The editorial committee of the American Oil Chemistry Society asked Professor Casimir Akoh to edit a book on palm oil. The ambitious title given was ‘Palm Oil Production, Processing, Characterization and Uses’. Prof Akoh and his two assistants invited contributions from known experts across the world. The resulting book of 836 pages in 25 chapters fully satisfies the title.

The book covers up-to-date information on every aspect of palm oil (literature references up to end of 2011), including current research programmes. A number of the authors are from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) reporting on their own research or on the results of international collaborations.

Consistent government support has enabled the MPOB to carry out a planned programme of research over more than 20 years that has enabled the elucidation of the oil palm genome and big improvements in the techniques used in breeding.

In particular, genetic engineering can be used to introduce a specific gene selected from any living organism, i.e. animal, fungus or bacteria. Tissue culture is used for rapid propagation. Enzyme systems can be introduced that result in products of industrial value, such as ricinoleic acid and biodegradable plastics.

The oil palm flourishes in tropical areas with high and frequent rainfall. It grows wild in suitable areas of West Africa. A number of reports of the oil appeared in Europe from the early 17th century. Furthermore, there is archaeological evidence of its use in human food for more than 5,000 years. Today palm oil is, together with palm kernel oil, about 30% of the major vegetable oils in world trade. It is traded as a bulk commodity in 150 countries.

The oil is a major component of the flesh of the fruit, which can be consumed direct – as it still is today in local cuisine, for example in Ghana. The palm fruit is likely to have been used for food by forerunners of homo sapiens for millennia. This is in contrast to the other major vegetable oils, which require sophisticated technology for extraction and purification before use. (The only exception is olive oil, also fruit flesh oil, with a long history in human food.)

Dramatically improved yield
In the first chapter of the book, LE Henson describes the increase in yield in palm oil of about 0.3 tonnes/ha in Nigerian wild groves to 1.8 tonnes/ha/year in Nigerian plantations. More recently, average national yields of over 4 tonnes/ha/year were obtained in 2008 in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

This dramatic increase was the result of a combination of factors: the use in Southeast Asia of exceptional Deli dura parent palms from Africa; continual selection; and assisted pollination initially by hand and then by the introduction in 1981 of the weevil Elaeidobius kamerunicus from West Africa.

Further improvements are foreshadowed by experimental yields of 10 tonnes/ha/year or more obtained from selected best trees without the need for additional land. Tissue culture was developed to speed up the introduction of high-yield palms and has also been used to introduce changes in the enzyme systems that control or change the fatty acid composition of the oil, for example by increasing oleic acid content.

A comprehensive chapter on pests and diseases is contributed by Gait Fee Chung. Contributions from Brazil and Nigeria describe their palm oil industry.

Other chapters deal with processing technology, quality maintenance and physical properties. The nutritional properties of the oil and its uses in food have been attacked, often by industrial interests in rival products. An extensive international programme of research has proved beyond doubt that it is a safe and beneficial food.

Professor Kiyotaka Sato describes his studies of the polymorphic behaviour of palm oil and the practical implications in foods such as margarine. Minor components of palm oil including tocopherols, tocotrienols, carotenoids and antioxidants are described by a team from the Wilmar R&D centre in Shanghai. Interest in industrial uses of palm oil is increasing, as is the use of the oil palm trunk.

Complaints about the adverse impact of the palm oil industry on the environment led to government intervention and later to the formation of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This body consists of stakeholders in the industry from growers to food retailers. The RSPO has agreed standards, which are independently verified. Major food manufacturers and retailers require their palm oil suppliers to conform to the RSPO standards so that they can, in turn, reassure their customers regarding the sustainability of their products.

Small producers of palm oil in Malaysia find that meeting the RSPO requirements for inspection and testing is too expensive. An alternative has therefore been introduced by the government – the ‘Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification Scheme’. This is fully supported by the government, enabling the entire industry to be certified.

The oil palm has been an important element in the economic development of regions in West Africa, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia with suitable climatic conditions. In Malaysia, a government support scheme under the Federal Land Development Agency was used to settle landless people and has been effective in increasing the prosperity of the nation.

KG Berger
Food Technology Consultant, UK


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