was introduced to the Malaysian peninsula in the late 1800s by the British, who brought it to be used chiefly as ornamental foliage. It didn’t take long before the commercial value of the tree was understood, and in 1917, the first oil palm plantation was planted in Tennamran Estate, Selangor. Now, a century later, Malaysia is among the world leaders in the production and export of palm oil, with roughly four million hectares of Malaysian land under the cultivation of the large, bushy palms.

The oil palm can grow to a rather large size, but care is taken in plantations to keep the height to a level at which workers can still reach the fruits without having to rely on special equipment. Each tree carries both male and female flowers, and produces tightly-packed clusters of fruit which can weigh up to 25kg and bear up to 3,000 individual fruitlets. Once the tree is mature enough to start bearing fruits, it will continue to do so, fairly prolifically, for the next 20 to 30 years, producing 12 large bunches of fruit per year.

Think of a familiar fruit, such as a peach. The outside part of the peach, the “skin” is its endocarp, and of course the peach pit is its seed. The actual flesh of the peach is the mesocarp. The fruit of the oil palm is very much like this, and it’s the flesh that is pressed for its precious oils. However, an oil palm tree can be amazingly productive relative to other fruits, and certainly to other edible oil crops. In the course of a year, a single palm can yield over 30,000 individual fruits, and the oil palm is well regarded as the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world, as shown here:

To put this in better perspective, one hectare of corn will yield about 172 litres of oil. That same hectare planted with soybeans will yield about 446 litres of oil. Olive trees will produce about 1,212 litres per hectare. And what about palm oil? One hectare under oil palm cultivation can yield a staggering 4,500 litres of oil, nearly 10 times the yield of soybeans. No other oil-bearing crop even comes close.

Dr. Basiron talked to me about not only the health attributes of palm oil, but about the broader palm oil industry, as well. Since oil palms are tropical trees, they’re grown almost exclusively in countries in that zone, most of which are developing nations. In Malaysia alone, the industry provides direct employment for more than 570,000 people. In neighbouring Indonesia, palm oil has been credited with lifting millions of people out of the grip of poverty. Here in Malaysia, oil palms are planted only on legitimate cropland – land that the government has designated for agricultural use. Less than a quarter of Malaysia’s land area is zoned for agricultural use, and more than 50% of the country’s land is set aside, as policy, to remain under permanent forest. Overall, oil palm plantations account for less than 14% of Malaysia’s total land area. The benefits of this modest investment, relative to total land area, are enormous, both to the country as a whole, and to her people, down to the individual level of workers in the industry.

Additionally, oil palms are a sustainable, perennial crop and yield a “net carbon sink” over the economic lifespan of the trees. Oil palms provide year-round green coverage for some 97% of the total plantation area and this level of coverage, coupled with the large surface area of the palm fronds, allows an area planted with these trees to absorb as much carbon dioxide and produce as much oxygen as the same land area under full forest.

So from my meeting with Dr. Basiron, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s CEO, I learned that not only is palm oil a unique edible oil with several positive health attributes, I discovered that the crop itself is not at all the ecological menace its opponents have made it out to be. Palm oil is vitally important to Malaysia’s economy, and given its rather small footprint relative to the world’s agricultural land area, produces a marvellously versatile and popular edible oil product at a rate of efficiency not remotely approached by any other oil-bearing crop. Palm oil is used in an amazing range of consumer products from cooking oil, margarine, and ice cream to cosmetics, washing agents, and pharmaceuticals. As a food product, which accounts for about 80% of the world’s palm oil output, the oil offers a healthy alternative to many other oils, and typically at a lower price.

This article is reproduced from Health Holidays in Malaysia 2012, published by The Expat Group

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