Since the June FDA announcement restricting the continued use of partially hydrogenated oils – our primary source of trans fats – in the American food supply, attention has shifted to better-for-you substitutes such as Malaysian sustainable palm oil. Malaysia is a leading provider of non-GMO sustainable palm oil to the United States. It is poised to become an even more important food ingredient as Americans take action to eliminate trans fats from our diets.
From extending shelf life of your favorite frozen pizza to adding creaminess to canned frosting, partially hydrogenated oils were favored by food manufacturers. Now manufacturers must find a replacement which can deliver the same texture, taste and shelf life, but without the health risks. While fully hydrogenated and enzymatically interesterified fats are a possibility, they have not become a preferred alternative. “Palm oil and palm oil products will play an important role that will enable food manufacturers to make the switch without compromising their product’s characteristics and quality,” said Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s Deputy CEO Dr. Kalyana Sundram.
Because Malaysian sustainable palm oil is such a simple substitute for partially hydrogenated oils, Sundram estimates that the United States’ short-term demand for palm oil will increase approximately 20 percent. “This is unlikely to create a major supply constrain for palm producers, especially Malaysia,” said Sundram, adding that Malaysia’s inventory could meet this demand without any significant marketplace effects.
The shift to palm oil concerns some environmentalists, who fear that the increased demand will reduce forest cover and harm native wildlife. While Sundram states that deforestation for palm cultivation is not as rampant as suggested by some non-governmental organizations, he cautions that, “The threat is possible, especially in Africa.”
Better governance may help. Malaysia’s palm oil industry is highly regulated. Cultivation is only allowed on designated agricultural land. “In addition, the country commits to preserving at least 50 percent of its total land area under forest and green cover. Currently, it is almost 56 percent. There are also significant collaborative efforts to preserve wildlife,” Sundram explained. “Due to such measures, the orangutan population in Malaysia, for example, is well protected.”
As worldwide demand for palm oil increases, there may actually be less stress on the environment. The oil palm is already the most land-efficient oil crop. Now trials are underway in Malaysia to evaluate improved oil palms. “A big challenge to the industry would be to increase oil yields per hectare of land cultivated. This will also ease pressure for new land, and the concerns about deforestation may finally be resolved,” Sundram predicted.
Robin Miller is a health and nutrition editor with more than 30 years of industry experience. She researches and writes about the nutritional benefits of palm fruit oil, with the goal of giving readers factual, science-based information that will be useful in their daily lives.