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

There have been contradictory studies regarding the effects of palm oil on health. However, a review of most studies indicates that palm oil may cause some negative side effects if consumed in excess.

Akara and palm oil sauce

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

Palm oil is a very versatile oil. It is almost impossible to do away with it because it is an ingredient used to manufacture many products such as ice cream, magarine, cookies, noodles, shampoo, and lipsticks.

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 discuss the difference between refined and unrefined palm oil and why palm oil is considered harmful to the ecosystem.

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.

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 process.

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.

Why Palm Oil is Bad

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 decrease the progression of dementia and reduce the risk of stroke.

Other potential benefits of palm oil when consumed in moderation may include: reducing blood pressure, normalising cholesterol levels, and improving blood circulation. It can also protect your skin against sunburns.

However, despite the health benefits attributed to palm oil consumption, it is not entirely safe, especially when consumed in high 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 contains palmitic acid, a fatty acid that can increase your chances of gaining extra weight or obesity.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the effects of a diet high in palmitic acid. The study reported that an increase in palmitic intake can lead to a lower fat oxidation rate and a decrease in metabolism. The researchers concluded that a diet high in palmitic acid could increase the chances of obesity.

Palm oil also contains a kind of fat that has the tendency to increase LDL (bad cholesterol) levels in humans. 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.

While palm oil isn't totally bad for you (it still has some health benefits), it should be taken in moderation.

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)

Palm oil is an essential component for cooking in most African countries, it has been used as a cooking ingredient for centuries, and it's in almost all food.

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, it 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 average heat until it becomes liquid or light. After that, add your food to the heating 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.

In countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua where palm trees are being grown, deforestation in those areas 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.

The direct contribution of oil palm development to regional tropical deforestation ranges from an estimated 3% in West Africa to 50% in Malaysian Borneo. In Southeast Asia, oil palm is also linked to peatland drainage and burning.

Negative environmental consequences of such expansion include biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollution.

According to research conducted by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), palm oil is linked to the development of about 5% of deforestation in tropical areas. 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 causes soil erosion, increased salinity, and pollution of streams from runoff.

The quick and vast expansion of palm oil plantations has resulted in biodiversity loss and the destruction of natural areas.

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

Furthermore, the expanding palm oil fields may increase the usage 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 has numerous health benefits that are better reaped when it is eaten in moderation. This is because it contains unsaturated fats which is bad for the 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. However, despite its diverse uses, questions have been raised regarding the effects of palm tree growing and palm oil production on the ecosystem.

Since reports have linked palm oil production to increased deforestation, air pollution and biodiversity loss, it is best to limit its use and consumption to only sustainably cultivated palm oil trees.

Also, measures like halting deforestation and growing palm only on previously forested sites could lessen the environmental implications of palm oil.

References

  1. Meijaard E, Brooks TM, Et al. (2020). The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Nat Plants.
  2. National Institute of Environmental Health Science. (n.d.). Pesticides.
  3. Palm Oil Alliance.eu. (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.