There are many organizations which are established either nationally or internationally aimed at highlighting the importance of food and nutrition. One such organization is Slow Food, which is a grassroot organization founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions. It claims to have supporters in over 150 countries around the world which links the pleasure of good food with commitments to their community and environment. Slow Food operates from Italy with an ideology that food consumed is tied to many aspects of life such as culture, politics, agriculture and environment, in which they believe the food choices made can influence how the food is cultivated, produced and distributed along the supply chain. Slow Food has also established organizational structures at national levels in countries like Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain and the United States.
The movement started with an objective to prevent disappearance of local foods and traditions but through the years, they have evolved with different sets of agenda by being protective over local produce and regional markets while discriminating specific commodities. This is obvious with the anti-palm oil campaign launched against the tropical oils which is used in more than 50% of the products that you may find in the local supermarkets. Most of the time, much information about palm oil are hyped and sensationalized with misquotes and misinformation to the European consumers who are relatively not well informed about palm oil. One such article which generates multiple misinformation to consumers is “Palm Oil according to Slow Food” by Silvia Ceriani, which was distributed via their website http://www.slowfood.com/expo2015/en/palm-oil-slow-food/ and shared via their displays at the “Discover Biodiversity” exhibition at the Slow Food Pavilion during the World Expo 2015, Milan Italy.
Palm oil is a vegetable oil produced from the oil palm fruit. Malaysia and Indonesia are responsible for producing about 85% of the world’s palm oil, while other producers include Thailand, Columbia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Ecuador. Palm oil is found in almost 50% of food products in the supermarket; from chocolates to biscuits and peanut butter to ice-cream. Palm oil in its various fractions and derivatives are a common ingredient in these food products. In addition, oleochemicals derived from palm are also used in the production of personal care products, detergents and household cleaning products.
Below, we address many of the misquotes from Slow Food.
Misquote 1: The main fat used is often palm oil, an ingredient whose use has almost tripled in recent years due to its low cost.
Palm oil is accused of being cheap due to the low wages paid to plantation workers including allegations on the use of forced labor in plantations. In this article by Silvia Ceriani, the author quoted the evening program “Report” aired via RAITRE Television in Italy by Journalist Sabrina Gianini which covered all the alleged negativity of palm oil production including low wages for the workers. Much of these allegations were quoted from and based on interviews that did not reflect the norm within the palm oil industry. Thus, this should not be used to generalize the whole industry’s practices. It is agreed that palm oil trades much cheaper than the other competing seed oils in the market. However, cheap oil does not equate to poor quality or nutritional value of the oil nor other products derived from it. Oil palm is the most productive oil bearing crop and it yields 7 – 10 times more oil per hectare of land than all other oil bearing crops. The oil palm, yields up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soybean and 6 times more than rapeseed. The industry thus passes this price advantage to consumers, making palm oil the most affordable edible oil in the global market. This fact also helps to ensure global food security which is especially important for the developing world populations.
Misquote 2: A forest area equivalent to 300 football fields are felled every hour to make way for intensive monoculture.
This has been a bizarre allegation but has been overexploited through social media in which readers have failed to decipher the facts.
1 football / soccer field = 0.70 Hectares
300 x 0.70 Ha x 24 Hrs (in a Day) x 365 Days (in a Year)
= 1.8 Million Hectares / Year
An easy calculation shows how this allegation is totally absurd and baseless. Forest areas with the size of three hundred football fields cut down in an hour works out to approximately 1.8 million hectares of forest loss a year. The fact is oil palm has been cultivated commercially in Malaysia since year 1917, which will register 100 years of cultivation in 2017. However the total land area currently under oil palm planting in Malaysia is only about 5.5 million hectares. In Malaysia, oil palm is planted on legally designated agricultural land in which the majority of land used for new cultivation was mostly previously cultivated agricultural land and degraded forest areas rezoned for agriculture and now converted to oil palm. The allegation is therefore refuted.
