Is Palm Oil Bad for You? Your Guide to This Controversial Oil
Palm oil consumption is on the rise. But it comes with a questionable reputation. Some experts claim that tropical oils like palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil are full of saturated fat and terrible for your cholesterol levels. Others are calling out the palm industry for systematically destroying orangutan habitats. So is palm oil bad for you?
The fact is, there are two kinds of palm oil: a nutritious oil that’s also good for the environment, and refined version that wreaks havoc on your health and the planet.
There are two important things to consider when buying this oil:
- How it’s extracted
- How it’s processed
To help you make an informed decision, this guide answers the question, “Is palm oil bad for you?” and gets to the truth — and the misconceptions — about this increasingly popular and controversial oil.
Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil on the planet. Compared to other oil crops, oil palm trees use the least land (5.5%) and produce the most oil (32%)[*].
African oil palms (elaeis guineensis) thrive in hot climates, so most of these trees grow near the equator in places like Africa, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia. Palm oil comes from the palm fruits, which farmers pick and process into crude palm oil.
Crude palm oil — also known as red or unrefined — is the good stuff. It’s red because it’s rich in compounds called carotenoids.
Unfortunately, most of the world’s palm oil is refined. Refined palm oil is stripped of its nutrients until it’s white or opaque. This is usually the kind you’ll find in chips, shortening, cookies, and other junk food snacks. No wonder it gets a bad rap.
Obviously, highly processed junk food is terrible for your health. But refined palm oil — in and of itself — is not the boogie man people might think it is. It’s just saturated fat, and saturated fat is not to be feared.
Fat is an excellent source of energy, provided you’re eating the right kinds.
The fat molecule is 9 calories per 1 gram of fat, as opposed to 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein. That makes fat the most satiating macronutrient per gram, which you already know if you follow a keto diet. In other words, fat gives you the most energy bang for your buck.
Now for some light biochemistry:
When you talk about eating fat, you’re talking about triglycerides.
Triglycerides are fatty acids linked by a glycerol molecule. When you digest triglycerides, they break down into fatty acids that are either used for energy or stored for later.
Not all fat, however, is created equal. Here are the main fatty acids[*]:
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA): These fats are missing two or more hydrogen bonds, making them the least stable fats. They are found in fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA): These fats are missing one hydrogen bond, so they’re still pretty stable. MUFAs are found in olive oil, avocados, macadamia nuts, and palm oil.
- Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA): These fats are “saturated” with hydrogen molecules, which makes them very stable and semi-solid at room temperature. SFAs are found in meat, butter, coconut, and palm oil.
- Trans Fats: These fats are the result of human tinkering, never found in nature. Trans fats can lead to a laundry list of chronic health issues and are found in most processed foods.
The best known PUFAs are omega fats. You need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to help lower inflammation and support brain function[*]. But too much omega-6 in your diet can cause systemic inflammation and is also linked to obesity[*].
Most edible seed oils and vegetable oils (like soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil) are a problem because they’re high in omega-6 fats. Palm oil and coconut oil are not.
High omega-6 oils are also more unstable, which leads to fat oxidation. This oxidation leads to lipid peroxidation, which can cause major damage to your tissues, clog arteries, and lead to heart disease[*].
Omega-3 fatty acids are even more unstable and aren’t meant for cooking due to their volatile and sensitive nature. That’s why you’re supposed to keep fish and flaxseed oils in the refrigerator. They’re of limited use beyond supplementation (and maybe salad dressing) to help even out your ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s.
Most people know that monounsaturated fat — found in extra virgin olive oil, avocados (and avocado oil), and palm oil — is good for you. It’s one of the reasons the Mediterranean diet is so popular.
Monounsaturated fats are credited most often as the “good fats” and aiding in weight loss. MUFAs more stable than PUFAs, making them fine for cooking at temperatures under 350°F.
High MUFA intake isn’t controversial. Research shows that MUFAs promote cardiovascular health and brain health[*][*].
Unlike PUFAs and MUFAS, saturated fat is quite controversial.
Some people maintain an outdated paradigm that saturated fat clogs your arteries, causes cardiovascular disease, and sends you to an early grave.
But this kind of thinking is largely misguided. Here’s why saturated fat is a crucial part of a healthy diet for most people:
- A massive 2010 meta-analysis found no link between dietary saturated fat and heart disease[*].
- In a large Japanese cohort study, saturated fat intake was inversely associated with strokes[*].
- Saturated fat is more stable than PUFAs or MUFAs, which makes it more shelf-stable and better for high heat[*].
- Eating saturated fat raises HDL cholesterol and may prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol[*].
- In mice, a high SFA diet protected against alcohol-induced liver disease[*].
- Cultures like the Masai and Inuit have eaten saturated fat for centuries with low rates of heart disease[*].
