HEALTHY OIL: Many avoid foods high in saturated fats, fearing the onset of artery-clogging diseases such as heart attack and stroke. A food scientist tells Ooi Tee Ching the facts on palm oil nutrition
MANY people worry that if they eat cakes, biscuits, pastries and chocolate made with palm oil, it will be detrimental to their health.
They believe that the saturated fat content in palm oil is too high to be part of a healthy diet, said Malaysian Oil Scientists and Technologists Association president Tan Sri Dr Augustine Ong.
A former Malaysian Palm Oil Board director-general, Ong recalled that the first negative attention palm oil received was in the 1980s when outraged millionaire industrialist Phil Sokolov suffered a heart attack and started campaigning against the ubiquitous use of tropical oils -- such as palm and coconut oil -- in ready-to-serve foods.
Sokolov's campaign themed "The Poisoning of America" featured nationwide full-page newspaper advertisements describing the dangers of saturated fats found in palm oil.
Many of his supporters repeatedly linked palm oil consumption to increasing blood cholesterol levels and heart disease risk; a misconception that still looms to this day.
Ong acknowledges that palm oil contains a higher percentage of saturated fat when compared with heart healthy dietary oils like olive oil. But it must also be highlighted that half of palm oil's fat content is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated -- known to increase "good cholesterol" and benefit the cardiovascular system.
Ong said Sokolov was correct that palm oil was relatively high in saturated fats when compared with other vegetable oils like soy, canola and sunflower. But, in contrast with meat and dairy fats, palm oil does not contain cholesterol.
Three decades later, countless studies have proven that animal sources of saturated fats pose far higher heart disease risk than palm cooking oil -- something Sokolov's campaign was not aware of.
Ong explained that since palm oil was a plant-based saturated fats, it metabolises differently in the body and does not promote plaque build-up in the arteries.
"In fact, there are now more than 100 studies proving that tocotrienols, a vitamin E variant in palm oil, lowers bad cholesterol," he said.
"Saturated fats are a necessity in our daily diet. The real villain in cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are artificial trans fats brought on by the hydrogenation of soft oils."
Luisa Gambelli, a food technologist and formulator with renowned specialty fats company Loders Croklaan Europe lists down 10 interesting facts about palm oil.
FACT 1: Palm oil is a fruit oil.
Palm oil is obtained from the flesh of the oil palm fruit. Like olive oil, palm oil is a fruit oil. Palm oil should not be mistaken for palm kernel oil which is extracted from the kernel or seed of the palm fruit.
Each palm fruit yields 90 per cent palm oil and 10 per cent palm kernel oil. Palm oil has a balanced composition of both saturated and unsaturated fats, coupled with high content of vitamin E.
FACT 2: Palm oil has been in our food since 5,000 years ago.
According to archaeological findings, traces of palm oil were found in an Egyptian tomb in Abydos. Since the country does not produce palm oil, this evidence suggests that palm oil had already been widely traded during the time of the Pharaohs.
FACT 3: Palm oil is the world's most consumed vegetable oil.
Palm oil is consumed worldwide as cooking oil and constituents of margarine and shortening. Last year, leading industry journal Oil World showed that global consumption of vegetable oils totalled 178.2 million tonnes.
Of that volume, palm oil accounted for 30 per cent of the global market share, while rivals like soya oil only command 24 per cent and rapeseed oil, 13 per cent.
FACT 4: Palm oil is the world's most efficient oil crop.
Only 0.26 hectares of land is required to produce one tonne of oil while soybean, sunflower and rapeseed require 2.22, 2.0 and 1.52 hectares, respectively, to produce the same.
FACT 5: Palm oil is rich in carotenoids.
Palm oil is high in carotenoids, which include carotene and lycopene -- more than in carrots or tomatoes. It is these carotenoids that give the oil its red colouring.
Vitamin A, or retinol, is an important nutrient for vision, the immune system and gene expression in the formative years of young children. Lack of vitamin A can impair development in children, cause eye and skin problems and decrease immune system functions.
FACT 6: The vitamin E in palm oil can kill cancer cells.
Palm oil contains the complete vitamin E family of tocopherols and tocotrienols. Studies on breast cancer cells showed that palm oil vitamin E inhibited the growth of the cancer cells of as much as 50 per cent. Cancer cells death was also observed.
FACT 7: Palm oil vitamin E may save brain cells from dying in the event of a stroke.
Tocotrienols are a naturally occurring vitamin E nutrient in palm oil. Studies published in the journal Stroke in 2005, show that brain cells treated with tocotrienols were 100 per cent more likely to survive in the event of a stroke.
Only a small amount of tocotrienol is needed to achieve these effects -- about 250 nanomolar, which is 10 times lower than the average amount of tocotrienol circulating in humans who consume vitamin E regularly.
FACT 8: Palm oil is nutritionally balanced.
One tablespoon of processed palm cooking oil contains 120 calories and 13.6 grams of fat. With a balanced combination of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats, palm oil is made up of 44 per cent oleic, 10 per cent linoleic, 40 per cent palmitic and five per cent stearic acids.
FACT 9: Saturated fats are not necessarily bad.
Tropical oils have a bad reputation in cardiovascular health because they contain high levels of saturated fats compared with other vegetable oils.
Nevertheless a recent analysis published in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that there was no evidence to show that dietary saturated fat was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The effect of saturated fat should be seen in the context of a person's overall diet and environment.
High intake of saturated fat associated to low intake in polyunsaturated fatty acids, consumption of sugary and salty foods, excessive alchohol intake, smoking and stress collectively trigger the onset of cardiovascular diseases.
FACT 10: Poly-unsaturated oils are unhealthy when hydrogenated.
Many foods, like baked pastries and confectioneries, require solid fats to give them structure and texture. This is achieved either by using saturated fats or partially hydrogenated polyunsaturated fats containing trans fats.
For decades, trans fats were used as the preferred choice. But following increasing awareness of the deadly effects of trans fats in the last decade, many food scientists have turned to alternatives.
Health-conscious food producers have switched to palm oil and its solid fractions as they become convinced of its versatility and natural image.
Food scientists confirmed that palm oil does not need to be hydrogenated to bake well. For products requiring very high heat, such as frying, palm oil combines good performance with high stability and shelf life, both lacking in highly unsaturated fats.