Red oil and health: Why is palm oil bad for you?

There have been contradictory studies regarding the effects of palm oil on health. Palm oil has many great health benefits, but it is also bad for you when consumed in excess.

Akara and palm oil sauce

Key takeaways:

  • Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from the tropical plant, the palm tree.
  • While palm oil has numerous health benefits, it is also considered bad for human health when consumed in excess.
  • Palm oil is considered bad for health because it contains a high amount of saturated fat which is an unhealthy fat.

Palm oil is one of the most popular vegetable oils and also one of the most debated. While it has some health benefits associated with it, it also has some negative health impacts linked to it.

Aside from its impacts on health, reports have it that the production of palm oil has led to deforestation and the destruction of habitats of animal species, such as orangutans and elephants.

Palm oil is made from the fruit of the African palm tree. It is a very important oil, one of the most produced worldwide.

In recent times, the demand for palm oil has greatly increased in the United States and other parts of the world.

This could be attributed to the fact that in 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration Agency (FDA) banned adding trans fats to food. Therefore, many manufacturers turned to palm oil, a more affordable substitute for trans fat.

A previous article by SemicHealth discussed the health effects of palm oil and answered the question, "is palm oil healthy?"

In this article, we'll answer the question, "Why is palm oil bad?" This article will also talk about the difference between refined palm oil and unrefined palm oil and why people think palm oil is bad for the environment.

Why Palm Oil is Bad for Your Health

Even though eating palm oil is said to be good for your health, it is not completely safe, especially when eaten in large amounts. This is because palm oil is high in saturated fat. Unlike unsaturated fats, which are healthy, saturated fats are bad for health.

Excessive intake of saturated fat can lead to cardiovascular diseases like stroke and atherosclerosis.

Palm oil is also considered harmful because it can cause weight gain. It has palmitic acid, a fatty acid that can make you more likely to gain weight or become obese.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the effects of a diet high in palmitic acid. According to the study, eating more palmitic acid can lower the rate at which fat is burned and slow down the metabolism. The researchers came to the conclusion that eating a lot of palmitic acid could make you more likely to gain weight.

Palm oil also has a type of fat that can cause LDL (bad cholesterol) levels to rise in people. According to a 2015 study, palm oil significantly increased LDL cholesterol by 0.24 mmol/L compared with vegetable oils that are low in saturated fat.5

This doesn't mean palm oil is totally bad for you.

Moderate consumption of palm oil is considered safe and has health benefits. According to certain studies, palm oil contains tocotrienols, a kind of vitamin E that acts as an antioxidant, which is essential for keeping our immune system healthy and strong. Tocotrienols can slow the progression of dementia and reduce the risk of stroke.4

When eaten in moderation, palm oil may also help lower blood pressure, bring cholesterol levels back to normal, and improve blood circulation. It can also protect your skin against sunburns.

How Palm Oil is Used

Palm oil is cheaper and more efficient than other kinds of oil. You can do numerous things with palm oil as it is found in nearly every product these days.

Palm oil is a special oil that is used as a raw material in both food and non-food industries. Aside from adding it to food while cooking, palm oil is in different products we use ranging from food products, cooking, detergents, hair care, skincare, and even cosmetics.

Palm oil is also used as a source of fatty acids, vitamin E, and emulsifiers. Emulsifiers are chemical additives that enable one liquid to be suspended in another - they hold together two immiscible liquids, e.g., the mixture of oil and water in margarine and ice cream.

Some people believe palm oil can be used for preventing and treating illnesses like malaria, cancer, heart disease, and some other conditions. However, there is no scientific evidence to support most of the claims.

Also, palm oil can be used as a source of Biofuel. Biofuel is a liquid fuel produced from renewable sources, such as new and used vegetable oils like palm oil, plant or algae material, or animal waste.7

Refined Vs. Unrefined Palm Oil

 Both refined and unrefined palm oil are obtained from the same source-palm fruit. One of the major differences between these two is how the oil is extracted and processed. Another difference is the quality of oil that is being produced.

Refined and unrefined palm oil differ in color, acid value, flavor, and solid impurities. 

Refined palm oil goes through various processes to get its neutral color and flavor. It is bleached from crude palm oil and deodorized. It is mainly used in food manufacturing or industrial processes.

On the other hand, unrefined palm oil is raw oil that is gotten directly from palm fruit. It doesn’t go through any process of purification. It's reddish because it is rich in carotenes, such as alpha-carotene, lycopene, and beta-carotene.

The unrefined palm oil has a unique smell and flavor and is mostly used for cooking in west African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, etc.

