Highly readable book on Malaysian palm oil


BY TAN SIOK CHOO

AS the title suggests, “Malaysian Palm Oil – A Success Story” is a book about palm oil with one notable difference. A marked departure from the usual jargon-filled, mind-numbing tome, this is possibly the first coffee-table book about Malaysia’s golden crop.  

Highly readable with only a sprinkling of technical terms, all of which are clearly explained, this book reminds me of a well-written travel guide. Information contained within its hard covers is succinct yet comprehensive, informative and entertaining. And like a good travel guide, all the facts, figures and nuggets of information are channelled towards one specific purpose – to create awareness and stimulate interest in an agricultural commodity whose economic and social importance to Malaysia’s economy has far too often been taken for granted.  

Stunning photographs are one of the book’s major attractions. Some of them illuminate little known aspects of palm oil. A case in point is the photo of an empty fruit bunch on page 145. That the photographer has succeeded in transforming an empty fruit, a common sight in any oil palm estate, into a photograph that could grace the walls of an art gallery is a tribute to his skill. 

Although many aspects of oil palm and its highly distinctive red-coloured oil are well known, the authors have succeeded in blending existing and new bits of information to create, at times, a new perspective.  

For example, while every schoolchild is told that oil palm originates in West Africa, few are aware “the oil has been used as a food and energy source for millennia.” “Ancient Egyptians used it – as attested by the discovery of an earthenware jar containing residues of palm oil, in a tomb over 5,000 years old at Abydos in Egypt,” the authors say. 

Similarly, the British are often credited with introducing rubber to this country, but few are aware the Dutch planted the first oil palms in South-East Asia in Buitenzorg (now Bogor) Botanical Garden in Java, Indonesia, in 1848. Only in the 1870s did this country receive its first batch of oil palms from Africa via the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Britain, and its counterpart in Singapore. 

However, the planting of oil palm on a commercial basis in this country was due to a Frenchman, Henri Fauconnier, the authors say. Using seedlings obtained from palms in Sumatra in 1911 and 1912, Fauconnier first planted oil palms along the road leading to his plantation in Selangor before starting the first oil palm plantation in Malaysia in 1917 in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor.  

Cleverly fusing oil palm’s early history in West Africa with its subsequent transplanting and growth in this country and its evolution as Malaysia’s premier agricultural export, the book focuses largely on the vegetable oil’s versatility of use for edible and industrial purposes and its importance for this country as well as globally.  

If, as many analysts suggest, oil prices are set to remain above US$40 a barrel in the medium term, interest in the palm oil should be considerable. For example, many countries, including Malaysia, are stepping up efforts to blend palm oil and diesel to create bio-diesel to create an environmentally friendly source of fuel. 

Palm oil also possesses another attribute – it is trans fat-free. According to the authors, “trans fats are basically the product of a manufacturing process that adds hydrogen (‘hydrogenation’) to convert liquid vegetable oils to solid fats and to extend their shelf life.” 

“Trans fats are considered so harmful that the United States Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences says that even the smallest amount is not safe,” the authors write. With effect from Jan 1 next year, the US Food and Drug Administration has made it mandatory for trans fats to be listed on food labels, a requirement that has sparked renewed interest in palm oil.  

Not only is palm oil trans fat-free, it also contains powerful antioxidants that acts as the body’s first line of defence against destructive molecules that damage cells and tissues, leading to illnesses like heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, the authors say.  

Another little known but potentially exciting use of palm oil is for cosmetics and skincare products. 

Yet another delightful surprise is the inclusion of a bookmarker within the pages of this book. Made from paper produced from oil palm’s fresh fruit bunches, the bookmarker is an excellent visual reminder that every part of the oil palm can be used. The bookmark’s thickness and texture suggests fresh fruit bunches can be used to make high quality paper.  

For business readers, the book comes with an Industry Reference Supplement that includes a short write up of organisations who collaborated in the publication of this book and corporate advertisers. These include industry organisations as well as private sector companies involved in the planting, shipping, trading and manufacturing of a crop that the authors have described as “Malaysia’s gift to the world.” 

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