Gerard Viverito founded passionfish.org in 2000, an NGO to address the problems of sustainable seafood – and later included land-based animals and products in his endeavour.
It was during the research for this project that the American chef and advocate of Mediterranean cooking, learned about Malaysian palm oil.
“When I learnt that Malaysian palm oil is a sustainable product, naturally I wanted to find out more about it,” said Viverito in an e-mail interview.
That chance came in 2010, when he spent six months in Singapore and during that time, he got to visit Malaysia often on dining excursions that also extended to visiting palm oil plantations.
“It’s on those trips where I interacted with smallholders and saw how palm oil was being produced at a processing plant that I discovered how sustainable palm oil practices can be in this country – from efforts in land and wildlife conservation to the burning of scraps to create steam to generate the mills,” said the chef who went on to promote and talked about palm oil in the United States on television and online cookings shows.
And lately, after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that all foods sold in the country have three years to remove all trans fats they may contain, his interest in palm oil was renewed, seeing in it a viable solution as unlike many other oils, palm oil is naturally trans fat-free.
Viverito said that many Americans don’t realise that they are already consuming palm oil in the prepared foods they buy at the supermarket. From chocolate spreads to instant noodles to peanut butter, palm oil is a big part of the American diet.
For him, palm oil should be an American pantry staple.
“What I am doing is educating people that it should be in their pantries to use as an everyday cooking oil. Because it’s non-GMO and doesn’t contain trans fats, it fits better with the way most of us want to eat nowadays. People also want more nutrient-dense foods that are closer to nature. Palm oil is natural and loaded with nutrients,” he said, referencing the oil’s high content of antioxidants such as carotenoids, vitamin E, phytosterols and squalene.
“Palm oil also stands up beautifully to heat. We should also take note that red palm oil is rich in tocotrienols which are being researched for their benefits on several serious health risks including cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer.”
Viverito’s knowledge comes from his working with registered dietitian nutritionist Dr Felicia Stoler and Dr Jonny Bowden, a holistic nutritionist certified by the American College of Nutrition, who provide the scientific and health advice for his work with palm oil.
While palm oil is not as readily available in mainstream supermarkets in the United States as other cooking oils, Viverito said that it is relatively easy to find in specialty supermarkets and grocery stores.
“Americans have the misconception that tropical oils aren’t worth the extra cost. I tell reporters and TV hosts all the time that you use less of them, so technically it winds up being the same cost.”
Viverito said he was introduced to functional cooking 20 years ago and that has helped shape his culinary point of view.
At home, Viverito uses palm oil for anything from a marinade to high-heat cooking such as grilling, searing and sautéing. “I also use it for baking and have found that it works quite nicely as an oil in dressings for salads.
“My wife enjoys using red palm oil to make popcorn because she finds that she doesn’t need to add butter to it after it’s cooked. It makes for a fun story when our friends come over for movie night and they want to know why the popcorn has a golden orange hue! Very few oils can match its versatility and taste while maintaining a cholesterol-neutral status.”