Health effects of palm oil: Is Palm Oil Healthy?

Two bottles of red oil placed on a green plate

Key takeaways:

  • Palm oil is a type of oil that is obtained from palm tree nuts. The tree originates from Africa but is also common in other parts of the world, like Southeast Asia.
  • Palm oil is considered healthy, especially when consumed in moderation, because it contains a high amount of antioxidants and phytonutrients, all of which are beneficial to human health.
  • While palm oil is considered healthy, it is important to consume it in moderation because it contains a high amount of saturated fat, which is not so healthy for the body.

Palm oil is obtained from palm tree nuts. It‘s scientific name, Elaeis guineesis. Palm oil trees are native to Africa. However, over a century ago, they spread to south-East Asia where they are being grown as ornamental trees. Presently, Indonesia and Malaysia account for approximately 85% of the world's production of palm oil, even though it is also produced in other nations.

To process palm oil, palm fruits from the trees are harvested, cooked, and then crushed to extract the oil. Oil from palm tree nuts is rich in phytonutrients such as tocotrienols, tocopherols, carotenoids, phytosterols, and Q10, all of which are beneficial to the human body.

Nevertheless, palm oil is still a very controversial oil, with some studies presenting it as healthy - and others as unhealthy.

Palm oil is considered healthy because it is high in antioxidants, including vitamin E, which is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system and assisting your cells in communicating. On the other hand, it is considered unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content.

In answering the question, "is palm oil healthy?", Gift Anaja, Clinical nutritionist and CEO of Ediwellness told SemicHealth that palm oil is good for the health to an extent if taken in moderation.

Palm oil is 100% fat, half of which is saturated. However, it also contains vitamin E which is an important antioxidant.

Is palm oil good for you?

As demand for palm oil increases worldwide, so has the controversy surrounding the oil. This is mainly because of its extremely high saturated fat level.

However, despite some evidence that indicates that excess consumption of palm oil may not be good for health, some studies have suggested that it has some great health benefits.

One great benefit of palm oil is improving vitamin A status in people who are deficient because it’s an excellent source of carotenoids (the phytopigment responsible for the red color of palm oil) which the body can easily convert into vitamin A, Anja said.

Vitamin A is essential for your health. It supports cell growth, immune function, fetal development, and vision(eye health).

According to a 2017 review study, palm oil may help combat vitamin A deficiency in pregnant women and children, promote reproduction in males and females, and help reduce the effects of chemotherapy.

Palm oil also contains antioxidants such as oleic and linoleic acids and vitamin E tocotrienols, which limit cholesterol synthesis. According to an older 1992 study, Oleic acid is the major component of olive oil that is recognized as “heart-healthy” oil.

Palm oil is also considered safe. It is unlikely to cause an allergy or unpleasant side effects.

The nutritional content of palm oil

All of the calories in palm oil are fats; it contains around 50% saturated fatty acids, 40% monounsaturated fatty acids, and 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids. Due to its unique composition, palm oil has an important place among the fats we eat.

It has aided in the near-complete eradication of industrial trans fats, particularly in the Western European food market.

According to the World Health Organization, fat should account for less than 30% of energy intake.

This percentage varies depending on people's health and the type of diet they follow (especially the type of staple foods they consume). Also, saturated fatty acids should account for no more than 10% of total fat intake.

Palm oil gets its reddish-orange hue color from antioxidants called carotenoids. Carotenoids include beta carotene, which your body can convert into vitamin A.

Listed below is the nutritional value of a serving size of 1 tablespoon (14g) of palm oil:

  • 120 calories
  • 14 grams of saturated fat
  • 7 grams of monounsaturated fat
  • 5 grams of polyunsaturated fat
  • 1 gram of vitamin E: 14% daily value (DV)

Photo source: Askar Abayev on Pexels

Health benefits of palm oil

Palm oil has several health benefits attributed to its consumption. Some of the health benefits of palm oil include:

1. Good for brain health

Palm oil is high in tocotrienols, a kind of vitamin E that has significant antioxidant qualities and may help with brain function.