Should You Cook With Palm Oil?

Cooking with palm oil is considered safe. However, palm oil should be consumed in moderation. (Photo by Tyson on Unsplash)

In most African countries, palm oil is an essential component of cooking. It has been used as a cooking ingredient for centuries, and it's in almost all foods.

Palm oil doesn’t break down or lose its nutritional value even when the heat is high. This is unlike other oils. Its high smoke point means it has a good temperature great for heating, grilling, and frying.

If you are wondering if you should cook with palm oil, you should know that palm oil is a great vegetable oil option. It has a neutral flavor, is balanced and nutritious.

Cooking with palm oil gives your food a luscious, fattier, creamier taste. Its texture gives food a classy look. When used to fry food products, it gives them a crispy and crunchy feel when they are munched. Some people opt for it because of the flavor and taste it adds to meals.

When cooking with palm oil, use a nonsticky pan so that your food won't stick to the pan while cooking. It is advisable that you start by first heating the palm oil in a pan at an average heat until it becomes liquid or light. After that, add your food to the heated palm oil.

The Environmental Impact of Palm Oil

Cutting down forests to establish palm tree plantations can greatly impact the environment leading to deforestation, pollution and loss of biodiversity

Palm oil production is becoming a danger to the environment. It is one of the major causes of deforestation in some of the world's biodiverse forests, destroying and endangering animals such as elephants, Sumatran rhinos, and orangutans.

Deforestation in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua where palm trees are being grown is becoming a common trend.

According to a 2019 report by MalayMail, an equivalent of 30 football fields disappeared every minute in the country in 2018. According to the report, the main drivers of global forest loss are large-scale commodity agriculture (which includes palm oil) and livestock production.

The recent oil palm expansion in forested parts of Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula, where more than 90% of global palm oil is produced, has raised serious concerns about the role of oil palm in deforestation.

From 3% in West Africa to 50% in Malaysian Borneo, oil palm development is directly responsible for the loss of tropical forests. In Southeast Asia, oil palm is also linked to peatland drainage and burning.

Some of the bad environmental effects of this kind of growth are the loss of biodiversity, the release of greenhouse gases, and the pollution of the air.

According to research done by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), about 5% of tropical deforestation is caused by palm oil. It also contributes to 2.3% of global deforestation—part of which occurred on land that was previously used for growing other crops like rubber or coffee.

Thousands of animals are endangered and killed each year across the world because of palm oil production.

This is why environmentalists all over the world urge businesses and consumers to cease using palm oil or purchasing items that include palm oil.

There are other practical alternatives that are also more sustainable, such as jojoba, coconut, babassu oil, or shea, which can be used in place of palm oil.

Palm oil is also linked to air pollution. When large swaths of rainforest are burned to clear land for palm oil plantations, it causes air pollution. Clearing these jungles also leads to soil erosion, more salt in the soil, and runoff that pollutes streams.

The fast and large growth of palm oil plantations has led to the destruction of natural areas and the loss of species.

The conversion of forest areas to palm oil farming has also led to increased erosion, increased fire risk, and pollution, which threaten the existence of both plant and animal species.

Furthermore, the expanding palm oil fields may increase the use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that can infiltrate water bodies via groundwater seepage or runoff, thus impacting aquatic biodiversity.

Wrap up

Palm oil is high in fats, vitamins, and antioxidants. It's good for your health in many ways, but you'll get the most out of it if you don't eat too much of it. This is because it contains unsaturated fats, which are bad for your health. So, moderation should be the key when consuming palm oil.

Aside from the nutritious aspect, palm oil is useful in the industrial sector; it is used for producing different industrial products. Even though palm oil has many uses, there have been questions about how growing palm trees and making palm oil affects the environment.

Since reports have linked palm oil production to more deforestation, more air pollution, and less biodiversity, it is best to only use and eat palm oil from trees that are grown in a sustainable way.

Also, stopping deforestation and only growing palm on land that used to be forest could make palm oil less harmful to the environment.


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  2. National Institute of Environmental Health Science. (n.d.). Pesticides.
  3. Palm Oil (n.d). Deforestation & Palm Oil.
  4. Sen CK, Rink C, Khanna S. (2010). Palm oil-derived natural vitamin E alpha-tocotrienol in brain health and disease.
  5. Sun Y, Neelakantan N, Et al. (2015). Palm Oil Consumption Increases LDL Cholesterol Compared with Vegetable Oils Low in Saturated Fat in a Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials.
  6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018). Ban On Trans Fat.
  7. Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); (2014). Case Study: The Palm Oil Example. The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health.