All around the world, palm oil consumption is increasing. However, it’s a highly controversial food.
On the one hand, it’s reported to provide several health benefits.
On the other, it may pose risks to heart health. There are also environmental concerns related to the steady increase in its production.
This article looks at palm oil and its effects on health, the environment, and sustainability.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms. Unrefined palm oil is sometimes referred to as red palm oil because of its reddish-orange color.
The primary source of palm oil is the Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to the coastal countries of West and Southwest Africa, including Angola, Gabon, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and others. It has a long history of use in these regions.
A similar oil palm known as Elaeis oleifera is found in South America but rarely grown commercially. However, a hybrid of the two plants is sometimes used in palm oil production.
In recent years, oil palm growth has expanded to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia. These two countries currently produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil supply.
Palm oil is now one of the least expensive and most popular oils worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil production.
However, it’s important to note that palm oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil. While both originate from the same plant, palm kernel oil is extracted from the fruit’s seed. It provides different health benefits.
Unrefined vs. refined palm oil
Unrefined palm oil is raw oil pressed directly from the palm plant. It’s reddish in color, with a distinct odor and flavor. This type is often used in traditional cooking in West African countries such as Nigeria.
On the other hand, refined palm oil goes through several processing steps to give it a neutral color and flavor. It is used more widely in food manufacturing or for mass-produced frying foods.
Summary: Palm oil comes from palm trees native to coastal West and Southwest Africa, where it’s been consumed for thousands of years. It’s semi-solid at room temperature and differs from palm kernel oil in nutritional composition.
How is palm oil used?
Palm oil is used for cooking and added to many ready-to-eat foods in your grocery store.
Its taste is considered savory and earthy.
Unrefined palm oil is a traditional staple in Nigerian and Congolese cuisines, and it’s especially well-suited for curries and other spicy dishes. Some people describe its flavor as being similar to carrot or pumpkin.
Refined palm oil is often used for sautéing or frying because it has a high smoke point of 450°F (232°C) and remains stable under high heat.
Palm oil is sometimes added to peanut butter and other nut butter as a stabilizer to prevent the oil from separating and settling at the top of the jar.
In addition to nut butter, refined palm oil can be found in several other foods, including:
- baked goods like bread, cookies, and muffins
- protein bars and diet bars
- coffee creamers
This oil is also found in many nonfood products, such as toothpaste, soap, and cosmetics.
In addition, it can be used to produce biodiesel fuel, which serves as an alternative energy source.
Summary: Palm oil is used in cooking, especially in West African cuisines and curries. It’s also found in certain foods, products, and fuels.
Palm oil nutrition
Here is the nutritional content of one tablespoon (14 grams) of palm oil:
- Calories: 120
- Fat: 14 grams
- Saturated fat: 7 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 5 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1 gram
- Vitamin E: 14% of the daily value
All palm oil calories come from fat. Its fatty acid breakdown is roughly 50% saturated fatty acids, 40% monounsaturated fatty acids, and 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids.
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Red palm oil’s reddish-orange pigment stems from antioxidants known as carotenoids, including beta carotene, which your body can convert into vitamin A.
Summary: Palm oil is 100% fat, half of which is saturated. It also contains vitamin E. Red palm oil contains antioxidants called carotenoids, which your body can convert into vitamin A.
Potential benefits of palm oil
Palm oil has been linked to several health benefits, including:
- protecting brain function
- reducing heart disease risk factors
- improving vitamin A status
Palm oil is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties that may support brain health.
Animal and human studies suggest that the tocotrienols in palm oil may help protect the delicate polyunsaturated fats in the brain, slow dementia progression, reduce the risk of stroke, and prevent the growth of brain lesions.
In a 2-year study involving 121 people with brain lesions, the group who took palm oil-derived tocotrienols twice a day remained stable, whereas the group who received a placebo experienced lesion growth.
Additionally, a 2020 review of 18 animal and test-tube studies noted that palm oil and palm oil tocotrienols appear to provide neuroprotective effects against cognitive decline. However, more human studies are needed.
Palm oil has been credited with protecting against heart disease.
Although some study results have been mixed, this oil generally appears to have beneficial effects on heart disease risk factors, including lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.
An extensive analysis of 51 studies found that total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels were lower in people who followed palm oil-rich diets than those who consumed diets high in trans fats or myristic and lauric acids.
A 3-month study published in 2016 looked at the cholesterol-lowering effects of palm oil made from a hybrid of Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis oleifera trees.
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In this study, people consumed either 25 mL (2 tablespoons) of olive oil or a hybrid palm oil daily. Based on a 15% drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol in both groups, researchers suggested this palm oil could be called “the tropical equivalent of olive oil”.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that an increase or decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels alone cannot predict heart disease risk. There are many other factors involved.
Improved vitamin A status
Red palm oil may also help improve vitamin A status in people who are deficient or at risk of deficiency because it’s rich in carotenoids that the body can convert into vitamin A.
One small study found that people with cystic fibrosis, a condition that makes it difficult to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, experienced an increase in vitamin A blood levels after taking two to three tablespoons of red palm oil daily for 8 weeks.
Another review of nine high-quality studies noted that red palm oil supplementation could increase vitamin A levels in children and adults.
Summary: Palm oil may help protect brain function, reduce heart disease risk factors, and increase vitamin A levels in certain people.
Palm oil controversies
There are several ethical issues regarding the effects of palm oil production on the environment, wildlife, and communities.
In the past decades, increasing demand has led to an unprecedented expansion of palm oil production in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
These countries have humid, tropical climates that are ideally suited for growing oil palm trees.
However, to accommodate oil palm plantations, tropical forests and peatlands are being destroyed.
A 2016 analysis found that 45% of land in Southeast Asia currently used for palm oil production had been forests in 1990, including more than half of all palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Deforestation is anticipated to negatively affect net carbon emissions, as the forests play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gasses by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
In addition, the destruction of native landscapes causes changes in the ecosystem that threaten the health and diversity of wildlife.
Especially concerning is the impact on endangered species, such as Bornean orangutans, which face extinction due to habitat loss.
There have also been reports of human rights violations by palm oil corporations, such as clearing farmlands and forests without permission, paying low wages, providing unsafe working conditions, and significantly reducing the quality of life.
Experts say that there are more ethical and sustainable methods for producing palm oil.
For instance, a 2015 analysis found that limiting the expansion of new palm oil plantations to areas without forests and planting only in areas with low carbon stocks could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60%.
To help ensure that the palm oil you buy is sustainably and ethically grown and produced, look for brands certified by The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
However, even sustainably sourced palm oil may cause some environmental concerns — especially as large-scale palm farms continue to grow and take over lands previously used for other purposes.
According to some, the most sustainable way to purchase red palm oil is to buy it directly from small, local farms.
Summary: The demand for palm oil has caused colossal industry growth, leading to deforestation in tropical areas where palm farms can flourish. Buy palm oil from small farms or look for RSPO-certified brands for the most sustainable options.
Palm oil is one of the most widely used oils worldwide.
However, the effects of its production on the environment, the health of wild animals, and the lives of Indigenous people are deeply concerning.
If you want to use palm oil, consider purchasing ethical, RSPO-certified brands or buying it directly from small farms if you’re able to.
Just one thing: In countries like Nigeria, where palm oil is a crucial part of the cuisine, unrefined palm oil is usually purchased locally from small farmers, providing a net benefit to the local economy with no environmental disruption.
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Likewise, eating local food is an easy way to support their local economy while including nutritious, unprocessed foods in their diet.