A friend of mine recently asked me what's with all the negative press around palm oil. I knew a few heavy hitting points that always made me weary of using it in my kitchen but I wanted to find out more and share it with all of you -- after all, knowledge is power and my purpose as a Holistic Nutritionist is to educate both myself and consumers on optimal eating practices.
Let's start with the basics.
What is palm oil? Palm oil is obtained from the orange flesh of the palm fruit derived from the palm tree (Elaeis guineensis not Cocos nucifera which coconuts grow on). It is not to be confused with palm kernel oil which is produced from the white palm kernel nut found in the middle of the palm fruit. A total of 3.6 million people worldwide work in the palm oil industry and 80% of the palm trees being harvested are located in Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet; it's found in over 50% of packaged products sold in grocery stores!
Why all the negative press?
Large-scale production linked to an aggravation in global problems. Because palm oil is so widely used in food and non-food products such as cosmetics and hygiene products, the demand is high. This has led to several ethical issues associated with the environment, wildlife and communities. Deforestation of native landscapes a) devastates the forest's crucial role in reducing greenhouse gasses and b) puts a strain on endangered species that are facing extinction and habitat loss, like the bornean orangutang. There are also concerns regarding exploitation of land: clearing farmlands and forests without permission, paying low wages, and providing unsafe and unjust working conditions (what they're calling modern day slavery).
Saturated fat. Palm oil is composed of 50% saturated fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids, or saturated fats, are primarily found in foods of animal origin—meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs, but are also found in coconut and palm. Saturated fats quickly gained a bad reputation in the medical and scientific fields due to the allegation that saturated fat consumption raises blood cholesterol levels and thereby increases the risk of coronary heart disease. This created a sea of uncertainty with fearful consumers, and for decades the palm industry (as well as other tropical oil industries) suffered greatly from the vast amount of disinformation and confusion provided by biased agricultural groups and companies that are laser-focused solely on economic gains. The issue is, it's still happening today. You probably heard all about the propaganda in the summer of 2017 that headlined every website and article with the words "Coconut Oil Was Never Healthy!". Time and time again, certain trigger words are used to evoke a sense of fear and vilify nutritious foods, but little attention is given to vital pieces of information, like the the beneficial constituents (lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids) largely present in palm oil. We're quick to indulge in negative talk and assume the worst, but this easily pulls the wool over our eyes and disengages us from further learning; it creates a shock factor which we've drawn to as humans and we close off from other information.
Are there pros to palm oil?
Yes, palm oil does actually have health benefits. As stated in this published article:
Palm oil contains α-, β- and γ-carotenes. These are precursors of vitamin A, which prevents night blindness, aids maintenance of tissues and promotes growth. In developing countries like Ghana where vitamin A deficiency is a major problem among both adults and children, using palm oil in meals in moderate amounts is a relatively affordable means of ensuring adequate vitamin A intake.
Palm oil contains phytosterols such as sitosterol, stigmasterol and campesterol. These lipophilic sterols are easily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, and then converted through a series of enzymatic reactions into cholesterol, which is a major precursor of steroid hormones.
Squalene, present in palm oil, when in excess amounts has been found to possess a negative feedback inhibition activity on the function of HMG-CoA reductase, an enzyme involved in the production of cholesterol in the liver. Thus, a moderate use of palm oil is likely to be beneficial for blood lipid profiles.
Palm oil is rich in vitamin E, which is composed mainly of tocopherols and tocotrienols. These compounds act as potent antioxidants that make it relatively stable to oxidation. Both animal and human studies show that tocotrienols could reduce plasma cholesterol, apolipoprotein B, thromboxane B2, and platelet factor IV. They could also inhibit or delay the oxidative deterioration of cellular membranes. This makes palm oil protective against chronic conditions like cancer which is currently emerging in developing countries like Ghana.
The choice to buy or not to buy palm oil is yours and ONLY yours. I'm not going to make that choice for you because after all, it's your body and your morals and ethics -- but before you make the ultimate decision, make sure you educate yourself and see both sides (always!). If the cons I've listed above utterly disgust you, you may choose to consciously avoid palm oil at all costs. That's your decision and it's a great one. In fact, there are many other alternatives to palm oil for the health benefits I've listed above -- so don't fret about that. (I'll be writing a blog post about the options soon, so keep posted!) If the nutritional benefits of palm oil peak your interest but the global problems don't sit well, these are a couple of things you can do to ensure you're purchasing ethically sourced, sustainable oil:
- Look for the RSPO label. It's the gold standard in terms of ethics and sustainability: at least 95% of the palm oil in the product is certified and the entire supply chain is traceable
- Educate yourself on the alternative names for palm oil and the abundance of products that use them (https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil)
Was this article informative? Did I answer any looming questions you may have had about palm oil? Let me know below or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org -- I'd love to hear from you!
Peace, self-love, and kale,