Malaysian Palm Oil: Healthy and Sustainable
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Felicia Stoler, nationally recognized registered dietician, author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes, and host of the former TLC reality show Honey, We’re Killing the Kids. Dr. Stoler shared with me that she just returned from Malaysia where she spoke at an international palm oil conference and was able to see and learn first hand how palm oil is made as well as the latest research on its remarkable health properties. Contrary to the negative environmental publicity that has been mainly centered on production practices taking place in Indonesia and Africa, Malaysia’s commitment to sustainability including its protection laws for the environment, wildlife, farmers and the surrounding communities has been strictly upheld. This has made it possible for people around the world to take advantage of the nutritional benefits of Malaysian red palm oil, all in good conscience.
The benefits of red palm oil are two-fold. The first are due to the nutrients themselves, which are most notable when taken in extract form. The second relate to its use as a cooking oil that is not susceptible to oxidative damage or loss of nutrients when heated at high temperatures. Palm (fruit) oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the seed and has a very different chemical and nutritional structure.
Red palm oil is very high in beta-carotene (which gives it its red color) as well as Vitamins A & E, three very important antioxidants. As most are aware, antioxidants are a critical component of a healthy diet due to their ability to neutralize and eliminate cell-damaging free radicals that can lead to chronic disease and other health problems.
In particular, red palm oil contains a very potent form of Vitamin E called tocotrienol. According to the research presented to Dr. Stoler, tocotrienols, in a concentrative natural form (extracts, not synthetic supplements), are neuroprotective and have been shown to restore the capillaries for those who have had strokes. They are also able to prevent blood clots, support healthy cholesterol levels, improve liver and kidney function, fight cancer, and decrease abdominal fat. Recent studies also indicate that tocotrienols may protect us from radiation sickness and osteoporosis.
Another important benefit of consuming red palm oil is its saturated fat content. Although many fear saturated fat since the onset of the low- and fat-free diet craze, the truth is that we actually need some plant-based saturated fat in our diets. Saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil and red palm oil, are important for our cells, bones, liver, immune system, heart, lungs and hormones. Fat is also a necessity for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and feeling satiated. Other good quality plant-based sources of healthy fat include nuts, olive oil, and avocados. Trans fats found in many processed and fried foods should be strictly avoided.
Unlike coconut oil, which has a distinct coconut flavor, red palm oil has a more neutral and flexible flavor. Red palm oil can be used for frying, baking and as a substitute for olive oil on salads. As Dr. Stoler pointed out, it’s very important from a health perspective to use a variety of healthy oils (coconut, palm and olive for example) to obtain the benefits of their different nutritional profiles and distinct flavors.
While in Malaysia, Dr. Stoler was able to learn about the palm industry first hand. Even though environmentalists have been upset with practices taking place in other countries, Malaysia is at the forefront of ensuring sustainable and human rights oriented palm oil production.
In fact, contrary to the media perception that rainforests are being destroyed on a continual basis without regard for the wildlife habitat, 64% of the Malaysian rainforest remains intact despite the country’s reliance on its agricultural and forest resources. Additionally, the palm oil farms are mainly on previously established agricultural or forest land that has previously been logged. Malaysia is working hard to minimize pollution, protect the wildlife and promote biodiversity where palm oil is being produced with a goal to supply good quality oil that meets demand without sacrificing their natural resources.
Another important factor to keep in mind is that olive, soybean and sunflower oil take two to four times as much land to yield the same amount of palm oil. Palm oil also requires the lowest amount of crop intervention (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) and grows naturally and easily with very little upkeep. Red palm oil also takes less resources and processing to produce than its colorless and unnatural counterpart.
As a final note, the palm oil industry currently supports over a half a million Malaysians, 40% of which are producing oil from family owned farms. Both nutritional deficiency and heart disease have been reduced due to palm oil’s use as a food source.
 Mercola, J. (2011, September 1). The forbidden food you should never stop eating. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/09/01/enjoy-saturated-fats-theyre-good-for-you.aspx
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.palmoilhealth.org/whats-new/healthy-palm-fruit-oil-production-forget-the-myths-get-the-facts-2/
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.palmoilhealth.org/whats-new/malaysian-palm-fruit-oil-production-uses-substantially-less-land-than-other-oils/
Kara wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Food & Nutrition.