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Malaysia, the world’s largest producer and exporter of

palm oil, is always looking to step up the quality of this widelyused commodity by starting where it counts – at home. In July 2004, it added a compulsory quality parameter called Deterioration of Bleachability Index, (DOBI) to the Domestic Sales of Crude Palm Oil (CPO) Contract. The inclusion of this new quality parameter reflects the seriousness and commitment of the industry towards improving Malaysian palm oil quality. To better understand the key contractual quality parameters – DOBI and free fatty acids – it is first necessary to delve into the chemistry of palm oil. This simplified guide will then explain the process of oxidation and hydrolysis, and look at trans fatty acids which are of current significance in the area of nutrition.

What does Triglyceride

palm oil comprise?

To really understand palm oil, one has to know what a triglyceride is. If we had special eyes, we will be able to ‘see’ the individual brick in a plastered wall. Likewise, we will ‘see’ that palm oil is made up of triglyceride molecules (the smallest particle of a pure chemical substance that still retains its chemical composition and properties). Chemical analysis reveals that the triglyceride molecule is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which can be presented in a structural formula. This is one triglyceride structure prevalent in palm oil.

Triglyceride Brick


Crude Palm Oil

At first glance, the triglyceride structure looks rather intimidating. The prefix ‘tri’, gives us a clue that there are ‘three’ in the structure. A closer look shows that it is shaped like an ‘E’. It has three long horizontal ‘arms’ called fatty acids and each of them, is attached to the same vertical ‘frame’ called glycerol. The arrangement puts the triglyceride structure in a more manageable form.

A triglyceride


Fatty acids
The next step is to be familiar with the individual fatty acids. There are nine main fatty acids in palm oil – these are named according to the number of carbon atoms present in the acid. The behaviour of palm oil and its physical characteristics are strongly influenced by the chemistry of these individual fatty acids and the position they occupy in the triglyceride structure. Kowing their behaviour is a pre-requisite to understanding palm oil.

What is the difference between

saturated and unsaturated fatty acids?

In the area of nutrition, fatty acids are categorised into two very distinct groups – saturated and unsaturated. The unsaturated is further divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. For simplicity’s sake, the example that follows is for the 18-carbon chain acids. The same applies to fatty acids of other chain lengths.

Similarly, if a fatty acid chain does not have any ‘vacant seats’ in the carbon chain, it is a saturated acid. The name given to this particular 18-carbon chain acid is Stearic acid. The empirical formula which follows is written as C18:0.

Unsaturated acid - monounsaturated
There are other types of 18-carbon chain acids and one of them has – in the ninth and tenth carbon chain – one set of ‘vacant seat’ on the same side of the carbon chain. This is a monounsaturated acid. It is named Oleic acid, written as C18:1.

Saturated acid
This is best explained by thinking of a fatty acid as a special train with a large number of carriages. Within each carriage, there are only two seats. If the seats in all the carriages are taken, the train is said to be full or ‘saturated’.


Unsaturated acid - polyunsaturated
Similarly, the other 18-carbon chain acids, namely Linoleic and Linolenic acids have two and three sets of ‘vacant seats’ in their carbon chains respectively. These are collectively called polyunsaturated acids, written as C18:2 and C18:3.

Palm oil – is it an oil or a fat?
The terms ‘oils’ and ‘fats’ are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. In reality, there is a difference. At a temperature of 20°C, oil is liquid while fat is solid. Generally, oil contains more unsaturated fatty acids. It should be remembered that fat will turn into oil by just raising the temperature slightly. The fact that palm oil has both oil and fat fractions is a big advantage over other oils. The natural fat fraction can be used in many solid applications without the need for hydrogenation. If at all this is required, it is minor.



Why hydrogenate?
Highly unsaturated oils (those with high levels of Linoleic and Linolenic acids) are liquid at room temperature. They need hydrogenation for two reasons. • To ‘harden’ the oil for use in solid applications; and • To ‘stabilise’ the oil because highly unsaturated oils are susceptible to oxidation (it reacts with oxygen and turns rancid.) Hydrogenation is a chemical process where hydrogen is added to the oil at high temperature and pressure, in the presence of a catalyst, to fill up the ‘vacant seats’ in the carbon chain. This, in effect, is the artificial way to ‘saturate’ the oil by converting the polyunsaturated acids into the less unsaturated and saturated acids. The resultant hydrogenated oil becomes ‘harder’ and more ‘stable’. Such oil can then be used for solid application. It can also resist turning rancid for a longer period of time.

High unsaturated oil

Palm oil with natural solid fraction


What are trans fatty acids

There appears to be little difference between the two acids as they contain the same ‘vacant seats’. However, trans-oleic acid has a portion that is twisted, as opposed to natural Oleic acid. This is shown in the following diagram where the carriages from one to nine are inverted. The ‘vacant seat’ is no longer on the same side of the carriage as the adjoining one. Messing around with Mother Nature does have its consequences! This different ‘structural arrangement’, which is the result of hydrogenation, has serious effects on nutrition. Studies have raised serious concerns about the negative health effects of high dietary intakes of TFA. (More information is available in the report, ‘Studies link TFA to diseases’ in Global Oils & Fats Business Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 4, 2004.)