- High SFA foods contain essential nutrients:
- Egg yolks for choline — cell membrane and liver health
- Grass-fed butter for vitamin K2 — bone health
- Red palm oil for vitamin E and vitamin A — antioxidant properties and immune support
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oils) are a type of saturated fat, which have been shown to aid in weight loss and fat loss by promoting a feeling of fullness and boosting metabolism[*][*][*].
MCTs have fewer calories than the types of fats found in olive oil and avocado oil (long-chain triglycerides)[*][*].
Most MCT oil supplements are derived from coconut palm oil, which has the greatest supply. But palm oil, palm kernel oil, and some dairy products also have them.
Most trans fats are not found in nature, but are spawned when manufacturers hydrogenate vegetable oils.
Trans fats are great for creating processed food products that can last forever on the shelf, but they’re bad for your health. They’re also linked to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes[*].
However, avoiding these oils isn’t as easy as looking at the nutrition facts on a package. The FDA allows for a small percentage of trans fats to be included in packaged foods as long as it doesn’t exceed 0.5g per serving.
This means you could be eating these fats without realizing it. The best way to search for the presence of trans fat in your packaged foods is to look at the ingredients label instead of the nutrition facts.
If you see the words “partially hydrogenated _______ oil,” steer clear. The blank space can be filled in with any type of oil, but will most likely be vegetable oil, canola oil, or soybean oil.
By weight, red palm oil contains 50% saturated fat, 40% monounsaturated fat, and 10% polyunsaturated fat[*], which means high SFA, high MUFA, and low PUFA. This makes it extremely heat stable, which is unlike most other vegetable and seed oils.
It also has a high smoke point at 235°C (455°F), making it ideal for frying. Compare this to coconut oil’s smoke point of 177°C (350°F).
But the high fat content and cooking benefits are only half the picture. Red palm oil is also a nutritional powerhouse rich in carotenoids, vitamins, CoQ10, and other health-promoting compounds.
Here’s what you’ll find in a jar of this unrefined oil:
#1. Carotenoids (plant-based vitamin A)
Carotenoids are powerful, free radical-fighting antioxidants. They’re also what make carrots orange, daffodils yellow, and palm oil red.
The carotenoids in red palm oil are called carotenes — alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and gamma-carotene[*]. These not only reduce oxidative stress, but they’re also precursors to vitamin A.
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that improves your vision, supports your immune system, and maintains the integrity of your gut, lung, and skin tissue[*].
#2. Vitamin E
Red palm oil is better for cooking. Why? Because it’s rich in vitamin E, which will keep the oil from oxidizing on a hot pan.
Vitamin E also prevents oxidation inside your body. It does this with plenty of tocopherols and tocotrienols — molecules that clean up damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS).
ROS are part of life — produced by your cells as you live, breathe, and move through your day. At low levels, ROS are beneficial — functioning as signaling molecules for your immune system.
But at high levels, ROS can damage your insides. If enough time goes by, this damage leads to a risk of heart disease, autoimmunity, brain disease, and other age-related conditions[*].
Vitamin E is ROS damage control.
Along with ROS, the tocotrienols in vitamin E also inhibit apolipoprotein B, a protein that destroys arterial tissue[*]. As such, red palm oil is probably good for your heart.
When it comes to antioxidant activity, CoQ10, or coenzyme-Q10, is even more potent than vitamin E — ten times more potent[*].
- Helps synthesize ATP (energy for your cells).
- Reduces heart disease risk in high-risk patients.
- Seems to possess anti-cancer activity.
The combination of ATP production and decreased ROS makes CoQ10 a powerful anti-aging nutrient that you want more of as you age.
Red palm oil has moderate amounts of squalene. Squalene is a protective molecule that’s also found in olive oil and shark fin oil.
Benefits of squalene include:
- Potential cardiovascular protection[*].
- It’s a precursor for cholesterol and essential sex hormones[*].
- Shows some promising anti-cancer effects in rodents[*].
- May protect from UV radiation[*].
Health benefits aside, there’s a massive argument against the cultivation and use of palm oil. Large companies, aka Big Palm Oil or BPO, are destroying the environment and contributing to the obesity epidemic due to processed oil’s prevalence in junk food.
Sustainable palm oil is great for your health, the environment, and palm tree farmers. But not all palm oil is sustainable.
Most of the production is big business, and when money is involved, all other considerations go out the window. Here are the main problems with the industry.
#1. Threat to Endangered Species
The BPO industry has systematically destroyed millions of acres of rainforest in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, and Sumatra.
These rainforests aren’t just important for the health of the planet — they’re also the natural habitats for rare species including the Sumatran tiger and Sumatran orangutan. This kind of habitat loss threatens the very existence of these animals.
