Even if you don’t have a jar of palm oil in your pantry, you most likely have several packaged items that contain palm oil. “Palm oil comes into our homes in over half of all packaged products in the average grocery store,” says Emma Lierley, forests communications manager at Rainforest Action Network (RAN) in San Francisco. “It can be found in everything from laundry detergent and toothpaste to crackers, cookies, various nut butters, sweets and ice cream.” (Click here for a list of products that commonly contain palm oil.)
What is palm oil?
The majority of palm oil used in packaged foods is from the fruit of the palm tree. It may be listed in ingredients as palm fruit oil, but more commonly you’ll see it simply called palm oil. This oil is about 50 percent saturated fat, 40 percent monounsaturated fat (the type abundant in olive oil) and 10 percent polyunsaturated fat. In contrast, palm kernel oil, which comes from the seed of the palm fruit, is about 80 percent saturated fat and is commonly used in soap and cosmetics. This article focuses on palm fruit oil.
The extensive use of palm oil in packaged foods came about in large part because of the government mandate to eliminate trans fat (partially hydrogenated oil) as a food additive because it has been found to be the most harmful fat for heart health. Because palm oil is solid at room temperature, it works well to replace trans fat.
Nutrient-rich palm oil
The highly refined palm oil used in packaged foods is virtually colorless and flavorless. However, you can buy jars of red palm oil for home use, which is minimally refined and nutrient rich. “Red palm oil has a unique flavor that’s a bit like pumpkin,” says Bruce Fife, ND, author of The Palm Oil Miracle (Piccadilly, 2007). Other people have described it as an earthy or nutty flavor.
Red palm oil has a red color because of its high content of carotenoids, including beta-carotene (the plant form of vitamin A) and lycopene. When palm oil is refined for use in food products, most of the beta-carotene is lost, as is some of the vitamin E.
“Palm oil contains a family of vitamin E called tocotrienols, which are 40 to 60 times more potent antioxidants than ordinary vitamin E [alpha-tocopherol],” Fife says. Palm tocotrienols, which make up the majority of vitamin E in red palm oil, may be one factor contributing to the anticancer, antidiabetic and heart-protective effects linked to the oil.
In addition, red palm oil also supplies:
- coenzyme Q10, which can protect the heart
- squalene, which is an anticancer compound
- phytosterols, which are cholesterol-lowering compounds
- phospholipids, which support brain function, including memory
- polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants
Palm oil and your heart
In some scientific circles, palm oil is pigeonholed as a saturated fat that we should avoid or strictly limit. That’s because saturated fat has been linked with increased cholesterol levels. There are a few holes in this argument, however.
First, there are different types of saturated fat. Most of the saturated fat in palm oil is palmitic acid. Although palmitic acid can slightly raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, it also slightly raises HDL (good) cholesterol, so consuming it may have a relatively neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels.
Additionally, the chemical structure of saturated fat in palm oil is such that most of the palmitic acid is thought to be poorly absorbed by the body anyway. The majority of fat absorbed from palm oil is monounsaturated, which is generally viewed as heart healthy.
“It should also be noted that saturated fats cause very little inflammation,” says Glen Lawrence, PhD, a biochemist at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. “But omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which are abundant in soybean and corn oils, strongly promote inflammation.” Inflammation is a driving factor in atherosclerosis and high blood pressure.
The sustainability challenge
“Palm oil has the possibility of being a very sustainable oil crop if done right,” Lierley says. However, there are many challenges. “We commonly see that palm oil plantation workers are paid poverty wages, they’re not given proper protective gear and they’re using pesticides and herbicides that are banned in many other parts of the world due to toxicity,” she says.
That’s not all. “Palm oil is a huge driver of deforestation, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which is where most of the world’s palm oil comes from,” Lierley says. “Even this year, we are still getting reports from the field of active, rampant deforestation, which releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.” These devastating tree clearings contribute to climate change.
Destroying rainforests is also a problem because they’re habitats for critically endangered species, including Sumatran orangutans, tigers and elephants. Although some people claim that such animals can live on palm oil plantations, that’s not the reality. “Animals on palm oil plantations are most often seen as pests,” Lierley says. “For example, orangutans will eat the palm oil, elephants are very territorial and tigers have been known to kill palm oil workers.”
Supporting sustainable palm oil
It would be simple to find sustainably produced palm oil products if there were some kind of symbol marking them. Some products carry the green palm certification mark of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which indicates some efforts toward sustainability. However, Lierley says this program doesn’t go far enough. “The RSPO certification is no guarantee against active deforestation, habitat destruction or labor rights abuses,” she says.
If you’d like to learn more about sustainability certification issues with palm oil, visit poig.org, which is the website of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG). Lierley says this group is working to strengthen the RSPO certification.
Another certifying body is Rainforest Alliance. In addition to certifying crops such as bananas, coffee, cocoa and flowers, in 2013 it launched a palm oil certification, which annually audits farms against rigorous environmental and social standards designed to reduce deforestation, improve and protect biodiversity, and support worker empowerment.
And in September 2018, Palm Done Right launched the first Palm Done Right Month to educate shoppers and retailers about how making better purchases can help write a better palm story.
Finally, another thing you can do to support sustainable palm oil production is to contact companies that use palm oil and ask them to do better. “You can contact them directly via email, write a letter or leave a comment on their social media page,” Lierley says. For a list of companies that produce snack foods using nonsustainably produced palm oil, visit ran.org/snack_food_20.
Tips for using palm oil
Remember that palm oil is a processed food, especially the highly refined palm oil used in packaged foods. “I think we need to consume any type of oil in moderation,” Lawrence says. “I found that when I toured a palm oil factory in Malaysia, palm oil is produced in a standard process that’s similar to how we extract corn and soybean oil. When you consume large quantities of processed products like this, it can be a problem.”
When palm oil is heated to high temps to remove odors, contaminants called glycidyl esters form. Animal studies suggest these might increase cancer risk. Some industry experts are working to improve processing methods to reduce formation of these contaminants.
With its minimal processing and high nutrient content, red palm oil is clearly the better choice and is the kind you’ll generally see sold jarred in your local health food store. Although palm oil is not genetically modified, it’s still typically produced with the help of many chemicals, so opt for organic.
Lastly, avoid overheating palm oil, which can cause it to smoke and produce unwanted byproducts. Red palm oil can be heated to 302°F (the smoke point). That means you can use it for cooking over low or medium heat on the stovetop or in the oven. Look for recipes and tips and sign up to join Palm Done Right Month at palmdoneright.com.