Misquote 3: The palm oil that reaches our tables, an ever-present ingredients in biscuits, cakes, crackers and spreads, has nothing to do with the juice obtained from pressing the oil palm fruits. The food industry transforms it through processes of fractionation, bleaching and refining. The end result is a flavourless, saturated fat (50-%-80%) that, after destroying the planet, is ready to wreak havoc on our health, clogging coronary arteries and increasing cholesterol.
Palm oil has balanced fatty acid composition
Palm oil is recognised by CODEX Alimentarious, as a wholesome and nutritious edible oil suitable for human consumption. Palm oil has a balanced fatty acid composition in which the level of saturated fatty acids is almost equal to that of the unsaturated fatty acids with palmitic acid (44%-45%) and oleic acid (39%-40%) the major component fatty acids. It also has linoleic acid (10%-11%) and only a trace amount of linolenic acid. This level of linoleic acid and virtual absence of linolenic acid makes the oil relatively stable to oxidative deterioration. The specifications for the palm oil are given in Malaysian Standard MS814:2007 (Source: MPOB).
Palm oil has high content of vitamin E tocotrienols and tocopherols. Crude and red palm oil are also rich sources of pro-vitamin A carotenoids. The main saturated fatty acid in palm oil which is palmitic acid, is the same form of saturated fatty acid that is most abundant in our body and in human breast milk.
Why Palm Oil is Found in Many Products.
The food industry loves palm oil because of its versatility, its ease of use in various food applications and ability to prolong shelf-life of food products. One of the important functions which enables food manufacturers to use palm oil in their products is the replacement of partially hydrogenated unsaturated oils which contains trans fatty acids and which promotes heart disease.
Palm oil is a fruit oil just like olive oil and is Non-GMO. Palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the fruit or mesocarp while palm kernel oil is obtained from the oil palm seed (kernel). Both palm oil and palm kernel oil have different properties which enable usage in different food and non-food applications. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are refined and processed to produce various fractions. Palm oil is fractionated into palm olein which is the liquid fraction, high in monounsaturated oleic acid. This is the primary cooking oil used in tropical and sub-temperate regions of the world. Palm stearin is the solid fraction from palm fruit oil and is trans free. It is widely used in bakery and confectionary. Palm kernel oil is used widely as coating and confectionary fats and as cocoa butter substitutes. Palm kernel oil can also be fractionated into palm kernel olein and palm kernel stearin.
Palm oil has neutral effect on blood cholesterol
Palm oil is a widely used cooking oil throughout Asia besides peanut and other seed oils. There are more than 300 scientific publications on palm oil health in animal models, cell culture studies and human dietary intervention trials which describe in detail the nutritional effects and benefits of palm oil and its components. Several human studies found that palm oil consumption has a relatively neutral effect on blood cholesterol and shown to increase the “good” HDL-cholesterol. Thus the claim which is made about palm oil clogging the arteries and increasing blood cholesterol level is unproven conclusively in science.
Palm olein, which is the liquid fraction of palm oil, is also equivalent to olive and canola oil for its effects on blood cholesterol. Researchers from “Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research”, Italy led by Prof. Elena Fattore through their publication in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) have documented all published palm oil human studies and concluded that the consumption of palm oil does not pose a threat as far as effects on blood lipids and coronary heart disease risk is concerned.
Misquote 4: Palm Oil has been hidden under the generic wording of “Vegetable fats”.
All edible oils are labeled under the generic term vegetable fats, edible oil or vegetable oil including palm oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, canola oil etc. There should not be any confusion even when these products are named prominently on food labels. The producers and manufacturers have nothing to hide and welcome proper labeling of all palm oil, its fractions and products incorporated into food products.
