Shortenings are crucial in imparting
a tender texture to baked goods.
Trans Fat Free Palm Oil As Replacement in Baked Goods
Replacement of Trans Fatty Acids (TFA):
The Use of Palm Oil as One of the Alternate Fats in the United States of America

Dr. Kalyana Sundram
Head, Food Technology & Nutrition
Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB)

Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Yusof Basiron
Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB)

Issues related to dietary fats and their implications for health remain a major preoccupation for the American consumer. The large battery of information being bombarded on the consumers, to say the least, is bewildering and serves largely to confuse the lay consumer. Yet, most of these dietary recommendations are geared towards leading the consumer towards a healthier lifestyle that according to the health pundits should ensure a better and longer life for most of us. Are the consumers getting the correct message based on established scientific principles and outcomes?

In recent times, probably one of the most debated issues in relation to dietary fats has been the role of trans fatty acids (TFA) and their implications for human health. After more than 50 years of concerted efforts to sweep the evidence under the carpet that there are unquestionable benefits from consuming partially hydrogenated polyunsaturated fat preparations, the bubble has finally burst. No less than the most authoritative expert (health) committee in the USA, namely the Institute of Medicine (IOM), has determined that the upper tolerable limit for trans fatty acid consumption in the human diet is zero. Interpreted simply, the recommendation is towards zero trans for a healthier diet makeup.

The FDA has no other avenue but to legislate for the reduction and declaration of trans fatty acids from the American diet and by 2006 all food products are required to make this declaration so that the consumers are able to make the correct healthy choice.

The American Food Industry have to quickly find alternatives that can be used to replace trans fatty acids and such alternatives must be the healthier choice compared to current hydrogenated fat formulations.

What really are the alternatives to trans fatty acids? To answer this issue we must first understand our culinary habits, which are rather difficult to change despite the obvious push to eat a healthy diet. The different staple foods that have been traditionally made with hydrogenated fats (and are still continued) must be successfully reformulated without loss of taste and sensory perceptions. These foods require a solid fat profile that is so important for their functionality and taste. Loose the hydrogenated fats from these formulations, and in reality the industry has little choice but to turn to saturated fats.

Unlike the early 1980s, there is now a wealth of scientific evidence that supports the fact that palm oil is wholesome nutritious edible oil. Palm oil is indeed rich in both the saturated palmitic and monounsaturated oleic acid. It also contains sufficient quantities of the polyunsaturated linoleic acid. Given its natural versatile composition, palm oil is easily fractionated into liquid oil, palm olein (higher monounsaturated oleic acid, same constituent as in olive oil and lower content of saturated palmitic acid) and a solid fat, palm stearin (lower content of oleic acid and higher content of palmitic acid). It is mostly this palm oil and liquid palm olein that reaches the American food industry.

MPOB has pioneered more than 142 different nutritional trials evaluating palm oil and its components, mostly through research partnership with a number of American, European and Australian institutions of high repute. The human studies that have evaluated palm oil and palm olein document a clear scientific observation: when palm oil / olein is incorporated into the human diet at current recommended levels of fat consumption it is not deleterious to the human lipid and lipoprotein profile and hence does not constitute a risk for coronary heart disease via increased total cholesterol (TC) or LDL-cholesterol levels. This augers well for a claim that palm oil/olein is basically a neutral fat at such levels of recommended fat consumption. The latest review on this particular subject published in Lipid Technology (2004) is attached for easy reference. Primary papers cited in the review and published in leading biomedical and nutrition journals are also available.

Palm oil / olein, has the capacity to add a new health dimension to this current trans dilemma and shows promise as a partner for the American food industry in its efforts to reformulate foods with zero trans content. But the road that palm oil could offer, already paved by good science, is again facing numerous discriminatory actions that continue to send unwarranted fears for the consumers. If the consumer had easy access to the scientific literature they would be better informed and learn that when consumed at the current recommended levels of fat intake (30% fat energy), palm oil/olein is essentially a neutral fat and compares favorably with the gold standard olive oil and other monounsaturated fats such as Canola and rapeseed oils. A true test to this claim is demonstrated simply by blending palm oil with specific liquid oils such that the recommended American Heart Association's Step 1 diet (10% saturates; 10% polyunsaturates; 10% monounsaturates) is readily achieved, even when palm oil's contribution is 50% of the blend. The validity of the health benefit of such a blend is underscored by a human dietary trial (published in a peer-reviewed journal) and three US patents that specify claims for improving one's cholesterol ratio via increases in the beneficial HDL-cholesterol with the palm based AHA Step-1 blend.

Scientific evidence against excess consumption of saturated fats is already well entrenched and associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease (CHD). Despite this, science has made steady progress and there is sufficient evidence indicating that all saturated fatty acids are not equally CHD enhancing. For example stearic acid is being touted as a neutral fat for cholesterol metabolism. More important, moderation in the quantity of fats we consume is the key towards a healthy lifestyle. Although American fat intake trends are showing a slow but steady decline, the current levels of fat intake are still in excess of the recommended 30% energy optimum fat consumption advocated.

The effects on cholesterol metabolism are definitely different when these fats are compared, with the trans fatty acids. Trans caused a significant decrease in the beneficial HDL-cholesterol and then shifted the ratio of LDL/HDL -cholesterol for the worse. Saturated fats actually have the capacity to increase the beneficial HDL-cholesterol. The consumer should do well to remember that the IOM assigned zero tolerance for trans fatty acids, yet advises moderate intake of saturated fatty acids which could still form the building block of a healthy diet.

In the latest authoritative review of saturated fats published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (September 2004), dietary studies with palm oil have been referred to as palmitic-oleic-rich. This is an important definition more so since most of the palm based oil that reaches the USA is the liquid palm olein, which is mostly unsaturated oleic acid and palmitic acid. This natural combination, when consumed at recommended levels of fat intake has been shown to be a neutral fat for cholesterol metabolism and regulation.

In the American diet, palmitic is the major saturated fatty acid, but it is not sourced from palm oil but from red meat, pork, poultry, dairy fat and processed foods. The contribution of palm oil in the American diet remains extremely low (< 2% energy)

Indeed if the drive is towards a more healthy choice, there is ample evidence for the beneficial partnership between palm oil and the other monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils, especially soybean oil.

So, the American food industry will be regulated towards minimizing the use of hydrogenated fat and what realistic choice does it really have?

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An option today would be to go natural. In this context palm oil presents itself as a neutral choice. The final choice should lie within your grasp as a consumer. We are simply stating that in such a fat there is definitely a positive health role for palm oil and palm oil will never completely replace soybean oil as the major edible oil in the USA. Since soybean and other liquid oils cannot be hydrogenated, we are simply suggesting a marriage among these commodity oils. In this marriage, palm oil has a functionality task, to provide the solid fat content in most of the solid fats that are the mainstay of current American culinary habits.

The advantage, rather than disadvantage, is the fact that palm oil / olein now has a proven record of neutrality towards plasma lipids and CHD risk and the above proposed marriage would only serve to improve the overall fatty acid profile of the Americans, possibly moving closer to the magical Step 1 diet advocated by the American Heart Association.

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