The future of palm oil


Addressing unfair attacks on palm oil, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s new chief executive officer Dr Kalyana Sundram separates scare tactics from the science.

MALAYSIAN Palm Oil Council CEO Dr Kalyana Sundram was appointed in January, just as the industry marks its 100th anniversary. A Fellow of prestigious associations like the Malaysian Academy of Sciences and Nutrition Society of Malaysia, the 62-year-old from Gemas, Negeri Sembilan, is committed to steering the industry to new heights.

Top on the agenda is ensuring the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme’s success and to promote palm oil. He’s served on committees in the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and International Union of Nutritional Sciences, published extensively on palm oil and holds 21 palm oil-related patents. Having coordinated over 170 palm oil projects, the health and nutrition expert is finding it more of a challenge to indulge in his passion for books and meeting new people, but he’s determined to set the record straight and correct misconceptions surrounding the commodity.

> There’s lots of bad press regarding palm oil in the foreign media. Are we battling perception or fact?

The recent hype on Nutella, which uses Malaysian palm oil as a key ingredient, and the quoted cancer concerns about the contaminants 3-MCPD-esters and glycidyl esters (GE), is one of the many orchestrated attacks on our industry.

We have a history of being targeted.

This goes back to the 1980s with the anti-tropical oil campaign. We overcame that by investing extensively in research, including human clinical trials, to show that palm oil is wholesome and nutritious.

Then, they attacked us over deforestation, sustainability, and conservation issues.

The latest attack saw a fact-twisting frenzy linking palm oil with cancer. It’s another scare tactic. There’s no viable scientific substantiation of these anti-palm oil antidotes.

The contaminants occur in all oils and fats, not just palm oil. Malaysia was already working to reduce, and perhaps even eliminate, the 3-MCPD-esters and GE in certain palm products, before the Nutella episode.

By December, we expect to be the world’s first oil and fat producer to achieve that goal.

The only way to promote palm oil is with facts and figures. When we advertise, it’s always supported by verifiable facts. It’s not just putting up a pretty poster. I don’t mind a pretty lady supporting palm oil, but that lady must promote factually correct information.

> What’s the biggest misconception?

That it is less healthy because it’s cheaper than other seed oils and fats. Our palm oil quality is equivalent to any other oil or fat in the supermarket regardless of the price because on top of Malaysian food regulations, we have to follow international quality specifications such as those prescribed by Codex Alimentarius, the authority associated with FAO and WHO.

The Codex food quality standard for corn oil, olive oil, palm oil, sunflower oil or any oil for that matter, is prescribed under these international regulations. Whether you like it or not, palm oil’s a big component in the global food security basket particularly for the African continent, Middle East, and the whole of Asia. We pride ourselves in providing a safe and healthy product, but at an affordable price. This has led to the misconception about the quality of palm oil. Our challenge is to change that mindset.

Quality in this particular case isn’t associated with price. The low price is because of oil palm’s high-yield compared to the other seed oils. Take soybean oil for example - its oil yield is six times lower than palm oil.

We’re passing on that savings to food processors, consumers and end users. That’s one of the selling points of Malaysian palm oil. And in Malaysia, the government even subsidises cooking oil so that it remains affordable.

The real value of a bottle of palm olein is much higher. We’ve to work with all segments of the supply chain to assure consumers that this is a quality oil. Palm oil is a hidden ingredient in many products especially in the confectionery, margarine, oils and fats, animal feed, chemicals and cosmetics, industries.

We must make ourselves visible and gain the confidence of the consumer. We’re reaching out even to school kids to educate them about palm oil. We’re talking to celebrity chefs around the world and looking at ways to best promote, educate and empower consumers worldwide, but it’ll take time.

> Is palm oil healthy?

My family cooks with palm oil. Minimising health risks is about leading a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet, and that includes dietary fat. If you’re eating a zero-fat diet, you’re in trouble. Scientists have been researching the association of oils and fats with cancer for over 50 years. Literature is ablaze with scientific documentation of how the rate of cancer progression is higher in laboratory animals fed with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats like soy and corn.

We replicated the research model and found that palm oil was less cancer promoting in animals than these other oils. But although our work was published in very good peer science journals, we didn’t jump to the conclusion that palm oil was anti-cancer, and soy and corn were pro-cancer because these studies weren’t conducted on the population.

