Palm oil: Learn from coconut oil

NEEDED urgently – a change in the mindset of top decision makers in government, institutions linked to palm oil and plantation companies if Malaysia is to overcome the most recent threat to a commodity that garnered an estimated RM80 billion in export earnings last year.

Last month, 429 out of 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPS) voted to amend a draft law on renewable energy that will ban the use of palm oil to produce biodiesel effective 2021.

Admittedly, this threat isn't immediate. The proposed ban requires the approval of the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Implementation of this potential prohibition, even if delayed, could impact the Malaysian palm oil industry – and its Indonesian counterpart – adversely and significantly.

Malaysia exported about two million tonnes of palm oil to the European Union (EU) last year – of which 600,000 tonnes were used as feedstock for biodiesel, data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board show. Another 215,000 tonnes of palm-based biofuels was exported directly to EU countries.

Reaction in this country to the impending embargo has been predictable – protests, petitions and press statements, including implicit threats of retaliation by Malaysia and Indonesia.

Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong is correct in labelling the proposed ban as "crop apartheid" and "trade protectionism".

However, expecting the EU to reverse its stand to maintain good relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, and due to concern about the livelihood of 650,000 Malaysian smallholders is naive.

Elected politicians in the EU must give priority to their own constituents – or seen to be doing so – not to foreigners far away.

Palm oil is a good product with an abysmal public image. Improving EU consumers' poor perception of this vegetable oil should be the focal point of Malaysia's efforts to persuade MEPS to reconsider this impending interdiction.

One action Malaysia can take is launching a high-profile, sophisticated public relations campaign. A key component of this media blitz should be documentaries screened on EU TV at prime time – and not after midnight – produced by non-Malaysians with impeccable credentials as scientists and environmentalists.

These documentaries should have the triple aim of challenging the perception that growing oil palms destroys the orang utan's habitat, and bringing across the message that it is grown in an environmentally-friendly manner and offers multiple health benefits.

Unlike palm oil, coconut oil offers a stunning contrast in public perception. Although coconut oil is a very high saturated fat (86%), demand for this commodity has skyrocketed. Sales of coconut oil in the UK now total £16 million, more than 70 times just six years ago, award-winning host of medical and scientific documentaries Dr Michael Mosley says.

Surging demand for coconut oil was partially propelled by celebrities like actress Angelina Jolie who reputedly ingests a tablespoon at breakfast while model Miranda Kerr adds coconut oil to salads, cooks with it and uses it on her skin, Dr Mosley adds.

Last month, BBC TV's health education programme titled Trust me, I'm a Doctor featured a study comparing the merits of butter, olive oil and coconut oil hosted by Dr Mosley who graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University and studied medicine in the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in London.

After spending three months in Sri Lanka, Dr Mosley developed a liking for coconut oil. Troubled by claims that coconut oil is unhealthy, he conducted a study with two women academics from Cambridge – Malaysian-born Professor Clinical Gerontology Khaw Kay Tee and Indian-born Professor in the MRC Epidemiology Unit Nita Forouhi.

This study comprised 100 volunteers, aged 50 to 75 with no history of diabetes or heart disease. Their low density lipoprotein (LDL), high density lipoprotein (HDL) and other statistics were recorded at the beginning and end of the study. Volunteers were divided into three groups – butter, olive oil and coconut oil – and each person had to eat 50g (about three tablespoons) of their allotted item every day for four weeks.

To the researchers' surprise, coconut oil outperformed butter and olive oil. Volunteers in the butter group saw an approximately 10% rise in LDL or bad cholesterol and an almost 5% increase in HDL or good cholesterol while the olive oil cohort experienced a statistically-insignificant drop in LDL and a 5% hike in HDL.

Unexpectedly, the coconut oil eaters showed no rise in bad cholesterol LDL and a particularly large jump in good cholesterol HDL.

Professor Khaw cautions it is irresponsible to suggest changing dietary advice based on one study, however well conducted.

That consumers in the UK and elsewhere have drastically changed their perceptions of coconut oil, underscores the power of celebrity endorsements as well as an effective and sustained media campaign promoting its multiple advantages – something which palm oil advocates should emulate. To quote William Shakespeare in Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com