Palm Oil: Challenges, Sustainability And Its Applications

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

In our globalised world, the realities of palm oil production and trade have become more complex, thus posing several challenges to the industry, says Futura Ingredients.



In our globalised world, the realities of palm oil production and trade have become more complex, thus posing several challenges to the industry. Palm oil is known for being rich in saturated fat—however, the conscious consumer views this as unhealthy because saturated fat intake and hydrogenated fat are often associated with increased rates of cardiovascular disease. The consequence of this perception is that a greater number of consumers are reluctant to buy foods that contain fats of any sort on its labels, fuelling the low-fat diet phenomenon.


On the contrary, fat is extremely important for the human body to function effectively. It helps to move vitamins A, D, E and K around the body and also helps with hormone production.


To prove the necessity of fat in the human anatomy, a meta-analysis was developed by prospective cohort studies to evaluate the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease conducted by Siri-Tarino et. al. (published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010). The objective of this meta-analysis was to summarise the evidence of associating dietary saturated fat that potentially leads to risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease through prospective epidemiologic studies. Out of the analysis, twenty-one studies were identified by searching MEDLINE and EMBASE databases that were qualified for inclusion in this study. As a conclusion, it was found that there is no significant evidence to conclude that consumption of dietary saturated fat has an impact in directly or indirectly increasing the risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular diseases. While saturated fat is now viewed as acceptable in the field of nutrition, the focus of health professionals has shifted onto the dangers of hydrogenation and trans-fats in our diet.


Hydrogenation is a process to convert liquid oils into spreadable fats or harden fats, and can be categorised into two processes—full hydrogenation and partial hydrogenation. It is important to understand that in the full hydrogenation process, there is no formation of trans-fats. Accordingly, it is important for oils and fats players in the food industry to equip their consumers with the right information by working closely with nutritionists.



Sustainability has been a buzzword for some time now.  While there are a number of interpretations of sustainability, it simply means the capability of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. The Palm Oil industry is frequently linked with sustainability issues including deforestation and open burning to accommodate the cultivation or replanting of oil palm.


In 2001, WWF initiated exploring the possibilities for a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The result of this was the creation of an informal co-operation among Aarhus United UK Ltd., Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association and Unilever together with WWF in 2002. After several rounds of meetings and discussions, RSPO was formally established under Article 60 of the Swiss Civil Code in April 2004. Since then, it has created and spread awareness to both upstream and downstream palm oil players to initiate new endeavours in expanding palm oil production with alternate ways of replanting old and unproductive oil palm lots to improve the yield of oil per hectare.


Besides RSPO, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) Association was founded in Switzerland in November 2006. In 2010, the first version of the RTRS Standard was launched. The mission of RTRS is to encourage current and future soybean production in a responsible manner, in order to reduce social and environmental impact whilst maintaining or improving the economic status for the producer. As the world’s population continues increasing, it directly impacts global consumption of vegetable oils which has risen drastically from 167 million metric tons in 2013/14, to 189 million metric tons in 2017/18 and this number continues to grow in line with population growth and industrialisation.


Hence, the sustainability of edible oils will remain a key focus for the conscious consumer. If we look into the current oil yield per hectare, palm is still one of the best oil crops, as its oil yield per hectare is around 3.5 to 4.5 tons per hectare, as compared to 0.7 to 1.0 tons per hectare for rapeseed, and 0.45 to 0.6 tons per hectare for soybean. A promising alternative to cater for the growing demand of edible oil is cultivation of algae-based oil which seems to be commercially viable in the near future. And is poised to become the best alternative to oil crops as algae-based technology can produce 10 to 20 times the yield that of palm.


Sustainability still remains a complex issue. While oil yield per hectare is just one of the variables emphasised, there are other factors affecting sustainability.  As a result, it is imperative for various parties (e.g. NGO, researchers, stakeholders, etc.) to work collaboratively to determine the mid- and long-term development plans to cultivate sustainable vegetable oils in order to meet the growing future needs.



Palm oil is very versatile, and finds uses in food, feed and industrial applications worldwide. In food, it is used primarily as cooking oil, in production of margarine, spreads, imitation creams, and food emulsifiers. It is transformed into calcium soap for animal feed, and widely as bases for soap, detergent, personal care products and cosmetic ingredients.


