Skip links

Challenging Misinformation And Embracing A Holistic Perspective Of Palm Oil

August 25, 2023

ENDURING scepticism, palm oil stands strong and refutes hasty rejections. Embedded in Malaysia’s culinary traditions for generations, it’s now part of a global conversation.

While many claims it harms health and the environment, there’s more to discover. The truth is that the story of palm oil is fraught with misunderstandings and misconceptions.

A closer inspection is essential to reveal its true worth. With a significant role in nourishing nations, it’s now under scrutiny in the court of public perception.

On the surface, palm oil is a symbol of national pride, a key economic contributor, and a nutritional marvel. However, it’s been in the spotlight recently, specifically for a part of it known as palmitic acid.

While some argue that palmitic acid may contribute to cancer growth – creating widespread fear among consumers – the truth for the most part still eludes us.

A report published in 2021 hinted at a connection between cancer growth and exposure to palm oil. Criticism has since sprung up around the report with experts pointing out that the study was overly simplistic and contained errors even though it was published in a reputable science journal.

Despite its flaws, the damage has been done with the report’s conclusions having exerted a negative impact on the palm oil industry without solid evidence to support them.

Still, the number of complexities associated with cancer risks in general remain controversial. Even with explanations about how palmitic acid works in the body, the research is incomplete, unverified and lacks solid support from theory and clinical studies.

Palm oil’s unique characteristics

Recently, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) hosted the Palm International Nutra-Cosmeceutical Conference 2023 (PINC 2023).

At the conference, a paper entitled “Will palm oil be replaceable by synthetic palmitic acid?” attempted to explain why certain research on palmitic acid was not supported by theoretical or real-life medical evidence. In conclusion, no evidence has been found that associates palm oil consumption per se with an increased risk of cancer incidence or mortality in humans.

It’s important to consider that palmitic acid represents 20-30% of total fatty acids in the human body, equating to approximately 3.5kg for a 70kg person.

Additionally, palmitic acid is the dominant fatty acid in human milk (~20%) and corresponds to nearly 50% of the total body fat in new-born infants, accounting for roughly 11% of total energy.

It is also innate to all vegetable oils with varying percentages in oils such as canola, sunflower, palm kernel, peanut, coconut, soybean, corn, olive, and particularly high in palm oil at 44.0%.

Considering that palmitic acid is even found in human breast milk, some studies have pointed out that failing to differentiate between palmitic acid from our food and the palmitic acid our bodies produce naturally can lead to confusion.

This uncertainty blurs the concerns about palmitic acid, making the assertion that it’s entirely harmful seem particularly shaky if not incorrect.

Instead, beyond the boundaries of our biology, palm oil’s unique characteristics, including its specific fatty acid profile and combination of saturated fats, carotenoids, tocotrienols and squalene make it technically challenging and costly to replace.

There is neither an economic nor an environmental case for large-scale substitution with vegetable oils or synthetic products. This debate, however, only adds another layer to this discussion and the shift towards these substitutes could lead to environmentally unfriendly outcomes.

Combating misinformation

Therefore, recognising the complexity of palm oil’s composition emphasises its unique role in today’s consumer products. If we want to truly understand the relationships between edible substances and cancer, we need a more expansive framework.

If we can capture the probabilities of cancer causes in statistics, a more objective approach becomes possible. Part of the insidious misinformation about palm oil however, stems from the fact that it is often subjective, unlike evidence-based case studies.

Sentiments about palm oil – or how people feel – rarely align rationally with the actual statistics. The widespread misinformation represented by these statistics is deeply concerning and unfortunately, it has become an accepted part of the narrative.

Along with several independent studies, the World Health Organization (WHO is aligned with the view that palm oil when consumed in moderation and within a balanced diet does not pose significant health risks, including cancer.

Dr Roger Clemens

Evidently, WHO’s decision not to categorise palm oil as a carcinogenic substance underscores this point. This nutritional perspective is not merely an isolated health argument; it resonates with the multi-faceted contributions that palm oil makes to the world.

More than just a culinary staple, palm oil is an economic force supporting over 500,000 jobs and contributing 4.5% to Malaysia’s GDP (gross domestic product). Palm oil is more efficient than other edible oils as it produces more with less land. At the moment, the industry is worth around US$60 bil globally and employs 17 million people.

As the world grapples with health and economic crises, it’s time to separate fact from fiction and explore the benefits of palm oil. The conversation around palm oil demands accuracy, clarity and transparency – not fear. The misconception that palm oil causes cancer must be dispelled through education, understanding and responsible leadership.

In essence, the story of palm oil is not merely a matter of right or wrong. It’s a complex subject, tied together with considerations of science, ethics, economics and environmental interests.

Its role as a significant economic force, nutritional component, source of innovation and symbol of sustainable growth that doesn’t harm the environment is clear. By embracing this reality, we open the path to a future where palm oil stands as a testament to economic prosperity, social responsibility, and most importantly a healthy choice. – Aug 23, 2023

Dr Roger Clemens is an elected Fellow in the American Society for Nutrition, American College of Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Academy of Food Science and Technology.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.