Exploring the scientific path to a greener future

Shaping a healthier and more sustainable palm oil industry

THE conversation about palm oil often focuses around environmental considerations. This focus, however, largely overshadows its role in medical applications. Although the topic may not be at the forefront of people’s thoughts, there are several good reasons to pay attention to palm oil's medical benefits.

At a time when people are becoming more health conscious, it is important to note that palm oil contains an array of potentially beneficial compounds like tocotrienols, otherwise known as vitamin E, and various carotenoids, which may reduce risks associated with some diseases.

In addition, this array of bioactives in palm oil, especially red palm oil, appear to support your immune system, and the innate phytosterols may participate in managing blood cholesterol levels, thereby reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, and heart attack or stroke. These bioactive compounds, often considered as mere “chemical terms”, warrant more attention from the public and research institutions.

As we navigate through the complex narratives of deforestation, animal habitats, and saturated fats, let us not forget the medicinal treasure this resource offers. What if palm oil is more than just something with which we cook? In medical practice, palm oil is often a staple in drug development, a driver for medical breakthroughs, and represents a case study of the growing need for sustainability.

For instance, palmitic acid, often criticised as a saturated fat, is a core component in the formulation of painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. It is also used in topical antibiotics like tetracycline, which provides a crucial alternative for those allergic to common options like erythromycin. The key question is whether we can really afford to turn our backs on a resource that is so important in health care.

While it is evident that health risks may exist, we often lack human data to confirm these concerns. There is not any direct evidence that substances and their respective concentrations found in edible oils, particularly 3-MCPD (3-chloropropane-1,2-diol), trigger adverse events among people, even after long-term exposure.

Even the European Food Safety Authority recently noted that 3-MCPD is considered safe for most consumers. Improved testing methods now allow us to detect even small amounts of compounds like 3-MCPD in edible oils. However, we must determine whether these quantities pose any actual harm before making any excessive reactions.

In addition to palm oil, 3-MCPD and glycidyl esters (GE) compounds are also found in vegetable oils like soybean, and sunflower. Interestingly, palm oil from Malaysia seems to have fewer of these substances. Factors like harvest timing and processing temperature and water sources can affect the levels of these substances. Ultimately, the edible oil industry, as a whole, needs to work on removing such elements to maintain consumer trust.

Secondly, as initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Certification Scheme, and various governments make progress in establishing sustainability benchmarks, we can anticipate a more responsible palm oil production. It is also important to note that in Malaysia, 96% of palm oil plantations have adopted these guidelines.

Although the RSPO sets high agricultural and environmental standards, their widespread adoption is lacking. Only about 19% of the more than 5,600 palm oil plantations on the global stage of palm oil production have adopted these standards. The Amsterdam Declaration's goal to use 100% sustainable palm oil in Europe by 2020 therefore sets a precedent for what the global industry could aim to achieve.

With advances in regulatory and quality sciences, it is time for agencies like the RSPO to work with international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop not just admirable, but also enforceable, guidelines and standards.

The palm oil industry faces numerous challenges and opportunities. Palm oil boosts the economy, especially in Southeast Asia, but also faces a lot of criticism related to environmental concerns. These challenges intersect with our lifestyle, our ethics, and our health. While we must care for the environment, let us not overlook the unique role of palm oil in pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical development.

Given the vital role of palm oil, particularly palmitic acid, in pharmaceutical applications, there is a pressing need for a collaborative framework that aligns production practices with ecological responsibility.

Recent advancements like winterisation offer promise. This method makes palm oil healthier for us by reducing total saturated fatty acids without harming its use in medicine. If everyone in the industry starts applying these methods, it can make a big difference. This is good for our health and shows that established and emerging technologies can help everyone.

Certainly, the palm oil conundrum is not a problem to be solved in isolation. Pharmaceutical players, often at the forefront of innovation, can offer valuable insights into sustainable practices that do not compromise product efficacy, value or safety.

As we push for sustainability throughout the agricultural and food industries, let us also embrace a perspective that highlights the potential importance of palm oil in improving health. In short, the role of palm oil in our lives extends far beyond the kitchen counter. It flows through the veins of our healthcare system, and it is our moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that this flow is not only constant but also clean, ethical and sustainable as well as safe.

* Dr Roger Clemens is part-time faculty within USC’s School of Pharmacy and holds multiple adjunct appointments. He serves on the scientific council for the International Union of Food Science & Technology and is an elected Fellow in several renowned scientific societies.

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