Palm oil can be fractionated into olein and stearin due to the different melting points of its tryglycerides. Depending on the manufacturer’s requirements, this fractionation process can be further applied on these two products to give various other downstream products such as super olein and various palm mid-fractions. Similarly, palm kernel oil is fractionated to give palm kernel olein and palm kernel stearin. Each palm oil fraction is recognized through standards depicted in CODEX Alimentarious, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for named edible oils. Thus everything used in foods (and even non-foods) is properly standardized and defined.
Misquote 5: Although many companies provide RSPO certification but in reality very few are truly sustainable.
It seems confusing to realize an organization such as Slow Food doubts a global or national certification scheme and its procedures without concrete reasons and to mislead consumers with the deforestation allegations and social implications. Certified sustainable palm oil provides consumers with environmentally friendly options.
Palm oil is certified by organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the German ISCC using guidelines and criteria that include elements addressing deforestation, habitat loss and social conflict. There are also other certification schemes implemented by the government of major palm oil producing countries. Malaysia has established its own certification scheme with national standard on sustainability. This standard, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), ensures compliance in accordance with Malaysian laws and ratified international agreement and conventions. The standard also encompasses the 3 Principles of sustainability – People, Planet and Profit. Certification enables sustainable production and verification along the supply chain for palm oil and ensures the end products are certified too. Consumers play a major role in ensuring that this trend will increase, to improve the industry and the supply chain.
Misquote 6: Valid alternatives to industrial snacks.
The claims to providing valid alternatives by Slow Food is disguised behind the ugly fact that they are promoting boycott towards a specific commodity and its producing countries. Consumers are constantly made to believe that boycotting palm oil is the solution to stop its domination in the global oils and fats industry. This is exactly what Slow Food has done by condemning palm oil through their exhibition and distribution of misinformation on palm oil with allegations of deforestation, increasing CO₂ emission, loss of biodiversity and harsh working condition. Campaigns such as “Say No To Palm Oil” conducted in Italy puts across the motion on boycotting palm oil to save the world’s endangered biodiversity is totally wrong and unfortunately the impact of the proposed alternatives may be worse. The use of other types of oil to substitute palm oil will significantly increase land used to grow and produce alternate edible oils. Oil palm is an efficient crop which produces up to 7-10 times the yield of alternative vegetable oil crops. The need and use of more land will directly increase deforestation and species loss if palm oil is avoided. These are some of the details that Slow Food and other parties failed to highlight to consumers while promoting their local or regional produces as alternatives.
Palm Oil according to Slow Food – Wrong and Misleading.
Slow Food claims that they are trying to tell the real story of palm oil to their consumers but sadly, they have just been relying on the media which are not reliable and television programs which are just after the viewers’ rating. During the World Expo they propagated misinformation at their pavilion and failed to understand the minimal information that the Indonesia pavilion, which was just next to their pavilion, presented during the World Expo in Milan 2015. They also managed to be totally ignored towards the information-packed palm oil section at the Malaysia Pavilion. This is a typical concept of many NGOs which wish to be ignorant and failed to obtain more reliable information from the producers. This concept of not relying on the producers, fuels mistrust among consumers with respect to the producers and the producing country. Any information propagation by the producers is looked upon as a promotion of the commodity and market expansion only. Consumers are constantly deprived of balanced information on palm oil and its positive properties.
Sustainable Palm Oil Is Here To Stay
Palm oil is an important commodity in the global oils and fats market and it is an essential vegetable oil for ensuring global food security. Malaysian palm oil is produced sustainably and responsibly, complying with existing national regulations, complemented with best practices and plantation management, without neglecting the environment and its services. Malaysian palm oil is important in supplying the world’s requirement for affordable oils and fats compared to other edible oils. Malaysian palm oil industry’s sustainability policy and certification system ensures the production and availability of high quality palm oil in the global market. It is time that consumers are better informed using true and trusted facts and not be misled by insignificant misquotes such as in the article “Palm Oil According to Slow Food” and other information propagated by Slow Food.
Author: Anthony K.Veerayan and Dr. Kalyana Sundram, Malaysian Palm Oil Council