There is no alternative to palm oil. Palm oil is natural, containing vitamins A and E, rich in nutritional values. Products formulated to replace palm oil lack originality. These products do not possess the nutritional values such as vitamins A and E that are present in natural palm oil.
Palm oil’s high melting point and high saturated fat content make it an ideal ingredient for creams and confectionaries. Other vegetable oils require to be partially hydrogenated, a process where hydrogen atoms are added to fat molecules to achieve the same consistency but result in unhealthy trans-fats. Palm oil’s colourless and odourless property also makes it a universal food additive.
As such, there is no palm oil alternative that comprises palm oil’s natural vitamins. Recently, a US-based firm which produces oils and fats using biomanufacturing introduced a palm oil alternative, using its first industrial-scale 50,000-litre fermentation tank. The firm claims that its palm oil alternative product demonstrates its effort to reduce palm oil’s impact on climate change.
According to reports, some companies are also working to develop cultured oils using fermentation.
Synthetic palm oil lacks functional benefits
Synthetic palm oil lacks originality as it does not contain vitamins A and E as compared with natural palm oil, which is rich with these nutritional values. The raw materials used to produce synthetic palm oil may not be from original sources and, hence, are not able to produce vitamins A and E that are currently present in natural palm oil. In short, such an alternative would be rather an empty substitute without any substantial nutritional benefits that are readily available in palm oil.
Synthetic palm oil cannot be used to make cosmetics and skincare products as it comes from industrial by-products. The production of the synthetic palm oil uses microbes to convert food waste and industrial by-products through a fermentation process, which is touted as a replacement for the plant-derived version.
The firm claimed to use Metschnikowia pulcherrima, a type of yeast that is known for its ability to convert sugars into fatty acids, which can be used to produce biofuels and other industrial products. M. pulcherrima is generally known to be a slow fermentation agent. Should its oil be ready for commercial purposes, its substantial increase in demand would drive the price to be at a premium, with less nutritional value.
On top of that, the demand rush and the urge of the market to shift towards it would tempt its producers to introduce genetically modified organism (GMO) derived strains to enhance its production, thus creating yet another market defiled with a swarm of products with unknown potential risks to the environment, and the human health.
Notwithstanding that, the main producer on the specialised strain may take the advantage on patenting of life, and the control of the food supply by a small number of companies.
Palm oil’s health attributes
The phytonutrients in palm oil include Vitamin E, carotenes, phytosterols, squalene, coenzyme Q10, palm phenolics and phospholipids.
The carotenes and Vitamin E are known for their antioxidant as well as anti-inflammatory properties, while the other phytonutrients exhibit numerous other special properties that have potential in the pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, food as well as cosmetics industries.
The Vitamin E in palm oil is a mixture of tocopherols (18-22 per cent) and tocotrienols (78-82 per cent). About 70 per cent of the vitamin remains in the refined, bleached and deodorised palm oil, after refining, i.e., 420-700 parts per million (ppm). Tocotrienols are the more powerful antioxidants due to their ability to penetrate tissues with saturated fatty acid layers better.
The Vitamin E in palm oil contains neuroprotection and anticancer properties. It also possesses anti-angiogenesis properties that may assist in tumour regression. Studies also show that it has antiatherosclerosis properties which may reduce atherosclerosis by removing plaque buildup in the arteries.
Palm oil is one of the richest sources of carotenoids. Carotenoids in palm oil have anticancer properties. There are 13 compounds of carotenoids in the oil, the major ones being β-carotene, α-carotene, lycopene, phytoene and phytofluene.
Carotenoids have pro-Vitamin A activity, which means they can perform a nutritional function due to their strong antioxidant activity. Carotenoids prevent xerophthalmia or night blindness. Carotenoids improve Vitamin A status of lactating mothers and their babies, increase serum retinol concentration and combat Vitamin A deficiency. In addition to cardiovascular protection, carotenoids also suppress the growth of various cancer cells, such as breast, liver, colon and lung.
Red palm oil is obtained from refining crude palm oil at low temperature, which preserves more than 80 per cent of the carotenoids and Vitamin E. The red palm oil has a special flavour and aroma, and is rich in phytonutrients, like carotenoids (that give the oil its bright red colour), Vitamin E, phytosterols and coenzyme Q10.
Palm oil also contains phytosterols, which possess anticancer properties and can lower cholesterol by inhibiting its absorption.