According to studies, the tocotrienols in palm oil can help maintain the brain's delicate polyunsaturated fats, decrease dementia progression, reduce the risk of stroke, and inhibit the growth of brain lesions.

2. Improves total body immunity

Palm oil is considered an immune system booster because of its abundance of antioxidants. Its strong antioxidant content protects the body from a variety of illnesses and helps prevent the development of chronic diseases.

Vitamins A, E, D, and K help the body's metabolism and fight infections by improving white blood cell function.

3. Improves eye health

Beta-carotene contained in palm oil is essential for vision improvement. This is because the beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A, which is good for the eyes. An increase in vitamin A improves the function of the retinas and general eye health.

4. Promotes a healthy heart

While some studies suggest that palm oil may be bad for the heart, certain studies show that vitamin E in palm oil actually helps with heart health. According to one of such studies, vitamin E in palm oil produces antioxidants, which appear to slow down the causes of heart diseases.

A broad review study found that the level of LDL (bad cholesterol) was lower in people who consumed palm-oil-rich foods, compared to people who ate other diets that were high in lauric acids and trans fats.

More research needs to be carried out in this area. It is also important to note that other factors aside from an increase or decrease in LDL levels can contribute to the development of heart disease.

What is bleached palm oil? Is it harmful?

Bleached palm oil is made by heating palm oil further until it has a lighter shade. People use bleached palm oil when they re-use oil that they have used before for frying their foods. This may be harmful to your health.

Bleaching palm oil is not advisable because bleaching removes the important minerals while also producing harmful trans-fat, Adebayo Ayomide (MD), (MPH), a resident medical doctor at Mayo Clinic, Florida told SemicHealth.

Trans-fat is an insoluble fat with negative consequences on lipid profiles and your overall health.

When you bleach your palm oil, you are removing the red color (pigments), which in itself is the powerhouse that contains fortified vitamins like vitamin E, A, K, and vitamin Q. These biological components in palm oil are essential for staying healthy, Dr. Ayomide further adds.

Potential health risks linked to palm oil use

Palm oil is high in saturated fats. Your body needs healthy fats for energy and other functions. However, saturated fat is not healthy fat, and when in excess, it can cause accumulation of cholesterol in the blood vessels, says Anaja.

Saturated fats raise LDL, known as "bad cholesterol." High LDL levels increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and heart disease, Anaja added.

Below are some of the possible health risks linked to palm oil consumption.

1. Increased cholesterol levels

Palm oil consumption affects people differently, so its adverse effect might differ from person to person.

While some studies say that palm oil can reduce cholesterol levels, other studies have a contrary opinion that palm oil can increase cholesterol levels for some people. To be on the safer side, it is best to consume palm oil in moderation.

2. Associated with atherosclerosis

Studies indicate that palm oil results in high low-density lipoprotein compared to most other vegetable oils. LDL leads to increased cholesterol in the blood. This causes the deposition of fatty material on blood vessel walls (a condition known as atherosclerosis). Eventually, the accumulation of cholesterol causes the hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels.

Also, reheating palm oil, reduces its antioxidant levels. This doesn't only decrease the benefits of the oil; it also increases the risk of developing heart disease like atherosclerosis. This is why it is advisable not to consume reheated palm oil.

3. High blood pressure

When the blood vessels harden and narrow, leading to atherosclerosis, it can increase the force of blood against the arterial walls. This leads to hypertension which requires medications and lifestyle management to treat.

4. Weight gain

Because the major macronutrient contained in palm oil is fat, consuming palm oil tends to increase the amount of calories obtained from meals.

Consuming high calories (more than your body's daily caloric needs) could lead to weight gain. People who consume excess palm oil may be at higher risk of weight gain due to increased calorie consumption.

Take away

There has been a strong debate on whether palm oil is good for the health or not. Some studies highlight the health benefits of palm oil, while others highlight its side effects. For this reason, palm oil is considered the most controversial vegetable oil.

Also, while palm oil may have many health benefits, it should still be taken in moderation. Its consumption is unlikely to cause allergies or unpleasant symptoms, but if you notice any symptoms like stomach pain, indigestion, or nausea, you should consult your doctor.