Having a viable palm-oil sector will be even more important to meet global nutritional demands post the current pandemic. – Photo for illustration purpose

KUALA LUMPUR: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has once again "dropped the ball" when it produced a series of flyers and social cards for the Eastern Mediterranean Region on "Nutrition advice for adults during the COVID-19 outbreak" to assist populations towards a healthier lifestyle.

WHO, through its most recent advisory, has again fallen into the same previous well of promoting certain commodity oils while brushing aside palm oil — the world's leading edible oil in terms of production, exports and indeed consumption trends.

On the previous occasion WHO's indulgence in the matter of palm oil, attracted severe criticism for its insufficient and inconclusive claims that bedeviled palm oil.

Instead of producing advice appropriate for a fast spreading pandemic, they appeared to have regurgitated standard talking points such as eat low fat diets, avoid salt, sugar, processed and red meats, and avoid full-fat dairy.

"It is clear that very little thought has been given to the issues that are prevalent currently and directly related to the pandemic," Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive officer Datuk Dr Kalyana Sundram and Associate Professor in Food Science and Nutrition Department at Wayne State University, US Dr Pramod Khosla expressed their views against WHO's advice.

As national lockdowns are in place, supply-chains are impacted, household incomes have dropped, markets and stores may not be receiving supplies in a timely manner, farming has been stalled in many regions, and access to food is becoming trickier, they said.

The pandemic actually necessitates radically different health management ideas, instead WHO seems to have fallen back on "antiquated" messages that are meaningless for many individuals, especially in countries experiencing rigorous COVID-19-induced restrictions to daily life.

Overall nutritional well-being requires optimal intake of macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) along with numerous micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

For COVID-19, individuals with pre-existing conditions (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS) and/or a compromised immune system, appear more susceptible to infection, they said.

"The Asian region is especially important as it is home to both the largest producers (Indonesia and Malaysia) and the largest consumers (Indian Sub-Continent, China, ASEAN and Africa) of palm oil."

They said while the impacts of COVID-19 to local production, subsequent distribution and export are currently in a state of flux, if the fallout from the current pandemic continues into the foreseeable future, the nutritional role of palm oil is anticipated to take on even greater significance, given its functionality and affordability.

As such, having a viable palm-oil sector will be even more important to meet global nutritional demands post the current pandemic.

They said in developed countries, particularly those where caloric consumption is generally above body requirements and chronic disease is the major health issue, the focus of public health agencies, prior to the disease has been on the consumption of total, saturated and trans fat.

The negative role of the latter (trans fats) in increasing risk for cardiovascular disease has now been firmly established and health authorities have put restrictions on their use.

"The major source of trans fats are the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils produced industrially. These were required to provide a source of 'solid' fats to allow for the formulation of various baked goods.

"Currently, nutrition food labels need to list content of trans fats and/or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil content, allowing the consumer to minimise their usage," they said.

While there is evidence for health benefits of Omega-3 rich fats, there is growing discussion about the health effects of omega-6 rich fats, especially if they are used for deep frying and these include corn, soya, sunflower, canola, and rapeseed oils.

In such instances, adverse effects on heart health may result despite apparent beneficial changes in blood cholesterol levels.

In addition, they said as there is no single fat source which is uniquely saturated, mono or polyunsaturated — a simple concept of having a balance between these types of fats is inherent in most dietary guidelines.

"While the immediate need in controlling COVID-19 are the measures in place as different regions aim to 'flatten' the curve, various sectors of the economy will come back online.

"Focus will then shift to long-term health of the global population and palm oil's role in meeting nutritional needs will again move to centre stage and a collective effort will be needed to coordinate production, distribution and delivery. Malaysian palm oil is set and ready for these challenges!" they said.