The bottom line is if you consume palm, soy or corn oil, there’s no cancer risk if you have a healthy lifestyle. There were also studies showing how heated fats increase cancer risk in laboratory animals. Because liquid fat from seed oils like olive, soybean and corn, oxidise faster than palm oil, the latter is thought to be less cancerous.

Again we refrained from over claiming because we felt we needed better proof, especially in humans.

So is palm oil cancerous? I’m ready to debate with any authority who makes such a claim because there is absolutely no evidence to support it. The positive thing about palm oil is that it contains vitamin E tocotrienols and pro-Vitamin A carotenoids. These nutritional compounds are sold separately as health supplements. While tocotrienols have anti-cancer properties, we don’t have evidence that it can cure cancer. At best, it’s a nutritional supplement that probably helps to prevent the onset of certain cancers. It is also proven to help prevent stroke in humans.

Despite the positive evidence, we have been very conservative in how we position palm oil.

It may be time to change our approach.

> Why is the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification crucial?

This is a big move forward for sustainability. We’ll work closely with the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry and the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC) to ensure that the objectives of MSPO are achieved and internationally accepted. We must engage with people around the world including legislators and decision makers such as the European Parliament, and tell them how we cultivate oil palm in tandem with forest conservation policies that are in place here.

> You manage the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund. Is the industry threatening our environment?

Oil palm cultivation was accused of being a driver for deforestation and (contributing to) the end of the orang utan population.

The Internet was flooded with claims that by 2010, the orang utan would be gone. So, we created a fund, worked with wildlife and forestry departments, and implemented initiatives to ensure that the orang utan population would remain viable. It’s a self-imposed target. And now that we have a very viable population - 11,200 in Sabah and about 2,500 in Sarawak, we must ensure that the effort to save, conserve and allow them to thrive in the wild and coexist with oil palm plantations, continues in the right direction.

In the past when pygmy elephants were poisoned in Sabah, it was the wildlife rescue unit we helped establish, and currently fund, that trekked the entire jungle to uncover what happened. Many thought the plantation workers were responsible so together with the Sabah Wildlife Department, we offered a RM100,000 reward to anyone who could help bring the culprits to court.

The reward wasn’t claimed. There wasn’t any proof that plantations were involved.

Even autopsies of the elephant carcasses couldn’t clearly determine that the poisoning was due to plantation activities. The animals may have consumed the poison elsewhere. But because of their size, it took a while for the poison to work. When they died, it happened to be in the vicinity of a plantation.

Again, it was our wildlife rescue unit that recently saved and placed a tracking collar on the rare sabre-tusked pygmy elephant.

Unfortunately, poachers struck almost immediately after it was released into the wild, killing this magnificent species.

These deaths were not triggered by the plantations, but we’re now even more determined to play a bigger role in wildlife conservation.

> You have over 35 years of industry experience. What are your plans for the MPOC?

To promote Malaysian palm oil globally. Our palm oil reaches over 150 countries and it is increasingly being used in many food formulations worldwide.

Before hitting the shelves, the oil has to be refined, processed, packed, and branded. We want to reach out to every entity in the supply chain and of course, the end consumer, to convince them that this is a sustainably produced, wholesome, and nutritious, edible oil.

We have many years of science-backed research and information that speaks volumes about the neutrality of palm oil as an oil or a fat that’s suitable for every segment of the population. We want greater outreach to consumers because it is them who drive the acceptance and sale of palm oil. Locally, between 75% to 80% of our daily fat consumption comes from palm oil.

Malaysians generally have no reservations about palm oil products, but often, they don’t know what they’re consuming because they don’t pay attention to labels. Purchases are brand-driven. So, we have to do more to inform consumers about palm oil, its health benefits and what it can or cannot do.

Our supporters like Nutella and Smart Balance are proud to be associated with palm oil. Smart Balance from the US, of which I’m one of the inventors, clearly states on its label: ‘Palm oil from the sunny shores of Malaysia”. So, Americans accept our palm oil for its health benefits and quality.

There’s no reason to hide (the fact) that a product uses palm oil.

On the contrary, we must advertise it.

> Malaysian palm oil turns 100 this year. What’s the way forward?

We must ensure that the industry remains viable and sustainable in the long term. Competition is intensifying. Land is limited so we must double the current 4.2 tonnes per hectare oil yield. To address the negative press, the MPOB must intensify its health and sustainability research. MPOC will then use this positive evidence to promote palm oil. Very exciting information, which we’ll be highlighting soon, is emerging.

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