The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in consumer concerns about food safety and nutrition. Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), one of the world’s largest palm oil-based agribusinesses, has stepped up efforts to dispel misperceptions while raising awareness about the multiple health benefits of the world’s most widely used edible oil. “One persistent myth about palm oil is that it is unhealthy because it contains saturated fatty acids (SAFA). However, whole palm oil is typically 50% saturated, and 50% unsaturated fatty acids, which is quite different when compared to dairy and cocoa butters,” said Dr. Paul Wassell, Head of Research and Development. In fact, depending on the degree of refining, palm oil is the richest source of Beta-carotene, a natural source of Pro-Vitamin A. It is also a great source of tocotrienols (Vitamin E).
“Another confounding myth is that palm oil increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, which is simply untrue. This is due to fundamental knowledge gaps about the differences between SAFA type: long, medium, and short chain, and their function.” Wassell pointed out, “For instance, palmitic fatty acid (the most common SAFA) in oleic-palmitic-oleic (OPO) fats for infant formula, does mimic the OPO molecule that is naturally present in mother’s milk.” Eliminating trans fats entirely from food supply The fear of increased risk of heart diseases is driving global health regulators to ban trans fats, which can be found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration and the WHO plan to eliminate industrial trans fats by 2020 and 2023, respectively. F&B conglomerates have turned to natural palm oil, due it being naturally free from industrial trans fatty acids and not needing to undergo hydrogenation to be modified, unlike sunflower, rapeseed, and soybean oils. Among the four major commodity oils, palm oil remains free from genetic modification a non-GMO oil.
“Adding hydrogen makes an oil more saturated and may result in the formation of trans-fatty acids, so palm oil’s ability to be fractionated naturally and then recombined into other products without hydrogenation is a massive advantage,” Wassel remarked. Innovating to adapt to customer needs At GAR’s R&D centre in Marunda, Jakarta, food technologists develop margarines with different flavour profiles, shortening with special whipping capabilities, or unique specialty ice-cream coatings. “Milk fat replacers — like palm oil-based margarines to replace butter — have gained prominence as food producers try to cater to consumers who are lactose intolerant, while avoiding trans fats entirely. We also reduce Sodium (salt) in our margarine type products. We understand this will bring additional health benefits to the wider community. We’ve also seen continued interest in plant-based foods. We have new concepts in our innovation pipeline for both local and international customers, while fulfilling our customers’ bespoke requirements,” Wassel added. A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers have shifted their focus to food security and nutrition among lower income groups, especially rural populations. Wassell believes indigenous populations can consider minimally-processed palm oil that retains natural tocotrienols, a maximum concentration of Pro-Vitamin A, while keeping an ultra-low carbon footprint.