The Science is on the Side of Palm Oil
Palm oil’s success in penetrating the world market in a dominant way over the last three decades was due to its popularity for use in food and oleochemical sectors. Initially producers of competing oils felt threatened by the rapid advancement in the market share of palm oil. This resulted in deliberate campaigns mounted in the USA in the 1980s to discourage the importation of palm oil.
Health issues were used as a disguise to set up trade bariers linking palm oil to saturated fats as these fats were known to raise cholesterol levels. However, these claims were not supported by any well designed nutritional studies. On the contrary many comparative studies showed the neutral or lowering effects on cholesterol by a palm oil diet especially when compared to coconut oil or fats in the habitual western diet.
Cholesterol Modulating Effect of Palm Olein and Olive Oil are Comparable
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In other studies when the liquid olein of palm oil was compared with (liquid) olive oil or (liquid) canola oil, the cholesterol lowering results were similar.Similarly, blends of palm olein with soya and /or canola oil, had a beneficial effect of improving the ratio of good HDL (high-density lipoprotein)to bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Such findings have been patented and products made under such patents in the USA are allowed by the Foods and Drugs Authority(FDA) to carry the label “Patented blend to help improve your cholesterol ratio.”
With the growing interest in the detrimental effects of trans fatty acids(TFA), studies comparing palm oil and TFA were conducted. It became clear that trans fatty acids have the dual negative effects of increasing the bad LDL cholesterol and reducing the good HDL cholesterol, while palm oil has the effect of raising the good cholesterol, and lowering or having a neutral effect (non significant increase) on the bad LDL cholesterol. This led experts to conclude that palm oil is a reasonable alternative to TFA especially when fat products are required for functionality purposes.
Trans fats are produced by hydrogenating soft oils to make them solid for use in baking and margarines. Hydrogenation produces artificial TFA which cause the double negative effects on cholesterol levels. The health authorities in the USA are discouraging the consumption of TFA containing fats. TFA have been scientifically linked to the incidence of heart disease.
Based on these scientific studies, the entire anti palm oil campaign machinery in the USA did not succeed in dampening the palm oil demand because science was and continues to be on the side of palm oil.
There are those who will argue that the poly-unsaturated oils will reduce cholesterol more than palm oil. This question was actually investigated by comparing palm oil and corn oil against coconut oil as a positive control. The study revealed that palm oil raised the good HDL cholesterol and reduced the bad LDL cholesterol. Although corn oil reduced the bad LDL cholesterol more than palm oil but it also reduced the good HDL cholesterol when tested against the coconut oil control. This study clearly indicated that corn oil does not help improve the cholesterol ratio. These scientific results make it difficult for any expert to conclude that corn is better than palm oil or vice versa.
Numerous scientific studies showed that palm oil although having up to 50% saturated fatty acids does not behave as a saturated fat in that it does not raise cholesterol levels like saturates. Studies were conducted to help explain the “unexpected” non-cholesterol raising effects of palm oil. One study found that as long as there is a small percentage presence of unsaturates (as usually is the case in practice because the body receives blends of oils and fats), palm oil is non cholesterol raising in its behavior. Others postulate that palm oil molecules have unsaturated fatty acids occupying the middle position of the three glyceride carbon chain, and this unsaturation makes palm oil non cholesterol raising.
The beauty of science based studies is that the results are repeatable. References to these studies can be easily made available in case such experiments need to be repeated.
But this is not the case in the current practice of NGOs who offer their unsubstantiated opinions and provide only incomplete evidence relating to the environmental debate on palm oil. The anti-palm oil campaigns conducted by some so called environment friendly European NGOs failed to provide concrete proof on the deforestation effects of palm oil. (Showing pictures of legal agricultural land under preparation for oil palm planting is no proof of deforestation).