When the oil is hydrogenated, not all the polyunsaturated acids are converted into the desired less unsaturated and saturated acid. Inevitably, some ends up as trans fatty acids (TFA) as seen in the following example:

What are the

dangers associated with TFA?
• Denmark has taken a bolder step by banning food products containing more than 2% TFA. • Canada’s House of Commons has passed a law to limit TFA acids in all food products.

TFA consumption has been linked with the risk for heart disease. The danger is serious enough to have led to the following actions: • United States Food and Drug Administration has made it mandatory for TFA to be labelled in food products from Jan 1, 2006.

What is


A simple example of oxidation is easily illustrated by slicing an apple and leaving it in the open. With time, the exposed half turns brown because of oxidation. In oil, oxidation is not as obvious. It can, however, be detected in the laboratory – one example is the Deterioration of Bleachability Index (DOBI) test developed by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Freshly-cut apple

Cut apple exposed to air


Oxidation is a process by which the unsaturated fatty acids of oils and fats react with oxygen from the air, resulting in rancidity. The more unsaturated the oil is, the more susceptible it is to oxidation. This can be explained using the analogy of a train. Linolenic acid, a highly unsaturated acid, has ‘vacant seats’ in three sets of carbon chains and is therefore highly vulnerable to oxidation as these ‘vacant seats’ can be easily taken up by oxygen.

About DOBI
A main objective in producing CPO is to ensure that the oil is harvested, processed, stored and transported to the refineries with minimum oxidation. One step involved in refining CPO is to bleach it to remove impurities, trace metals and oxidised products by using bleaching earth. The final oil, called Refined, Bleached and Deodorised (RBD) palm oil is light yellow in colour. The DOBI test is a simple, yet quick and reliable way to ascertain the ease of bleaching the deep-orange CPO into the final ‘desired’ colour.
Crude palm oil Refined, Bleached and Deodorised (RBD) palm oil


What is the rationale of the

DOBI test?
of oxidation that is amplified and is picked up by the DOBI test. The test is carried out using a spectrophotometer, which measures the absorption of a known light wavelength by carotene and the secondary oxidation products present in the oil.

DOBI is a ratio of carotene (pro-Vitamin A) and secondary oxidation (extinction at 269 nanometers). As the oil deteriorates, carotene breaks down as more and more secondary oxidised products are formed. Dividing the two gives an indirect net result


Why is the

test significant?
The DOBI readings can be used to differentiate CPO as the colour of the final oil is as shown. (For more information, refer to the MPOA booklet, What is DOBI ?)

Badly oxidised oil is difficult to refine and products made from it will be off-flavour, off-colour and have poor shelf life. Such products can be easily detected by the palate even at very low concentrations. This simply means the oil smells and tastes bad.



DOBI : 3.5

DOBI : 1.7

Difference in colour readings between high and low DOBI oil

How can a

high reading be obtained?
Mills • Prevent damage to fruits due to dumping on hopper top • Avoid delays in processing by adopting ‘first in, first out’ basis • Be alert for heavy metal contamination, especially copper and iron • Optimise storage conditions, including length of storage and temperature • Avoid blending of fresh and low DOBI oil

Both field and mill conditions play a big part in ensuring the DOBI value is not just high, but remains high throughout until the oil reaches the refineries. It is useful to be aware of salient points for handling and storage: Estates • Black bunches devoid of Carotene should be avoided • Over-ripe crop are prone to damage, so minimise handling • Avoid excessive handling • Reduce crop backlog

What are

Free Fatty Acids (FFA)?
This irreversible process, called hydrolysis, is a fast reaction and it is done in the presence of water. The enzyme, however, can be inactivated by temperatures above 55°C.

Palm fruit contains an active enzyme called lipase. The minute the fruit is bruised, the enzyme present is released. This attacks the triglyceride and breaks up the fatty acid into ‘free’ fatty acid.


The aim in extracting oil from palm fruits must therefore be to minimise hydrolysis, bearing in mind that as fruits ripen, there will also be a corresponding increase in FFA. The change is not as rapid as when the fruits are damaged. The other period where FFA can increase is during storage due to microbial action in the presence of water. The more the palm fruits are handled, the higher the damage. The higher the content of FFA, the poorer the oil quality since FFA will have to be removed during refining.

How can

FFA be controlled?
Mill • Avoid dumping of fruits on hopper top • Operate ‘first in, first out’ principle • Sterilise fruits as soon as possible • Minimise contamination of oil • Carry out programmed cleaning of storage tanks

The key lies in ensuring that bruising is minimised and the crop is sterilised as soon as possible. This calls for close co-operation between the estate and mill. Once again, the salient points: Estates • Harvest only ripe crop • Reduce handling of fruits after harvesting • Reduce backlog

How do all these

parameters link up?

If one compares triglycerides to a train station with three trains at their allocated platforms, then the structure and parameters described can be easily grasped. • FFA is formed when one of the three trains ‘detaches’ itself and leaves the station. • When all the seats are taken, the train is said to be full or saturated. • When there are still ‘vacant seats’ the train is unsaturated. Too many ‘vacant seats’ and the train are vulnerable to ‘unwanted elements’ occupying those seats. • Oxidation occurs when Oxygen, the ‘unwanted element’ gets a seat in the train. • Trans fatty acids are created when the train that perpetually has two or three sets of ‘vacant seats’ is modified to accommodate ‘valid passengers’ i.e. Hydrogen, but the modification went awry.