Palm oil has been the preferred cooking oil among South-East Asians due to its health properties, versatility, affordable price and naturally good resistance against rancidity, as opposed to other vegetable oils.
Distinguished for its health benefits, palm oil has been promoted by researchers as a healthier choice as it has zero trans-fat, and is bland and odourless.
Wilmar Biotechnology Research and Development Center (Shanghai) Co. Limited research and development engineer Dr Prakash Adhikari says palm oil is a rich source of antioxidants and beta-carotenes.
"According to studies, palm oil increases the good HDL cholesterol without raising the overall cholesterol levels. It is also effective at reducing the level of 'bad' LDL cholesterol that is linked to heart disease.
"It also contains essential fatty acids required for bone, joint and skin health. Palm oil has a low polyunsaturated fat content - a contrast to its richness in antioxidants like vitamin E, tocotrienols and beta-carotene, combined to give the oil a distinctive reddish tint," he says.
Vitamin E protects arteries from thickening, and the skin from toxins and UV radiation.
Like other saturated oils, palm oil needs no "hydrogenation" to increase the shelf life of its food products, as all its carbon atoms are linked to each other and a pair of hydrogen atoms, meaning that it is fully saturated.
Palm oil is easily obtained from the fruit by pressing and squeezing it.
It is reddish in colour and suitable for both commercial and home cooking.
Dr Adhikari says palm oil can be separated into two forms by fractionation, where it is separated under controlled thermal conditions into solid and liquid forms.
"Called stearin, the solid form is used to make solid fats such as margarine.
"The liquid part called olein is more healthy, and used by food makers," he says.
Dr Adhikari adds that palm oil antioxidants enable the body to combat free radicals that originate from air pollution, unba-lanced diets and acute stress.
So, a higher intake of antioxidants can help prevent heart disease, arthritis, atherosclerosis, and certain cancers, as well as slow down the aging process, he explains.
"Researchers have found that tocotrienol, a natural compound in vitamin E, blocks the function of an enzyme in the brain that causes brain cells to die after a stroke.
"Vitamin E occurs naturally in foods in eight different forms (four tocopherols: alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocopherol and four tocotrienols: alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocotrienol), each of which has unique, as well as complementary biological actions that target specific pathways to protect against neural cell death and rescues the brain after stroke injury," adds Dr Adhikari.
He shares that another added health benefit of palm oil is its nutrients' resilience to heat.
"Some vegetable oils, if heated to high temperatures, will lose their nutritional value, but with palm oil, studies have shown otherwise, suggesting it can be heated during cooking without eliminating its phytonutrient content," he says.
He adds that palm oil can be used as a substitute for cooking needs like greasing, shortening and frying.
Malaysians find palm oil ideal for frying foods, and also for stir-frying, as the smoking point is high.
"Palm oil does not contain proteins at all, and there are no known allergies from palm oil. Though there has been a lot of bad media hype about the so called "tropical oils" in the past, most of the negative campaign claims have not been substantiated in recent research," he says.
"Baked goods, infant formula, cake mixes and instant noodles all contain palm oil as one of the ingredients," he adds.
Savola Foods Product Development Innovations senior innovations manager Mohamed Metwally opines that palm oil is excellent for cooking and baking.
"It consists of 50 per cent saturated fatty acids, 40 per cent monounsaturated fatty acids, and 10 per cent polyunsaturated fatty acids.
"The high saturated and monounsaturated fatty acid content makes palm oil heat resistant and stable at high cooking or frying temperatures.
"The high saturated fat and antioxidant content makes it extremely resistant to oxidation and free-radical formation," he says.
According to a researcher, if a person has sustained a cut, they can use palm oil to heal the injured part.
Reputed to have a beneficial healing effect, the oil, when applied in a small amount to a wound, can aid in healing, similar to an iodine tincture.
Malaysians wanting a healthy substitute for baking cookies during the festive seasons can replace other fats with palm oil.
As you cannot tell the difference, palm oil can be an excellent and easy way to help improve health, and still maintain the same taste.