AS WE peel back the layers of rhetoric and misinformation, it becomes clear that we often rely on simplistic labels such as “good”, “bad”, “sustainable” or “harmful” to make quick judgments about the world around us.
Similarly, palm oil has faced much criticism in public conversations and is affected by this practice.
People often focus on the practices around palm oil production rather than the crop itself which by current standards and regulations is sustainably produced.
However, it’s worth noting that, according to current standards and regulations like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), palm oil can be sustainably produced. In fact, Malaysia has its own industry-leading standard, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme, thus underscoring its commitment to sustainable practices.
While some concerns are warranted, there are undoubtedly issues that merit both discussion and action. However, most narratives pit environmental protection against agricultural profitability, leaving little room for a thorough analysis of palm oil’s essential benefits such as its health-promoting properties.
Yet, as with any complex issue, these simplistic labels hardly capture the full scope of palm oil’s impact – both beneficial and detrimental. In a world that is quick to condemn, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate our perceptions of this common resource.
This is particularly significant considering rampant misinformation about palm oil in the health sector.
Coming from a background in immunology and having spent 25 years researching immune therapies for cancer and the role of natural compounds in health, I’m not just academically curious about palm oil. I’m personally invested.
First, let’s consider some facts. The prevailing narrative has long classified palm oil as a ‘bad’ fat due to its high saturated fat content. However, science tells us a different story. Palm oil comprises a balanced combination of fatty acids, including saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
The mix not only makes palm oil stable for cooking at high temperatures but it also offers multiple benefits such as immune modulation which come from its rich profile of antioxidants like vitamin E (tocotrienols and alpha-tocopherols) that protect against oxidative stress.
Additionally, its carotenoids convert to vitamin A, essential for vision and immune function while its phytosterols may help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, hence reducing the risk of heart disease.
My immunology research shows that palm oil’s nutrients offer numerous health benefits such as anti-inflammatory properties which can modulate immune responses and are especially valuable for supporting immune health. This makes it a beneficial option for those dealing with chronic inflammation or weakened immune systems.
In my view, there’s a lot to be excited about in the realm of health regarding palm oil research. Working together, scientists and the palm oil industry can dig deeper into what makes this oil special – like its unique nutrients that are good for our immune system, skin and overall health.
And let’s not forget that studies show that palm oil could even help prevent serious health issues like heart disease and diabetes.
Through biotechnology, we could create new types of palm oil that are even healthier or more plentiful. Think about genetic editing as opposed to modifying the oil to contain more vitamin A which could have big health benefits.
And there’s also room for improvement in how we produce palm oil. Researchers are looking into ways to make the process more eco-friendly and less wasteful.
The key ingredient here is collaboration. By teaming up, academic experts can provide the know-how while the industry can provide the funds and tools needed for research. This way, we’re using real-world data to answer important questions to ensure that palm oil is produced even more sustainably.
For those who are sceptical, it’s also worth noting that the palm oil industry is moving in the direction of more responsible practices.
Around 96% of Malaysian palm oil plantations –many of them run by 300,000 smallholder farmers – are now MSPO-certified under the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme. This is a new nationally mandated sustainability standard enforceable by the law and the first of its kind in the world.
As for deforestation, an important piece of research was recently published by Global Forest Watch in June 2023 which noted a sharp reduction in forest loss in Malaysia. Oil palm corporations appear to be taking action with some 83% of palm oil refining capacity now operating under a “No Deforestation, Peat and Exploitation (NDPE)” commitment.
This more recent report from the Global Forest Watch should ease the concerns of environmental campaigners as it suggests that the hard work of Malaysia’s palm oil industry and government is really starting to bear fruit in reversing deforestation.
On the subject of sustainability, looking to the future reveals that sustainable sourcing practices are set to become the industry standard. This will effectively minimise deforestation and habitat destruction.
This shift towards transparent supply chains will eventually empower consumers to make informed choices, bolstering confidence in the ethical and environmentally sound origins of palm oil products. By choosing certified products and recognising the oil’s nutritional value, consumers have the power to encourage this positive shift.
No resource is universally good or bad. Often, it is our approach and utilisation that determine its impact. With ongoing research, the right regulatory frameworks – and an open mind – we can give palm oil a fairer assessment.
As we strive for a more balanced narrative on palm oil, let’s move beyond simplistic labels. Let us usher in a new discourse, one that acknowledges complexity and inspires thoughtful action for a resource that touches all our lives in more ways than we realise.
If done right, this re-evaluation not only corrects misperceptions but also paves the way for a future where palm oil can be seen as what it truly is: a versatile, valuable resource that can contribute to both our health and a sustainable planet. – Oct 4, 2023
Dr Ammu K Radhakrishnan is a Professor of Immunology at Monash University Malaysia’s Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Her research focuses on immune therapeutics in cancer, immuno-regulation and utilising natural compounds to enhance the host’s immune response to cancer and other conditions.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.