Found in products ranging from soap to snacks and labeled under AKAs such as palmate or sodium lauryl sulfate, palm oil is controversial vegetable oil. Not only have great swathes of Indonesian and Malaysian forests been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, but subsequent deforestation has also endangered the orangutan.
Along with its environmentally unfriendly reputation, the health impact of palm oil has also been questioned. As a versatile saturated fat, palm oil is found in various foods including peanut butter, ice cream and biscuits. In fact, it is responsible for 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil supply. Despite this, however, some products such as nut butter are now being specifically manufactured and marketed as “palm oil-free”. Consumers could be forgiven for wondering why.
It is easy to assume that any move away from palm oil is driven by health concerns; usually, when a product is free from any ingredient it is for health reasons. However, the companies we spoke to said that the move had been to support sustainability. This has been, in part, due to a significant push from environmentally- aware consumers. One manufacturer of palm oil-free peanut butter explained that while palm oil can make the end product more consistent, as a company they were aware of environmental concerns and so now produce two types of peanut butter: one made with sustainable palm oil and one that is palm oil-free.
A rich source of saturated fat (called palmitic acid), palm oil has, perhaps unsurprisingly, divided opinion as to whether it can be considered a healthy choice. However, it does contain micronutrients with associated health benefits.
Palm oil contains tocotrienols, powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, that belong to the vitamin E family — although red palm oil (which has not been bleached) contains more antioxidants because of its color. Consumption of tocotrienols is thought to lower risk of cancer, stroke and oxidative stress. For the palm oil industry, this potentially bodes well as palm oil’s total vitamin E content is made from 70 percent tocotrienols.
In addition, one human trial has demonstrated that red palm oil helps down-regulate inflammation in patients with liver cirrhosis, indicating other possible health benefits.
Because of its color, red palm oil is high in carotenoids. These are pigments that are associated with a reduced risk of cancers and eye disease, because of their light-absorbing properties Furthermore, certain carotenoids can be converted to vitamin A, and so it has been suggested that red palm oil supplementation could be a potential intervention in reducing the incidence of vitamin A deficiency at global levels.
Red palm oil is also high in phytosterols; which are occasionally known as plant cholesterol. This compound has been shown to be remarkably similar to cholesterol at a chemical level, and studies have found that it can regulate cholesterol metabolism by increasing absorption efficiency, biosynthesis and excretion of LDL (so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol), although these findings were limited to supplements and have not been shown to have cardioprotective effects. Other research has been dedicated to finding the effect of red palm oil on sperm motility in a diabetic population. The results have been rather encouraging in animal models and are another example of the possible health benefits of red palm oil.’
However, there is conflicting evidence too, as other research has indicated that palm oil could actually increase the risk of inflammation. One study on mice found that when different oils were added to mouse feed when compared to intake of milk fat, rapeseed oil, or sunflower oil, palm oil resulted in higher levels of inflammation. It is worth noting that this particular study was on fat-rich diets (the lipid content of each diet, apart from the control which was a low-fat diet, was set at 22.4 percent), but the findings were enough to flag up palm oil as being potentially more harmful than the other fats tested. However, this was one study with one set of conditions, and so further studies would be needed before drawing any conclusions.
In the meantime, however, it is worth noting that in the Western diet, palm oil is almost exclusively found in processed foods that may be less healthy overall — as it is heavily-processed foods that have been associated with diseases such as cancer. But it is for the possible association with inflammation that the Human Food Project writes: “In either case, thinking twice about palm oil might please the orangutans”.
1. Meganathan P & Fu JY (2016). Biological properties of tocotrienols: evidence in human studies. Int J of Molec Sci. 17(11), 1682.
3. Catanzaro Ret al (2016). Beneficial effect of refined red palm oil on lipid peroxidation and monocyte tissue factor in HCV-related liver disease. Hepat & Panc Disint, 15(2), 165-172.
4. Johnson EJ (2002). The role of carotenoids in human health. Nutr in Clin Care, 5(2), 56-65.