Debunking the common myths about palm oil

SC Chin & Research writer

Modified 24 Jun 2020, 8:30 am

Oil palm has been gaining prominence lately being at the centre of a heated debate about the good and bad it brings to our civilisation. The myths surrounding the crop can be mind-boggling at times. Let’s take a closer look at five of the common ones.

Myth #1

Palm oil is only produced on large-scale plantations.

Fact #1

Oil palm trees grow on both large-scale plantations and small-scale family farms (smallholders). About 40% of the palm oil production is undertaken by smallholders worldwide. In Indonesia and Malaysia alone, there are around 3.5 million smallholders. And palm oil contributes significantly to poverty reduction and economic growth of millions of people in rural areas. Interestingly, 95% of coffee, cocoa and rice production comes from smallholders too.

Myth #2

Palm oil is responsible for worldwide deforestation.

Fact #2

According to National Geographic, forests cover about 30% of our planet’s land mass and deforestation can both be human and naturally driven. Livestock ranching, agriculture expansion, logging, paper production, mining, urban sprawl, wildfire and climate change are among the contributors. The global share and amount of embodied deforestation (1990-2008) as quoted by the European Commission in January 2018 show that palm oil accounted for 2.3% as opposed to beef/ meat/ leather production (24.0%), soy (5.4%) and maize (3.2%). Even the most committed environmentalists agree that boycotting palm oil is not the answer because the crop is economical and more resource efficient than other vegetable oils. Sustainable oil palm cultivation and production yield increase are the way forward.

Myth #3

Palm oil is only used in foods.

Fact #3

The versatility of palm oil certainly goes beyond edible oil. Lipstick, cosmetics, candles, soap, shampoo, detergent, biodiesel are among the inedible products that contain this very important natural ingredient. In fact, more than half the products on sale in the supermarket are made with palm oil. So, you might not cook with it, but you almost certainly eat or use palm oil. But you don't have to give up products containing palm oil. Palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown. That’s how World Wildlife Fund (WWF) advocates the cause.

Myth #4

Palm oil is unhealthy.

Fact #4

Palm oil is a cholesterol-free and trans-fat-free vegetable oil with a composition of 50% saturated and 50% unsaturated fatty acids. Its naturally reddish-orange presence suggests a high beta-carotene content, a natural dietary supply of vitamin A, which is 15 and 30 times higher than that of carrots and tomatoes respectively. It is also one of the very few naturally saturated vegetable fats that decreases the low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) in the blood. Vitamin E tocotrienols from palm oil are natural antioxidants that help prevent chronic diseases and may support brain health. Palm oil is of course one of the most widely researched subjects all over the world – by its proponents and opponents, ironically.

Myth #5

Palm oil is bad for frying.

Fact #5

Palm oil boasts a high smoke point of 235°C, making it stable at high temperatures and therefore suitable for frying or even baking. So when choosing a cooking oil, it is important to match the oil's heat tolerance with the temperature which will be used and deep frying temperatures are commonly in the range of 170–190°C. The balanced palm oil (50% saturated fats and 50% unsaturated fats) is also resistant to oxidation compared to high-polyunsaturated vegetable oils. In modern history, palm oil has been increasingly incorporated into food by the global commercial food industry because it remains stable in deep frying or baking at very high temperatures, and for its high levels of natural antioxidants.

That’s it for now.

When the public becomes better informed, the vilification will be subdued by factual understanding. This is how information is produced and consumed in a sustainable way. 

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