It also threatens the future of the planet.
#2. Accelerated Climate Change
Big Palm Oil is accelerating climate change in two ways:
- By destroying thousands of acres of trees
- By releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun and measurably changes climates and weather across the globe[*].
Trees help counteract the damage done by human industry by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing more oxygen, which helps defend against massive CO2 output.
BPO, on the other hand, burns trees. This not only takes away the CO2 disposal system, it releases more stored carbon into the atmosphere.
#3. The Spread of Junk Food
Refined palm oil is the darling of food manufacturers everywhere. It’s a cheap fat that enhances the taste and texture of most processed foods.
Eating processed food is directly linked to obesity, cancer, and diabetes. Consuming these foods has even been called “substance abuse” by some researchers[*].
Here’s why: processed foods are mostly carb-heavy and packed with sugar and highly refined, toxic ingredients. They raise your blood sugar and blood pressure and take you from fat-burning mode to fat storage mode.
To be clear: palm oil isn’t what makes these foods unhealthy. Processed sugar does.
Still, the spread of refined foods has been facilitated by BPO. In other words, you won’t find unrefined sustainable red palm oil in junk food.
Sustainable red palm oil isn’t just better for you, it supports environmental initiatives and keeps endangered species and farmers in mind. Here are just a few reasons to support usage of this oil.
#1. Regenerative Agriculture
Organic palm oil producers don’t clear-cut acres of tropical forest. Instead, they take brownfields — old chemical farms in places like Sierra Leone — and turn them green[*].
Sustainable palm oil plantations use organic, multi-cropping growing practices that create rich, healthy soil and foster biodiversity.
#2. Combating Climate Change
Unlike Big Palm Oil, sustainable growers aren’t clearing out acres of precious rainforest. Instead, they’re planting trees in abandoned brownfields, rebuilding the land and the soil.
More trees mean less CO2 in the atmosphere and more oxygen.
#3. Helping Orangutans
Organic palm producers don’t burn down the rainforest. They’re restoring the land, creating healthy, diverse habitats for the people and creatures that live nearby.
They do so by working with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Fair For Life, and the RainForest Alliance[*].
Look for these credentials when shopping for red palm oil. They matter.
#4. Fair Wages for Farmers
Small farmers produce most of the world’s food, yet receive little reward.
That’s changing. Responsible buyers now buy from producers that:
- Pay farmers a fair wage
- Don’t allow child labor
- Provide social security
These practices are helping small farmers break out of poverty, put food on the table, and maintain adequate housing.
#5. Organic Benefits
To be certified organic, palm oil producers must pass a series of tests, including tests for:
- Soil integrity
- Removal of pesticides and herbicides
- Natural fertilization
- Minimum tillage
- Ecological balance
These standards are better for consumers and promote environmental sustainability.
When you buy palm oil, buy the unrefined organic kind.
It’s easy to get started with palm oil. Here are some ideas.
Cook With It
Red palm oil is the perfect high-heat cooking oil. High in stable saturated and monounsaturated fats, it holds up to high temperatures and won’t oxidize.
It also has a distinctive, nutty flavor. It may even become your go-to oil for cooking veggies, frying eggs, or sizzling a stir-fry.
Just Eat It
Recall that red palm oil contains beneficial compounds, including vitamin E, carotenoids, and CoQ10.
To deliver these nutrients to your body, you can spread palm oil on your favorite snacks, toss some into your smoothie, or eat it directly from the jar.
Palm Oil for the Keto Diet
If you’re on a ketogenic diet, you want most of your calories from fat to achieve and remain in ketosis: about 60% for most people[*].
You want, of course, to fill that ratio with the healthiest fats possible: fats with MUFA, SFA, and plenty of micronutrients. Nut butter, olive oil, MCT oil, and yes, red palm oil.
Bottom line? If sustainable red palm oil isn’t in your keto routine, it’s a nutritious, earth-friendly option you should look into.
Is Palm Oil Bad for You? Not If You Choose Sustainable Palm Oil
There have been some seriously negative effects of palm oil consumption. So much so that this oil has been labeled a rainforest destroyer, orangutan killer, and junk food that contributes to numerous health risks. But these labels apply to the Big Palm Oil industry, not to sustainable red palm oil.
Red palm oil isn’t just safe for you and the environment, it’s full of healthy fats and free radical-fighting antioxidants.
Plus, sustainable producers support rainforests, endangered species, farmers, and even the planet’s thermostat. They are fostering the change the world needs to see.
How can you join this movement?
Easy. By supporting certified sustainable palm oil, and shunning Big Palm Oil.
So, is palm oil bad for you? Not if you choose the right kind. It’s time to cast your vote with your dollar, feel good, and enjoy this healthy fat as part of your vibrant, low-carb keto lifestyle.
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