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Palm Oil: What’s the Verdict?

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Medically reviewed by Karina Tolentino, RD

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil with a neutral flavor. It comes from the fruit of the oil of palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). Palm oil trees originated in Africa, but over 100 years ago, the crop was brought to Southeast Asia. According to the World Wide Fund, Indonesia and Malaysia now make up over 85% of the global supply of palm oil, although there are 42 other countries also producing the oil.

Despite its widespread popularity in processed products, there is controversy about whether palm oil should be included in a healthy diet.

This article will explore the benefits and downsides of palm oil consumption.

<p>Everyday better to do everything you love / Getty Images</p>

Everyday better to do everything you love / Getty Images

Palm Oil Uses: Food, Hygiene, Industrial

Palm oil is a versatile ingredient found in nearly half of all packaged products at the supermarket. Unlike coconut oil, palm oil stays semisolid at room temperature, making it an ideal addition to spreadable products. It also resists oxidation which effectively extends shelf life.

For these reasons, palm oil can be found in popular food items including:

  • Breads

  • Candies

  • Chips

  • Chocolates

  • Frozen or ready-to-eat meals

  • Ice creams

  • Pizzas

  • Spreads such as peanut butter, margarine, and hazelnut spread

  • Vegetable shortening

  • Whipping cream

Palm oil is also found in many hygiene products, from deodorant to toothpaste to shampoo. In industrial agriculture, palm oil may be used in animal feed or as an alternative energy source (i.e., biofuel).

Related: Best Cooking Oils for High Cholesterol

Why Do People Say Palm Oil Is Bad?

Some people may say palm oil is bad because nearly half of its calories come from saturated fat.

Saturated Fat and Cholesterol

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), saturated fats like those found in tropical palm oil are associated with increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol and can raise risk of heart disease. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat consumption to 13 grams (g) per day.

Palm oil has also been criticized in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report on potential toxicity of fatty acids. The report suggests when palm oil is heated, it produces glycidol, a potential carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Importantly, the research featured in the report from 2016 was conducted on animal models. Animal-based research can provide some insight into human health outcomes but results may differ in humans.

Food Is Not Necessarily All “Good” or All “Bad”

While some foods get a reputation as being “bad,” bear in mind nutrition is more complex than this. Food is not inherently “good” or “bad” for you. Some foods like palm oil have both health benefits and potential downsides to consider.

Related: 8 Myths About High Cholesterol That You Should Stop Believing

Palm Oil Nutrition Facts

Palm oil, like all other oils, is 100% fat. And while palm oil does contain a high concentration of saturated fat, it also contains other sources of fats and essential nutrients, including vitamin E. Consuming enough vitamin E is important because it acts an as antioxidant protecting cells against cancer and chronic disease such as heart disease.

Takeaway

One tablespoon of palm oil contains:

Related: Why Is Vitamin E Oil Good for Hair? 3 Reasons to Indulge

Weighing the Pros and Cons

If you’re unsure if palm oil is right for you, consider speaking with a registered dietitian (RD). Experts at Harvard Health suggest palm oil is a healthier alternative to trans fats. They suggest choosing oils that remain liquid at room temperature since these tend to contain less saturated fat.

Palm Oil Benefits

Some research has linked refined or red palm oil consumption to the following benefits:

Takeaway

Studies on palm oil’s effects on heart health have shown mixed results. One review from 2018 concluded insufficient evidence in favor of or against palm oil when it comes to heart health outcomes.

Related: An Overview of Vitamin Deficiency

Palm Oil Downsides

One of the main potential downsides of palm oil is that it contains the saturated fatty acid chain known as palmitic acid.

One comparative study from 2017 suggests palmitic acid is more likely to contribute to inflammation, insulin resistance (cells don’t respond well to insulin and can’t take up glucose from the blood, causing a glucose buildup and the need for more insulin), and fat storage or obesity than other forms of fatty acid chains, such as lauric acid found in coconut oil and monounsaturated fat or oleic acid found in olive oil.

Related: A Guide on Intuitive Eating

Ethically Sourced Palm Oil

Palm oil is sometimes referred to as conflict palm oil because its cultivation and production contribute to mass deforestation and environmental harm. However, palm oil is one of the highest-yielding crops, so switching to other plant crops for oil production would require more land for the same output.

Takeaway

Finding ethically sourced palm oil is possible. Consider using the Palm Oil Scorecard by the Word Wide Fund to find the most sustainable and ethically sourced options.

Related: The Best Nutrition Products & Services

Summary

Palm oil is a tropical oil popular in food and hygiene products and used in animal agriculture and as an alternative energy source. There has been much controversy around whether its benefits outweigh its potential downsides. Some studies have shown palm oil properties can benefit health, while others have demonstrated the opposite. Consider palm oil’s benefits and drawbacks before deciding to use or avoid it.

Read the original article on Verywell Health.

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