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Publication Date : 03-06-2014
Phenolic compounds from palm oil mill effluent contain healthy benefits
The clear, golden-brown liquid served to us in two tiny glasses looked like tea, but it was actually palm oil phenolics juice.
“Come on, try it,” urged Dr Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi. “Even our prime minister has tried it. It tastes like liong cha (Chinese herbal tea).”
We took a sip, and true enough, it tasted like a mixture of liong cha, honey, air mata kucing (dried logan drink) and essence of chicken, with a lip-smacking aftertaste.
Palm oil phenolics have been researched at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board for the last 10 years, headed by Dr Ravigadevi who is the director of MPOB’s Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre.
The researchers discovered that palm oil phenolics contain a lot of healthy properties. They are reputed to be anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-atherogenic, anti-hypertensive and anti-inflammatory, protect the eyes against macular degeneration, and also improve memory.
The discoveries had a very humble beginning. Quite simply, Dr Ravigadevi and her colleagues were having a coffee break one day 10 years ago, and got to talking about the colourful fruits of the oil palm tree.
“As we know, fruits are good for you,” said Dr Ravigadevi. “That’s what came to our minds. We also realised colourful fruits are usually very nutritious. And the component that makes them colourful is phenolics. We did an analysis and confirmed it.”
Derived from palm oil mill effluent, palm oil phenolics can be made into not just juice but also tablets and powder.
“We don’t think of it as phenolics juice but as a health drink,” said Dr Ravigadevi.
In laboratory tests, cancer cells were injected into mice which were then fed with phenolics. It was found that the phenolics prevented the progression of the tumours.
Mice were also placed in a maze where they had to swim to a platform. The ones given phenolics reached the platform faster. They also swam a shorter distance, which they had memorised.
The results were all published and peer reviewed. To date, the MPOB has 23 patents and about 10 peer-reviewed publications.
“Malaysia produces 45 million tonnes of effluent,” said Dr Ravigadevi. “It’s a huge amount to harvest from. I don’t think there is a larger source of phenolics than ours.
“We have done many studies, not just in our labs but we also worked with MIT, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific And Industrial Research Organisation) in Australia, Brandeis University in the United States, Harvard ... different people did different things. We at MPOB carried out anti-cancer studies.”
Dr Ravigadevi explained that human beings, when inactive for a long period, develop “metabolic syndrome” where the blood pressure goes up while heart problems and diabetes develop.
The Nile rat also suffers from “metabolic syndrome” when inactive.
“We had one set of rats which we gave phenolics to, and another set which just had water,” said Dr Ravigadevi. “And we were shocked at how the phenolics brought down the blood sugar level and the cholesterol level, and many of the rats did not develop diabetes.”
According to fellow researcher Dr Tan Yew Ai, head of the Sustainability, Conservation and Certification Unit, the phenolics have also shown some effects on Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s is one of the worries of the current generation, because a lot of people seem to be getting it and we don’t know why,” Dr Tan explained. “The phenolics seems to be working in preventing the degradation of the beta-amyloids which is the key sign of Alzheimer’s. It seems to work at the cellular level, so we would like to do more on it later.”
The MPOB has a plant in Labu, Negri Sembilan, that carries out research and clinical trials, and produces only enough for pre-commercialisation studies. There are already foreign investors interested in phenolics to be used in wellness products, and Dr Ravigadevi said commercialisation is expected to begin this year. The products have been licensed to a local company called Phenolaeis Private Limited.
Some may feel this one-stop solution for all kinds of health problems may seem like a miracle “snake oil” elixir but Dr Ravigadevi assured that the benefits of phenolics are far from just empty claims. The peer-reviewed publications alone can attest to that.
“There is also a scientific explanation to it,” said Dr Ravigadevi. “It’s like resveratrol in wines. They say it can do this and that. You almost wish it could do just one thing so that it is easier to sell.
“But we are getting closer to the science of it. We believe that there is one master regulator in the human body that regulates all this. So we think that the phenolics are either activating or modulating that activator.
“That’s why they have a positive effect on diabetes, cancer, the heart. They are all linked. Usually if someone has diabetes, you will also find high blood pressure and heart problems.”
Apart from phenolics, there is yet another substance found in palm oil mill effluent, which is shikimic acid. The acid is used to produce the antiviral drug Tamiflu, of which there was a shortage during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Shikimic acid can be extracted from star anise (bunga lawang), and its biggest exporter is China. But during the pandemic, China was hit by floods that destroyed the star anise crops.
“We discovered shikimic acid in palm oil mill effluent,” said Dr Ravigadevi. “We have a way to extract it. We can provide the starting substrate to the drug companies manufacturing Tamiflu.”
Dr Ravigadevi also pointed out that MPOB director-general Dr Choo Yuen May, who has been supportive of the phenolics work, is a co-worker in the shikimic acid project.
Finally, as a side note, we asked Dr Ravigadevi about the accusations levelled at palm oil for being an unhealthy oil.
“It’s not true,” she replied. “We funded research worldwide. In fact that’s how we found out about the trans fatty acids, which are what is really bad for you. Palm oil does not have trans fatty acids. It is a major plus point for palm oil. All tests showed that palm oil is neutral, it doesn’t increase your cholesterol level. So it’s not true that it’s a bad oil.”