Editor’s Note: The Malaysian Star interviewed Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC)’s new CEO Dr. Kalyana Sundram. This is part one of four excerpts we’ll publish from this interview. Prior to being appointed to this post in January 2017, Sundram was MPOC’s Deputy CEO and Science and Environment Director. A well-respected professional, Sundram has served on committees at the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Union of Nutritional Sciences. He holds 21 palm oil-related patents and has published extensively on palm oil.

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

Sundram: 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.

Malaysian Star: What’s the biggest misconception?

Sundram: 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 subsidizes 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.

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