In addition, squalene in palm oil is a lipophilic antioxidant with the unique characteristic of anchoring to the cell membrane. Daily supplementation of squalene can inhibit cholesterol synthesis and suppress cancer cells.
Palm oil also has coenzyme Q10, also known as ubiquinone, which possesses 10 times the antioxidant property of Vitamin E. Other health benefits of coenzyme Q10 include enhanced production of cellular energy, cardio protection and anticancer properties.
The oil palm fruit is also a rich source of phenolic compounds. During the milling process, the oil palm phenolics (OPP) enter the aqueous waste stream, and are discarded. Pre-clinical trials on OPP have demonstrated numerous biological activities. Caffeoylshikimic acid, a major phenolic in OPP, can be hydrolysed to shikimic acid for pharmaceutical uses.
Palm phenolics have antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiatherogenic, anticancer, antidiabetic, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective and cognitive enhancement properties, and protect against age-related macular degeneration (ARMD).
Like all other oils and fats, palm oil provides 9 kcal/g energy, compared to 4 kcal/g for protein and carbohydrate (1 kcal = 4.18 kJ).
Palm oil is unique in being naturally semi-saturated and semi-solid, and, therefore, does not require hydrogenation to become more solid, obviating the trans problem. The worldwide quest to eliminate unhealthy trans fats should open the door for palm oil as a substitute.
Assessment should be made before making claims that palm oil is a major driver of deforestation and a leading cause of climate change.
Oil palm cultivated areas account for less than one per cent of global agricultural land of around five billion hectares compared with other oilseeds crops (five per cent) and other crops (23 per cent) while livestock is the largest at around 71 per cent.
In terms of yields, oil palm has a yield that is five to nine times higher than other oilseed crops such as soybean, sunflower and rapeseed with productivity amounting to four tonnes of oil per hectare a year.
Malaysia is committed to protecting its forests, flora and fauna through conservation and sustainable management. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the country pledged to preserve 50 per cent of its landmass under forest and tree cover, which is far higher than forest cover in most large European countries including France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Malaysia also participated in the Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use and the Global Methane Pledge at the 26th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP-26) held in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in November 2021. This reflects Malaysia’s commitment to conserve and sustainably manage its forests and protect its flora and fauna.
Over the past decades, Malaysia’s deforestation rate has decreased. For the period from 1991 to 2000, the deforestation rate was at 0.27 per cent, which fell drastically to 0.09 per cent for the period from 2001 to 2010.
From 2010 to 2015, the forested area increased by two per cent to 18.25 million hectares. More specifically, during the period from 2008 to 2018, except for 2016 and 2018, all other years recorded a net gain in forest area. The main reason for the increase was the implementation of the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Certification Scheme which aims to reduce social and environmental impact of the palm oil production.
Various programmes and initiatives for conservation and preservation of forests and biodiversity have been implemented, including the Central Forest Spine and Heart of Borneo reforestation through replanting of forest tree species and establishment of wildlife corridors. Malaysia ranks among the top countries globally for having land area under forest cover. Malaysia conserves the forest because it is a key environmental asset contributing towards climate stability and protecting water, soil, plant and wildlife species.
Malaysia also delivered its commitment to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in 2015 on climate change, whereby it voluntarily agreed to cut the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the emissions intensity of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005, and it has so far reduced it by 33 per cent. In 2014, Malaysia’s net carbon dioxide removals were 1.7 times and 3.5 times higher than that of France and Germany, respectively.
Alternatives will cause further damage to the environment
Palm oil has been scientifically proven as the most efficient and the most versatile vegetable oil as compared with other vegetable oils. Efforts to replace palm oil will only cause damage to the environment.
A study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2013 stated that producing one tonne of soybean oil and rapeseed needs much more inputs such as fertilisers (nitrogen and phosphate), pesticides, herbicides, land, and energy if compared to the needed inputs in producing one tonne of palm oil.
Data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reveals that only around 0.26 hectare of land is needed to produce one tonne of palm oil. But soybean oil, rapeseed oil and sunflower oil need two hectares, 1.25 hectares and 1.43 hectares of land, respectively, to produce one tonne of oil.
Additionally, the production of soybean oil, rapeseed oil and sunflower oil will also produce much more pollution or residues discharged into soil, water, and greenhouse gases to the air compared to the production of palm oil.
Datuk Dr Ahmad Parveez Hj Ghulam Kadir is the Director-General of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).