Health benefits of red palm oil

This is written by my colleague Bilqis Bahari.

RED palm oil, though having been in existence for several centuries, is now seen as the preferred solution for various health conditions, particularly those relating to vitamin A deficiency. 

Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) director general Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May told Business Times that red palm oil contains the highest source of natural carotenes as well as tocopherols and tocotrienols. 

“Carotenes in red palm oil, converted into vitamin A in the body, are a powerful source of antioxidants. These nutrients are used to treat health problems related to vitamin A deficiency, such as night blindness among children.”

“The vitamin A in red palm oil is 15 times more than carrot and 300 times more than tomato in terms of retinol equivalent,” she said in an interview recently.

She also said tocopherols and tocotrienols, which are naturally occuring vitamin E in tropical oils, help scavenge damaging free radicals. This means palm oil vitamin E helps slow down ageing and possibly prevent atherosclerosis and cancer.

According to the United Nations, vitamin A is an essential nutrient needed in small amounts for the normal functioning of the visual system, and maintenance of cell function for growth, red blood cell production, immunity and reproduction.

The United Nations also said that vitamin A deficiency is a major nutritional concern in lower income countries such as Africa and India.

Choo said night blindness, an eye condition that results in poor vision in low lighting conditions especially at night, affects as many as eight to 10 million malnourished children worldwide. If left untreated, vitamin A deficiency may lead to permanent blindness and death. “Carotenes in red palm oil have proven to be a very good source of pro vitamin A to help treat the disease,” she said.

According to Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, the recommended dietary allowances of vitamin A vary among children with different ages. On average, children aged one to three years old would need 300 micrograms of vitamin A daily, while those from four to eight years old would need 400 micrograms daily. Those aged nine to 13 years old would generally need 600 micrograms of vitamin A daily.

Apart from local clinical trials, MPOB has also carried out the same research with reputable universities in the US, South Africa, Vietnam, India, China and Australia. 

The studies consistently show that red palm oil is able to treat vitamin A deficiency in children who suffer from night blindness. 

As an example, Dr A.J. Spinnler Benadé in one of papers titled “A place for palm fruit oil to eliminate vitamin A deficiency” stated that sweet snack or biscuits containing red palm oil given to school children suffering night blindness saw improvement in their vitamin A deficiency problem.

“If 35-50 per cent of the recommended daily intake for vitamin A were to be provided by red palm fruit oil, it is sufficient to prevent vitamin A deficiency,” he said in the research paper.

Dr Benadé fed the malnourished children biscuits baked with Carotino red palm baking fats. The affordable and tasty snack proved to be an ideal carrier for beta-carotenes and other micronutrients.

“The plus point is that children love snacks, so feeding compliance is not an issue. It contains no trans-fatty acids and its rich content of carotenes and vitamin E help to extend the shelf life of the biscuits,” Choo said.

Subsequent studies expanding on Dr Benadé’s research showed “Carotino biscuits” made an important contribution to the intake of beta-carotenes and specific micronutrients in vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, nursing mothers and adults working long hours under strenuous conditions.

“Through MPOB’s technology, red palm oil extracted from the palm fruit is rich in phytonutrients, retaining as much as 80 per cent of carotenes and also contains vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols), phytosterols, squalene and co-enzyme Q10,” she said.

Nowadays, carotenes extracted from red palm oil are fast replacing synthetic vitamin A in multi-vitamin formulations. This is because scientists and doctors warn the dangers of synthetic vitamin A overdose in these supplements.

“Apart from being incorporated in multi-vitamin pills, carotenes are increasingly seen a popular choice in the food colorant market. As adverse effects of artificial colorants become clear, the demand for natural red palm carotene becomes even apparent,” she said.