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The role palm oil plays in food nutrition


Palm oil is the most abundant natural edible vegetable oil in the world and yet, consumers probably don’t intuitively associate palm oil as being “natural”. In light of an increasingly health-conscious generation, where consumers want to be informed when making choices, we want to answer the question: why is palm oil important for health and nutrition?

Its unique composition makes it trans-fat free

Trans-fat is bad for you. Many health authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), now advise against it because it is clinically proven to increase cardiovascular disease. In fact, the US Food & Drug Administration has ordered that trans-fat must be removed from all food supply by 18 June 2018; WHO also plans to eliminate it from food completely by 2023.

At this point, another question follows naturally – If trans-fat is so bad, why was its presence allowed in our food products in the first place?

According to the European Palm Oil Alliance, there was a demand to switch from animal fats to vegetable-based fats since the 1950s, as it was lower in cholesterol. Oils from soybean, sunflower, rapeseed and corn (liquid at room temperature) were plentiful, but to turn them from liquid to semi-solid form, which would make them more stable to oxidation and more functional during manufacture, partial hydrogenation was required. Partial hydrogenation led to the formation of industrial trans-fats in those oils, of which little was known back then. Only much later did scientists prove a direct correlation between trans-fats and cardiovascular disease.

Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature, making it suitable for general food use without hydrogenation.

Palm oil, on the other hand, is a healthier alternative to these vegetable oils because it is semi-solid in its naturally-occurring form at room temperature, eliminating the need for partial hydrogenation, making it naturally trans-fat-free.

It is a proven better alternative

Palm oil has contributed significantly to nutrition in food products.

Three decades ago, recognising the negative health impact of trans-fat, a handful of global nutrition-focused food manufacturers actively sought to remove industrial trans-fatty acids from their brands. For example, in the early 1990s, Unilever decided to remove trans-fatty acids from spreads and other foods[1]. Efforts to use palm oil, played a fundamental role in ensuring a successful transition to producing food without trans-fat. Since the middle of the 2000’s, many countries started following WHO’s guidance to mitigate trans-fatty acids. The most natural and effective route is still palm oil.

Next, came the genetic modification of soybean oil, triggering an increase of demand for more natural oils. Palm oil was the only natural edible vegetable oil in abundant supply. This unique status of palm oil remains today – currently, no other globally available edible oil rivals natural palm oil in its versatility, without need for modification, be it genetic modification, or modification through hydrogenation.

The palm fruit is useful in its entirety. Not only can we extract oil from its yellow fleshy part, but we can also utilise the palm kernel, which is abundant in special medium chain fatty acids.

The fatty acid chemistry of palm kernel oil is near identical to that of coconut oil – which is fast becoming popular for its beneficial properties. The disadvantage of coconut oil, however, is that the practice of extracting it leads to contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of chemicals that can cause cataracts, kidney and liver damage with long-term exposure[2].

Palm kernel, on the other hand, is processed very differently, and is therefore free from similar contamination.  As a result, it has become a more suitable choice when a rich source of medium and short chain fatty acids is required.

The palm fruit’s white centre is its kernel that can be used to make palm kernel oil, rich in medium and short chain fatty acids.

Its various fractions serve a variety of nutritional needs

Thanks to modern advancements, there are many more palm oil fractions available today which were not abundant 20 years ago (as they would have been too expensive to produce in large quantities in the past). These fractions are now more widely available for specialised applications or to accommodate specific nutritional requirements.

For example, the availability of the olein (liquid) fraction, known as one of the palm mid-fractions, has enabled the development of milk fat replacers. It allows the formulation of products without milk fat components for allergenic intolerance reasons, to compensate low availability of milk fats, or simply to lower the cost of products.

The increasing worldwide demand for chocolate, for instance, has drawn a gap between the demand and supply of cocoa beans. Thanks to the availability of special cocoa butter replacement fractions from palm and palm kernel oil, chocolate coatings, fillings and creams can now be made with palm instead of cocoa.

As mentioned above, kernel fractions are highly saturated in medium and short chain fatty acids, making their olein fraction suitable for use in nutrition formula for infants and energy food for athletes. These specific fatty acids do not accumulate and deposit in the bloodstream in the same way as other long chain saturated fats do[3].

A valuable oil with a significant role to play in the production of healthier food

Healthy and delicious food products made with palm oil.

Besides being trans-fat free and meeting specific nutritional needs, palm oil has a whole lot of other health benefits. For one, it is a rich source of beta-carotene, and a precursor of Vitamin A. Palm oil, also contains tocopherols and tocotrienols, which are constituents of the antioxidant Vitamin E. These natural antioxidants act as scavengers of damaging oxygen free radicals. Recent advancements show their biological properties in protecting against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration, oxidative stress and immune regulation[4].

Given the host of health benefits of palm oil when used as an ingredient in food, and in view of the increasing emphasis on food being free of trans-fat and hydrogenation, we believe that palm oil has, and will continue to have, a huge role to play in the production of nutritionally safer products.

That is why we invest in R&D to continuously innovate on the production of safe, healthy and delicious food products.

Beyond food use, learn more about palm oil’s wide application for many other consumer products, including cosmetics and soaps.

Dr. Paul Wassell is a specialist in edible fats & oils application working at GAR. He has over 35 years of experience in the field of food technology and application, in particular baking and confectionary applications. Paul has a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Chester in the UK.

[1] The Elimination of Trans Fats from Spreads: How Science Helped to Turn an Industry around, Onno Korver and Martijn B. Katan (2006).
[2] A review on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Source, environmental impact, effect on human health and remediation, Hussein I.Abdel-Shafy and Mona S.M.Mansour (2016)
[3] The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil, Fabian M. Dayrit (2014).
[4] Biological Properties of Tocotrienols: Evidence in Human Studies, Puvaneswari Meganathan and Ju-Yen Fu (2016).
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