by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Palm oil and palm kernel oil have long been used as ingredients in baked goods, peanut butter and more because of their ability to impart smooth texture and extend shelf life. Palm oils can also prove helpful as ingredients in livestock rations.

Elliot Block, research fellow and director of technology, animal nutrition and food production at Church & Dwight, presented “Palm Oil: What It Is and How Sustainable It Is” as a recent webinar hosted by AMTS as part of their “The Nutritionist” series.

Block said that oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), originating in West Africa, began growing in Malaysia in 1870 as an ornamental; however, by 1917, growers began raising oil palms commercially.

“Modern expansion of the industry can be traced back to the 1960s when the Malaysian government embarked on a massive program of agricultural diversification,” Block said. As a result, oil palm leads agricultural crops in Malaysia today and the country is the world’s largest palm oil producer, creating about 14 million tons annually. Indonesia is another big player in the palm oil industry.

Palm oil update

Elliot Block

Palm oil comes from the fleshy part of the palm fruit. Palm kernel oil comes from the kernel in the center of the fruit. “The refinement process is not too different from other oils,” Block said. Free fatty acids taken off the palm oil influence the oil’s flavor.

“The best analogy is olive oil,” he said. “Virgin olive oil still has some free fatty acids so it has a flavor and smell distinct to olive oil. When you consume refined olive oil, it’s clear/yellow rather than green and the flavors are just not there. The fatty acid profile of the distillate is pretty close to the same.”

As the number one oil crop in the world, palm oil represents 36% of all vegetable oil production behind soybean (29%), rapeseed/canola (13%), sunflower (9%), palm kernel (4%), peanut (3%), cottonseed (2%), coconut (2%) and olive (2%).

Most people have heard of and use products containing palm oil. But Block said it’s received a “bad rap” having nothing to do with health effects. Many acres of rainforest were cleared to plant oil palms. While that may have regrettable consequences, oil palms have “much less land use, plus it’s a permanent crop,” Block said. “They last about 15 to 25 years once it’s established.”

Palm oil also offers more energy output versus input compared with soybean and rapeseed/canola. “It’s highly efficient,” Block said.

And it’s well-known that feeding a high energy, high fat feed to dairy cattle affects milkfat. “This isn’t news to anyone,” Block said. He found an 1892 newspaper from the New Hampshire Experiment Station. “It says whatever you feed the cow is going to reflect in the milkfat and it’s as true today as it was then. What’s made the news is that because you’re changing the fatty acid composition of the milk, you change the melting process of the fat.”

This is important because the cheese is harder at lower temperature compared with non-saturated fats. Breed differences also matter, as Jersey cow milk has higher saturated fatty content, making their cheese not melt as quickly.

“As far as production system, conventional versus organic, there are not many significant differences here,” Block said.

Most farmers have observed seasonal variations in milk fatty acid, as summer grazing on fresh grass reduces it but it rises once animals are fed a ration inside. Fresh grass has more unsaturated fatty acids. Since the grass passes through the animal faster, much of that bypasses the rumen.

“Milk fatty acids are going to vary with many different factors,” Block said. “If we look at fresh forage, palmitic acid, and see there’s an average concentration of 27% in milkfat when cows are fed fresh forage with a range of 22º to 38º.”

Some of these fluxes only change the milkfat by one or two percentage points; however, Block said that can make a difference in the melting point of butter only in the lab. Consumers spreading butter on their toast at breakfast would not notice. But farmers selling milk for premiums on the basis of milkfat may notice a difference.

“If you’re doing year-round calving you wash out all the seasonable effects; your milkfat should be constant across the board,” Block said.

He referenced a study in which dairy herds were separated by feed type. Those fed higher saturated fatty acids such as in palm oil produced milk that melts at a higher point versus those fed rations with unsaturated fatty acids. The melting point makes a difference.

“For butter, it depends on what you’re using it for,” Block said. “You want it spreadable for toast, but you want hard butter if you’re a baker.”

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a trade organization based in Malaysia and Indonesia dedicated to addressing concerns such as environmental impact and more. To qualify for RSPO certification, an oil palm producer must prove adherence to the organization’s principles: commitment to transparency; compliance with applicable laws and regulations; commitment to long-term economic and financial viability; use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers; environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity; responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills; responsible development of new plantings; and commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity.

“As the world is becoming more environmentally aware, they’re requesting and purchasing oil only from members of this RSPO group,” Block said.

Farmers interested in using palm oil as part of their ration should also consider carefully sourcing it.