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Red Palm Oil: A Versatile and Nutritious Solution to Combat Malnutrition

By: Mina Zahine

We recently spoke with Professor Vijaya Khader about agricultural interventions to improve the nutritional status of vulnerable groups in India. Following up on the article, I spoke with her about Red Palm Oil. According to Professor Khader, Red Palm Oil (RPO) is one of the most versatile food products in the world. It is derived from the fruit of the African oil palm, both from the seed and the flesh. While humans have used this substance for thousands of years, palm oil production has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Unrefined palm oil is sometimes called red palm oil because of its reddish-orange colour. The physiochemical properties of RPO make it unique and valuable. It is rich in beta-carotene, making it a commonly used supplement in fighting malnutrition in developing countries.

Vitamin A deficiency is the most widespread nutritional disorder causing blindness in children in developing countries, particularly in tropical and subtropical countries. Vitamin A is vital for several reasons. Some of its essential functions are supporting vision, the immune system, growth development, reproduction, and skin health. Carotene-rich supplements with sources like RPO are used to combat this. For example, studies have indicated that Indian school children fed supplementary snacks prepared with RPO for 60 days significantly increased vitamin A levels and liver retinol (vitamin A) stores, suggesting the ready bioavailability of beta-carotene from RPO. Therefore, supplementation of RPO helps reduce malnutrition in vulnerable groups.

RPO is less refined than bleached palm oil. The refinement process involved in producing RPO removes fewer nutrients, which makes the oil a potentially healthier alternative to standard palm oil. Several global studies have shown that palm oil poses no health risks and is a good source of energy and fatty acids. Furthermore, it is also rich in beta-carotene and acts as an antioxidant. In the Philippines, a net importer of palm oil, demand for palm oil is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6% to 1.75 million tonnes in 2026. In addition, palm oil is an exceptionally versatile vegetable oil used in food and products ranging from chocolate to shampoo and as a biofuel.

India is the largest global consumer of palm oil and accounts for over 20% of the palm oil used worldwide. India imports a massive 99% of its palm oil, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. A significant shortfall in palm oil production has prompted the government's push for vegetable oil security under the banner of the National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEOOP). The NMEO-OP aims to place an additional 1.32 million hectares of land under oil palm cultivation in India by 2030. Indigenously produced crude palm oil has been evaluated for its chemical, nutritional and toxicological properties and found to be nutritionally adequate and safe for human consumption.

In planning supplementary feeding programmes, periodic RPO feeding at regular three-month intervals may successfully maintain normal childhood vitamin A levels. The fatty acid composition of palm oil, of almost 50% saturated fatty acids (SFA), has been the focus of attention in determining its nutritional adequacy in relation to coronary heart disease risk. The competitive price of palm oil and the good bioavailability of palm carotenoids give it a greater advantage than synthetic vitamin A.

Developing countries can integrate RPO into the diets of vulnerable groups in rural areas. One reason why the integration of crude palm oil is because its yellow/orange colour blends well with the natural colour of certain Indian food items. Another accepted preparation is a 1:1 blend of crude palm and groundnut oil.

RPO has the potential to provide nutritional security and alleviate malnutrition in vulnerable groups, particularly in developing countries where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent. Compared to other methods, it is a cost-effective intervention and well-accepted in various preparations. However, it is essential to consider the impact of red palm oil production on the environment, as the expansion of oil palm plantations has contributed to deforestation and habitat loss for endangered species. In addition, harvesting and producing red palm oil can also contribute to climate change through deforestation, carbon emissions, and soil degradation. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that red palm oil is produced sustainably and that efforts are made to minimize its environmental impact. This can be achieved through responsible land-use planning, protecting biodiversity, and promoting sustainable practices among palm oil producers. By striking a balance between meeting the nutritional needs of vulnerable populations and protecting the environment, we can ensure a sustainable future for red palm oil and the communities that depend on it.

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