DESIRABLE INGREDIENT: Valentine's Day is a celebration of love and romance. Apart from flowers and candlelit dinners, there's that almost obligatory gift of chocolates. A specialty fats maker tells Ooi Tee Ching that palm oil is being increasingly used to make chocolates all over the world.
CHOCOLATE, once a precious food reserved for royalty and the upper class is now an delectable treat for all, regardless of social status. One thing that has never changed throughout history is that chocolate is considered a food that stimulates passion.
"We can't live without chocolate," said Prakash Mathavan, Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd's director and chief operating officer of downstream businesses. "In good times, we celebrate and in bad times we seek comfort with chocolate," he smiled with a hint of twinkle in his eyes.
In the olden days, the main ingredient in chocolates was cocoa butter. But after this commodity became very expensive and short in supply, chocolate makers turned to specialty fats.
He said confectionery makers nowadays like palm and palm kernel-based specialty fats because of the excellent gloss retention and flavour release.
"It also possess good 'snapping qualities' and, therefore, is ideal for moulded products like chocolates," Prakash told Business Times in Kuala Lumpur.
Even though chocolate is regularly eaten for pleasure, there are potentially many health benefits. While, antioxidants present in chocolates protect the body from pre-mature ageing caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease, flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide and balance certain hormones in the body.
Prakash noted that when palm specialty fats are used to make chocolate, it facilitates good flavour release, exhibits outstanding mouthfeel and extends its shelf life.
The multi-billion dollar specialty fats market was pioneered by Loders Croklaan more than a century ago. Now, a unit of IOI Group, Loders Croklaan, is joined by AarhusKarlshamns and Fuji Oils as sizeable producers of specialty fats.
Newcomers that also want a bite of this profitable market are Goodhope Group, Mewah Group, Lam Soon Group and Sime Darby Bhd. As these companies seek to seduce and whet the world's increasing love for chocolate, Malaysia has emerged the world's export hub for specialty fats.
When describing specialty fats usage, Prakash said depending on the type of the fat and application, palm oil can be used as 100 per cent of the fat portion in chocolates or blended with cocoa butter.
Also present at the interview were his colleagues Ashok Chowdhury, Satish Selvanathan and Mayur Singh.
They noted that palm specialty fats are now increasingly used as substitutes for dairy fats such as milk fat and butter to make shortenings, ice cream, infant milk, mayonnaise and cheese.
Facts and figures on palm oil nutrition
* FACT 1: 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.
* FACT 2: Saturated fats are not necessarily bad.
Tropical oils have a bad reputation in cardiovascular health because they contain high levels of saturated fats compared with other vegetable oils.
Nevertheless, the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported 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 saturated fat associated to 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.
* FACT 3: Poly-unsaturated oils are unhealthy when partially hydrogenated.
Many snack foods, like chocolate and confectioneries, require solid fats to give them structure and texture. This is achieved either by using saturated fats or partially hydrogenated polyunsaturated fats containing artificial trans fats.
For more than 50 years, artificial trans fats was the preferred choice. But following increasing awareness of the negative effects of these artificial trans fats in the last decade, many food scientists have turned to alternatives.
Health-conscious food producers have switched to palm oil and its solid fractions as they become convinced of its versatility and natural image.