Despite the resouces available in the EU there is no systematic scientific study on the carbon dioxide emission saving on palm oil based biofuel. A pathetic (non-scientifically derived) carbon emission saving figure of 32 % was arbitrarily assigned to palm oil to make it fall below the thresh hold level of 35 % which is used as the minimum level accepted for biofuel raw material in the EU. Ironically, rapeseed oil in the EU qualified because some “experts” assigned it a default carbon emission saving figure of 36 %. If proper LCA studies were indeed conducted and the carbon sink properties of the oil palm trees and the deforestation avoidance effect of palm oil were accounted for, the carbon emission saving figure for palm oil biofuel would be more than 100%, making it the ideal renewable biofuel. Again, in these postulations, the science favours palm oil. Eventually the truth will prevail despite the manipulation of carbon emission saving figures for palm oil in the EU.
Overall, the current anti-palm oil campaigns conducted by some NGOs in the EU seems to attack the agricultural sector of a developing country like Malaysia. If the EU governments manipulate the emission saving figure to disqualify palm oil from being used a normal raw material for biofuel, they too are guilty of colluding with the NGOs by setting a trade barrier against the agricultural produce of a developing country. If the palm oil producing countries in turn were to retaliate by not favouring the importation of EU produced cars in preference for Japanese and Korean cars makers, the world’s current economic recession will likely last longer, especially in Europe.
Even though Malaysia designates a small portion of its land area for agriculture(less than 25% of its total land) and oil palm is an agricultural crop, the NGOs and some environmental scientists still insist on criticizing the oil palm plantation as not having high biodiversity like the forest. Why can’t these commentators be fair and match apples with apples by comparing oil palm plantations with other agricultural crops? They also insist that palm plantations will destroy forests. Again, all agricultural land in Malaysia must be derived from the clearing of an original forest, and no body is denying that because a country like Malaysia will try to develop its agricultural sector to an optimum level for example by planting oil palm on degraded land that is suitable and zoned for agriculture.
In reality a hectare of oil palm plantation will produce on average 4 tonnes of palm oil and when this is imported by other countries, it will save them from cutting 10hectares of forest if they were to grow their own soyabean crop to produce 4 tonnes of oil equivalent. Oil palm plantations have an indirect land use effect of saving ten times more forest area in the importing countries when they import their palm oil from Malaysia. This is referred to as the deforestation avoidance effect.
For those opposed to the development of biofuel, it is good to know that the oil from one hectare of oil palm plantation provides the longest travel on a standard car compared to any other biofuel including ethanol from sugarcane (or at least 10 times more distance than the oil from a hectare of soyabean). Countries such as Malaysia should feel lucky in having plenty of palm oil based biofuel to cater for its need in future when fosil fuel continues to be a scarce commodity.
Malaysia has its own biodiesel policy and technology. It needs to develop the local use of palm biofuel to reduce dependency on fossil fuel, and as a palm oil producer, there is a need to find new applications of palm oil to increase its market value. The announcement by the Malaysian Government to undertake mandatory blending of palm biofuel with petroleum diesel starting from February 2009 and the implementation of this policy means that palm biofuel market is no longer restricted to exist only in the EU .
The demand for biofuel will unlikely lead to deforestation in Malaysia as implied in the allegations by some of the EU NGOs. Why should Malaysia jeopardise its forests to accede to the wishes of the EU to meet its biofuel targets. In practice,palm oil will be available for biofuel to the world only when its use as food is already fulfilled and the excess (which causes prices to fall) will be cheap enough for use as biofuel. At most other times, palm oil will likely be expensive for use as biodiesel, since food demand due to chronic shortages of supply faced by most countries of the world will force palm oil prices to increase. Only Malaysia and Indonesia are major net exporters of oils and fats, (mostly palm oil), and Argentina is a distant third as a net exporter of mainly soyabean oil, while most other countries are net importers of oils and fats. This time, not only will the science favour palm oil in the environmental debate, the lack of alternative large sources of oils and fats availability also favour palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia to remain the major source of supply to the world market whether for use in food or biofuel.