Food emulsifiers, as defined by the FDA, are substances which modify its surface tension in the component phase of an emulsion to establish a uniform dispersion or emulsion. Therefore, emulsifiers are used within food systems where stabilisation of two phases are required, for example, as a stabiliser of water-in-oil emulsions, such as margarine and spread, and as a stabiliser of oil-in-water emulsions for ice cream products.


In terms of applications, we will focus primarily on the application of food emulsifiers in oils and fats products. Distilled monoglycerides (DMG), lecithin, polyglycerol esters (PGE), propylene glycol monostearate (PGMS), sorbitan tristearate (STS), polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR), and LACTEM are some of the commonly used emulsifiers in oils and fats products.


Distilled monoglycerides (DMG), lecithin and polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR) however, are more commonly used in production of margarines and spreads. The functions of DMG in margarines and spreads are mainly to promote crystallisation and emulsion stabilisation. Lecithin and PGPR on the other hand, are used to facilitate emulsification and stabilise emulsions in food products. To promote fat crystallisation, DMG is used in pastry margarine to enhance plasticity, which also improves the lamination of the dough and fat, and promotes lifting and aeration during baking.


The aeration capability of cream margarine is affected by the blend of fats and type of emulsifiers used. Lauric fats such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil enhance its whipping properties, on the other hand, alpha tending emulsifiers such as polyglycerol esters (PGE) and propylene glycol monostearate (PGMS) will enhance the aeration capability of cream margarine, and stabilise the foam generated during whipping process. Apart from PGE and PGMS, LACTEM and polysorbate are good alternatives to enhance whipping properties.


The use of partially hydrogenated fats is gradually being phased out globally, due to the adverse health impact of trans-fats. However, as trans-fats are being phased out of food formulations, there are challenges that need to be addressed by food formulators as trans-fats influences the melting profile, texture and oxidation stability of margarines and spreads. Finding healthy, direct substitutes for trans-fats while still achieving the same desired physical and organoleptic qualities makes it the ultimate goal for the oils and fats industry.


There are two possible solutions to this challenge of trans-fats elimination in margarines and spreads. The first option is to employ a different manufacturing process, to this end the industry has employed fractionation, chemical and enzymatic interesterification technology. The second option is to introduce a fat crystalliser into the margarine or spread formulation.  The addition of 1 percent to 2 percent of fat crystalliser, either singly or together with DMG, induces nucleation within a given set of processing conditions, and the outcome is favourable in improving the crystallisation rate of trans-free fats. This method is fairly straightforward and allows fats to reach a targeted Solid Fat Content (SFC), however it is unlikely to completely resolve crystallisation and processing issues.

Aside from margarine and spreads, food emulsifiers are used in cocoa butter, cocoa butter alternatives (i.e. cocoa butter substitute, cocoa butter replacer, and cocoa butter equivalent), as well as cooking oils derived from palm. Food emulsifiers, specifically sorbitan tristearate (STS) is used in the cocoa butter, cocoa butter substitutes and cocoa butter replacers to delay fat bloom development in chocolate and compound chocolate.  Although fat bloom in chocolates and its compounds do not pose any food safety risks, the whitish haze-like appearance on the surface renders the product unattractive to consumers.  This challenge can be solved with the addition of STS, which helps retain the fat crystals in cocoa butter substitutes, cocoa butter replacers and cocoa butter in its desired form. STS is deployed to delay the polymorphic transformation of these fats.


A key quality parameter in cocoa butter substitutes and replacers are a low free fatty acid (FFA) content, as it impacts overall product stability.  In response to the quality requirements of the oils and fats industry, STS with a maximum acid value of 1 mg KOH/g has been designed and commercialised.  In a similar vein, STS can also be used in palm derived cooking oils (i.e. palm olein) to delay oil crystallisation or clouding at lower temperatures.


To sum it up, palm oil is highly versatile ingredient used widely in food applications due to its unique physical qualities and cost efficiency in use.  Palm oil is also currently the most sustainable option in terms of yield and organised industry practices to fulfil the needs of generations to come.  It is the duty of responsible manufacturers to balance the economic, social and environmental needs to meet the wider social imperative.  If any of these three factors are ignored, we will not be able to sustain needs of the planet, businesses or quality of life for the people of today and the generations of tomorrow.


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