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Palm Oil: Nutritional Attributes, Health And Well-Being Promoting Potentials

April 18, 2022

1.  Introduction

World Health Day is a global health awareness day founded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948, and it falls on 7 April annually. This is an important day to create awareness to people all over the world to emphasise the importance of focusing on well-being and good health for both humans and our planet.

Palm oil plays an important role in meeting the world’s requirements for oils and fats. Let’s take a look at how palm oil helps to ensure that everyone gets fed healthily. Oil palm is the most productive vegetable oil crop as compared to other oil crops (such as soybean, sunflower and canola) as it produces up to 4 tonnes of oil/ha/year. This means oil palm requires less land to produce the same amount of oil as other vegetable oil crops. However, there are countless misconceptions about palm oil. The common accusation is that palm oil only consists of saturated fat and hence relates it to many negative health impacts. In fact, palm oil has a balanced fatty acid ratio. It consists of 50% saturated fats (palmitic acid and stearic acid) and 50% unsaturated fats (oleic acid and linoleic acid, or commonly known as Omega-9 and Omega-6 fatty acids respectively). Furthermore, it is often overlooked that palm oil contains many healthful phytonutrients, such as vitamin E tocotrienols, provitamin A (also known as carotenoids), phytosterols, coenzyme Q10 and many others. These are powerful antioxidants that can help in disease prevention.

 2. Carotenoids and red palm oil

Crude palm oil is the richest natural plant source for provitamin A carotenoids which includes alpha- and beta-carotene. It is these carotenoids that impart an orangey-red colour to crude palm oil. Crude palm oil can be processed into various products such as palm stearin (solid fat), palm olein (liquid oil), and many more including red palm oil. Red palm oil is obtained through a special refining technology using molecular distillation, which retains almost 80% of the carotenoids and vitamin E present in crude palm oil. In fact, red palm oil contains 15 times more carotenoids than carrots, 300 times more than tomatoes and 44 times more than leafy vegetables. Provitamin A carotenoids are fat-soluble pigments that require fat for conversion into vitamin A, which are then absorbed in the small intestine. A minimum of 5g of fat is required for an optimal absorption of carotenoids.

Visual impairment, blindness, stunting, anaemia, respiratory disease, increased risk of infection, and mortality owing to common childhood infections such as diarrhoea and measles are all symptoms of vitamin A deficiency. Hence, vitamin A requirements are higher in infants and youngsters in order to support rapid growth and better resistance to infection. In adults, studies have found that red palm oil reduces the incidence of maternal anaemia and increases vitamin A levels in lactating women.

Supplementing oneself with red palm oil, a natural source of provitamin A carotenoids, could be a cost-effective and practical way to address vitamin A insufficiency and associated health problems. Red palm oil can be used as salad dressing, cooking oil, or as part of blended oil. Various studies found that regular consumption of 1-2 teaspoons of red palm oil can help ensure adequate intake of vitamin A in children as well as pregnant and lactating mothers.

3. High content of vitamin E tocotrienols

Vitamin E is a general name for tocopherols and tocotrienols which is naturally present in foods in various amounts. Tocotrienols made up of about 70% and tocopherols 30% of the total vitamin E in palm oil. Whereas, other vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils mostly consist of only tocopherol or may contain very little tocotrienols. What are the nutritional benefits of palm tocotrienols? Aerobic metabolism in our body often produces harmful by-products known as “free-radicals”. Free radicals such as reactive oxygen species (ROS) are prooxidants. If antioxidants are unavailable, high concentration of free radicals can attack lipids in membranes, turn the low-density lipoprotein (LDL-cholesterol) rancid in arterial walls, destroy cellular enzymes and even damage our DNA. If left untreated, the damaged DNA replicates in new cells and deterioration of the body will take place. Palm tocotrienols possess powerful antioxidant properties and are mobile within membranes. They can neutralize the reactive free radicals thereby minimising cellular damage. Adequate intake of vitamin E is essential to help protect our body from harmful effects of free radicals. In addition, palm tocotrienols possess other health benefits that are beyond the antioxidant properties including their beneficial effects in cancer, cardiovascular health, immune modulation, and neuroprotection.

4. Palm oil, heart disease and obesity

Saturated fatty acids are generally recommended to be reduced or eliminated from consumer diets in most dietary guidelines around the world. Half a century ago, consumption of saturated fatty acids was linked to increase in cholesterol resulting to an elevated risk of coronary heart disease. However, according to a systematic review published in The Lancet in 2019 that investigated the health implications of dietary risk in 195 countries between 1990 and 2017, a high-sodium diet was found to be the largest dietary risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is also reported in the same study that a diet high in trans-fat and red meat can also increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Palm oil is the major dietary oil in Malaysia that is frequently used as household cooking oil. It is also used in making snacks, canned foods and instant noodles, as well as in food service preparations. Originating from a plant, palm oil is cholesterol-free, an excellent source of energy and may help to raise beneficial HDL-cholesterol. The cause of obesity is likely to be multifactorial, with factors such as unhealthy dietary habits, lack of daily activities and sedentary lifestyle playing important parts. It is worth noting that consumption of palm oil as part of a healthy and balanced diet is safe as the claim that link between palm oil consumption to heart disease and obesity is not substantiated especially when the total fat intake is within the WHO recommended level (30% of total daily calorie intake).

In conclusion, your daily intake of vitamin E tocotrienols might be enhanced simply by incorporating 2 to 3 tablespoons (30-45 grams) of palm oil into your meals on a daily basis. It’s even better if you use red palm oil as it contains a variety of beneficial components that may have considerable health advantages. All in all, palm oil does not increase the risk of heart disease and its balanced fatty acid composition and phytonutrients can help to promote good health.