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The secrets of palm oil: a Q & A with food expert Kurt Berger

Palm oil is a widely-used commodity across the globe, especially in Asia Pacific. Major producers of palm oil include Malaysia and Indonesia, where a range of businesses from smallholder farmers to big corporations depend on it for livelihood. But palm oil development has been linked to deforestation and loss of wildlife in many parts of Southeast Asia. Here, UK food expert Kurt Berger gives an insight into the popular commodity.

Berger first studied palm oil and its use in food applications in the 1950s, while working in the London research laboratory of a large food manufacturer. Mr Berger has spent 50 years researching the quality, function and practical application of the best food ingredients with the aim of continuously improving food products, positioning himself as a leading expert in the role and function of palm oil in the food market.

Over the course of his research, Mr Berger found people to be unduly suspicious of palm oil, an ingredient they were unfamiliar with. However, once the functional and economic advantages of this ‘more natural product’ were explained to them, people become significantly more confident in the role and benefits of palm oil in their daily diet.

In this first Q&A with The Oil Palm, Mr Berger discusses the properties of palm oil, the dangers of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, the popularity of palm oil in food application and its role in ‘enhancing the nutritional quality of cooked food’, as well as the superior efficiency of the oil palm.

What properties of palm oil make it so different from other vegetable oil?

Palm oil is semi-solid at ambient temperature, melting at about 35 ºC, when all the other major vegetable oils are liquid. This is due to its content of about 50% saturated acids, mainly palmitic and stearic.

Why is palm oil so widely used in food applications in Europe?

Historically, the fats available for food preparation in Europe until the end of the 19th century were primarily animal fat products from the farmyard, i.e. butter, beef fat and lard. Traditional methods evolved to use these semi-solid fats to prepare cakes, pastry and biscuits. Liquid oils do not function well in these products.

With growth in population, fat supplies became inadequate, leading, for instance, to the invention of margarine to replace butter. Margarine was originally formulated from beef fat. At the beginning of the 20th century, vegetable oils could be imported and technology developed to ‘clean them up’ in the refinery and ‘hydrogenation’ to replace semi-solid animal fat sources.

What is hydrogenation?

To function in traditional confectionery products, a solid content is required of fats. Hydrogenation enables some or all of the unsaturated fatty acids in vegetable oils to be converted to saturated fatty acids. Partial hydrogenation limits this conversion to a chosen amount of solids, regulating the consistency of the processed oils/fats. However, the chemical process also produces unnatural trans-fatty acids (trans fats). Trans fats adversely affects blood lipids, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, including increased LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and contributing the hardening of arteries (artherosclerosis). Authorities strongly discourage the use of trans fats, even going to the extent of banning their presence in vegetable oils.

Are there alternatives to Hydrogenation?

Instead of partially hydrogenating vegetable oils, the required solid fat content can be easily supplied by blending liquid oils with palm oil, or its high melting point components. In many cases this may also be more economical. These blends are entirely free of trans fats.

Today palm oil is coming under attack in France. Has this happened before?

During the 1980s a virulent anti-palm oil campaign developed in the USA, promoted in part by soya bean and other interests. Whole page adverts appeared: ‘Palm oil is what kills Americans’, when in fact it formed only about 1 per cent of their fat consumption. Supermarkets had ‘We use no palm oil’ notices in the window. The use of palm oil in foods plummeted as a result.

What happened to palm oil consumption in the US after the late 1980s?

Despite the severe consumer and industry backlash against palm oil in the 1980s, regulators dealt a severe blow against the campaigns in 1994. USA’s Food and Drug Administration ruled against the use of ‘no palm oil’ labels. The regulator concluded that while the label did not explicitly criticize palm oil consumption, the implication was sufficient to mislead consumers.

While anti-palm oil interests enjoyed tremendous success into the 1990s, recognition of the adverse impact that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were having on the health of consumers resulted in a renewed appreciation for natural imported vegetable oils. Most recently, palm oil consumption levels have grown to over 1 million tons in the US alone.

Palm oil is a key ingredient for shortening. Why shortening and why is it so important for baking?

Key ingredients of flour confectionery are wheat flour, fat and sugar. Many other components give specific character. Shortenings are usually blends of liquid oil with a ‘hard stock’, be it hydrogenated oil or palm oil or palm stearin.

To make bread, an aerated structure is formed, in which the air bubbles are contained by a thin film of gluten (a component of the protein we find in wheat flour). The gluten is toughened through the baking process. In pastry and biscuits we do not want to produce tough gluten strands, we want to finish with a crumbly, soft, melt-in-the-mouth character – a ‘short’ pastry. To obtain this we use a fat which spreads efficiently over the flour during mixing. Different textures are obtained by varying the amount of fat (‘shortening’) and water in the mixing process. To perform, the shortening must be soft for mixing. A liquid oil would tend to stay in drops failing to protect the gluten effectively like palm oil does.

Palm oil is also commonly used for frying. Why is this?

Frying is a traditional culinary practice worldwide. It contributes to interesting flavours and can enhance the nutritional quality of food.

Palm oil and palm olein (the more liquid fraction) are particularly good for frying where re-use of the oil is involved. They have moderate amounts of sensitive polyunsaturated fatty acids which can otherwise become unstable through prolonged exposure to high heat, while palm oil also contains large amounts of natural antioxidants. As a result they can withstand frying conditions very well and do not breakdown into toxic compounds. Palm oil and its by-products are also used worldwide in the manufacture of instant noodles, doughnuts, frozen fried foods, etc. and for snacks like potato crisps.

Why do food manufacturers prefer to use palm oil?

Snack foods must have a long shelf life after packaging. In major research sponsored by the European Union a high oleic acid containing sunflower oil was tested for snack food manufacture. Palm olein was used as the reference standard. Both oils performed well. However, the palm olein product had a longer shelf life, and was also significantly less expensive.

Why is palm oil more cost effective?

For several reasons:

a) It is more economical to produce. Palm oil is produced by simple steaming and pressing, with relatively limited use of expensive solvents for extraction as for other oils. It is also available as a refined oil, requiring at most a mild additional processing before use. It avoids the cost of full refining required for other oils.

b) It has a higher yield per hectare than other vegetable oil (see table below) and is a perennial crop that is harvested year-round. This high productivity of the oil palm makes the oil profitable at a price below that of the other oils (which are also subsidised by governments in various ways).

The following table shows the approximate oil yield in tons per hectare per year of major oil crops.

Crop Oil/tons per hectare Palm – flesh oil 4 Palm – kernel oil 0.5 Soya bean 0.4 Sunflower 0.5 Rapeseed 0.7

What about the environmental concerns linked to the cultivation of oil palm?

Palm oil is now available with independent certification demonstrating that it has been produced in a sustainable manner without damage to the environment. This addresses the concerns that some consumers have regarding forest conversion and greenhouse gas emissions.

What is the role of palm oil in global food security?

There is a great deal of talk about food security – for good reason. We know the world population is growing, with experts predicting at least another 2 billion people by 2050. As the vast populations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and South America become more prosperous, demand for fats will continue to rise.

Research undertaken by international organizations like the World Bank and the UN’s FAO have concluded that vegetable oil demand will rise by more than 100 million tonnes.

How to satisfy this demand in a world with finite agricultural land, already under pressure? Clearly the most efficient oil crops in land use terms are vital to meeting this demand, as will relying on the most efficient crops available in other food sectors.

This interview has been republished with permission.

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