Palm oil brightens up Festival of Lights

ENLIGHTENING: As Hindu families gather for Deepavali, a well-informed devotee tells OOI TEE CHING that the traditional delicacies are best prepared with palm cooking oil and it is also used in other religious rituals.

THE first thing Lectumy Devi Subramaniam serves her guests on Deepavali is a sweet like ladoo and adhirasam, so that the start of the new year for them is also sweet. 

For the Festival of Lights celebration, achi murukkus with its distinct flower shape and murukkus are must-haves.

Murukku is a savoury snack made by combining rice flour and black bean flour made into a paste. This dough is pressed through a mold and the "textured" ropes are laid in tight spirals onto trays. These are then deep-fried in palm cooking oil.

Lectumy said her family has been using palm oil to deep-fry traditional delicacies such as achi murukku and murukku for some 20 years now. 

Before that, coconut oil was the main kitchen staple. Lectumy learnt to prepare Deepavali delicacies at the tender age of 14 from her mother. 

When Malaysia's palm oil refining industry churned out palm cooking oil to be widely distributed and conveniently stored in the 1980s, Lectumy's family made the switch from coconut oil.

In the last decade, despite Malaysia being one of the biggest exporters of palm oil, there had been an influx of cold climate cooking oils such as olive, soyabean, corn, canola and sunflower. 

Having experimented with a wide variety of edible oils, Lectumy found that palm oil is able to withstand deep-fry heat better than other vegetable oils like olive, soyabean, corn, canola and sunflower. 

Deepavali marks the victory of good over evil. The Sanskrit word "Deepavali" means an array of lights and it signifies the victory of brightness over darkness.

Lectumy highlighted that every religious ritual has a significance. The very act of lighting up clay lamps is to dispel the darkness of ignorance and glorify the light of God. 

Lighting up darkness reflects attainment of knowledge where there is ignorance and spreading of love amid hatred. Light is significant in Hinduism because it signifies goodness. Homes are lit with clay lamps to ward off darkness and evil.

Another ritual is to have an oil bath before sunrise on Deepavali day. It helps boost blood circulation, remove dead cells from skin surface and cleans body thoroughly. 

Massage oils used in oil baths are partly derived from oleochemicals that are processed from palm oil.

It was an enlightening experience to learn that palm oil, while mostly used for cooking and baking, is also present in religious rituals.

Nutritionally balanced, rich in Vit E

IN an interview with Business Times, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive Tan Sri Yusof Basiron states the facts and figures about palm oil nutrition.

Q: Why does palm cooking oil sometimes turn "cloudy" when placed in the refrigerator? Is the oil still safe for consumption? 

A: Palm oil becomes jelly-like and cloudy when stored in the fridge, when all the other major vegetable oils remain liquid. This is due to its 50 per cent content saturated acids, mainly palmitic and stearic, which help to increase the HDL, "the good cholesterol". 
More importantly, the other half of palm oil's fat content is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - known to reduce LDL, the "bad cholesterol", and can benefit the cardiovascular system. 
Unlike other vegetable oils grown in temperate countries, palm oil contains the whole spectrum of Vitamin E, minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Its deep orange hue shows it is packed with beta-carotene, a Vitamin A variant. 

Q: Is palm oil less nutritious than other more expensive cooking oils? 

A: Palm oil is nutritionally balanced. One tablespoon of palm cooking oil contains 120 calories and 13.6g of fat. With a balanced combination of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats, palm oil is made up of 44 per cent oleic, 10 per cent linoleic, 40 per cent palmitic and five per cent stearic acids. 
While palm oil is the cheapest cooking oil in the world, it is nutritionally comparable to olive oil in its cholesterol effects. 
Red palm oil is packed with carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene - the same nutrients that give tomatoes, carrots and papaya their reddish-orange colour. Palm oil has the richest natural source of the supervitamin E called tocotrienols. Olive oil does not contain any carotenes or tocotrienols, yet it is marketed as being heart healthy. 

Q: Does palm cooking oil contain cholesterol? 

A: Like all vegetable oils, palm oil does not contain cholesterol. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administrator has allowed palm-based products sold under the Smart Balance brand (containing up to 50 per cent palm oil and 50 per cent local oils) to carry the US patented label "To help increase HDL (good cholesterol) and improve the cholesterol ratio (HDL/LDL)".

Q: There is much literature on the Internet stating palm oil is high in saturated fats. Is it bad for health?

A: Palm oil is actually nutritionally balanced. A recent analysis published in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that there was no evidence to show that dietary saturated fat was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The effect of saturated fat should be seen in the context of a person's overall diet and environment. High intake of fatty acids associated with low intake in polyunsaturated fatty acids, consumption of sugary and salty foods, excessive alcohol intake, smoking and stress collectively trigger the onset of cardiovascular diseases. Fortunately, palm oil has a 50:50 profile of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.