What is palm oil

Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.

Written by Brian Stanton

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Palm oil is getting more and more popular as a healthy fat option. But it comes with a questionable reputation. Some experts claim that palm oil is terrible for your heart. Others are calling out the industry for systematically destroying orangutan habitats.

The fact is, there are two kinds of palm oil: a nutritious oil that’s good for the environment, and refined palm oil that wreaks havoc on your health and the planet.

In this article, you’ll get all the details behind both, plus how to navigate the palm oil industry so you can make the right decisions at the grocery store.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

A Vote For Sustainable Palm Oil

What Is Palm 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 palm oil — 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.

Junk food is awful for you, but refined palm oil — in and of itself — is not. It’s just saturated fat, and saturated fat is not to be feared.

Not All Fat Is Created Equal

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 know if you’ve ever tried the 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 actually 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[*]:

      1. Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA) — missing two or more hydrogen bonds, making them the least stable fats; found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils
      2. Monounsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA) — missing one hydrogen bond, so still pretty stable; found in olive oil, avocados, macadamia nuts, and palm oil
      3. Saturated Fatty Acid (SFA) — “saturated” with hydrogen molecules, which makes them very stable and solid at room temperature; found in meat, butter, coconut, and palm oil
      4. Trans Fats — franken fats that are never found in nature and lead to a laundry list of chronic health issues; found in most processed foods

Polyunsaturated Fats

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 many omega-6s can cause systemic inflammation and is also linked to obesity[*].

That’s why most edible vegetable oils are a problem — 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 leads to lipid peroxidation, which can cause major damage to your tissues, including heart disease[*].

Monounsaturated Fats

Most people know that monounsaturated fat — found in olive oil, avocados, and yes, palm oil — is good for you. They’re more stable than PUFAs, making them ok to cook with at temperatures under about 350°F.

High MUFA intake is uncontroversial and seems to protect against heart disease and some brain degenerative diseases[*][*].

Saturated Fats

Unlike PUFAs and MUFAS, saturated fat is controversial.

Some people maintain an outdated paradigm that saturated fat clogs your arteries, destroys your heart, and sends you to an early grave.

But this thinking is largely misguided. Here’s why saturated fat is a crucial part of a healthy diet for most people:

      1. A massive 2010 meta-analysis found no link between dietary saturated fat and heart disease[*]
      2. In a large Japanese cohort, saturated fat intake was inversely associated with strokes[*]
      3. Saturated fat is more stable than PUFAs or MUFAs, which makes it better for high heat[*]
      4. Eating saturated fat raises HDL cholesterol and may prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol[*]
      5. In mice, a high SFA diet protected against alcohol-induced liver disease[*]
      6. Cultures like the Masai and Inuit have eaten saturated fat for centuries with low rates of heart disease[*]
      7. 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 and immune support
        • Trans Fats

Trans fats are not found in nature, but rather spawned when manufacturers hydrogenate vegetable oils.

Trans fats are great for creating processed food products but terrible for your health. They’re also linked to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, diabetes — the list goes on[*]. Avoid them like the plague.

Now, let’s take a look at the specific fatty acids in palm oil and why you might want to add unrefined red palm oil to your pantry.

Health Benefits Of Red Palm Oil

By weight, red palm oil contains 50% saturated fat, 40% monounsaturated fat, and 10% polyunsaturated fat[*]. High SFA, high MUFA, low PUFA. This makes red palm oil extremely heat stable, unlike most other vegetable 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 fat and cooking benefits are only half the picture. Red palm oil is also rich in carotenoids, vitamins, CoQ10, and other health-promoting compounds.

Here’s what you’ll find in a jar of unrefined red palm oil:

#1 Carotenoids (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[*].

Red palm oil, along with vitamin A, is also rich in vitamin E.

#2 Vitamin E

Even refined palm oil — which lacks vitamin E — isn’t bad for cooking. Remember: it’s still high in heat-friendly SFAs and MUFAs.

But red palm oil is better for cooking — and that’s because it’s rich in vitamin E. It’s true: vitamin E keeps 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 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[*]. That means red palm oil is probably good for your heart.

Another heart-healthy compound in red palm oil? CoQ10.

#3 CoQ10

When it comes to antioxidant activity, CoQ10 — or coenzyme-Q10 — is even more potent than vitamin E. 10 times more potent[*].

CoQ10 also:

      • 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 definitely want more of as you age.

But wait, there’s more.

#4 Squalene

Red palm oil has moderate amounts of squalene — a protective molecule that’s also found in olive oil and shark fin oil.

Benefits of squalene include:

      • Potential cardiovascular protection[*]
      • Squalene is a precursor for cholesterol and essential sex hormones[*]
      • Shows some promising anti-cancer effects in rodents[*]
      • May protect in UV radiation[*]

Health benefits aside, there’s a massive argument against palm oil. Large companies, aka “Big Palm Oil,” are growing fast. And they’re destroying the environment and contributing to the obesity epidemic. Let’s dig into the details.

The Problems With Big Palm Oil

Sustainable palm oil is great for your health, the environment, the ecosystem, and palm tree farmers. But not all palm oil is sustainable.

Most palm oil 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 Big Palm Oil 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 like the Sumatran tiger and Sumatran orangutan. This kind of this habitat loss threatens the very existence of these animals.

This devastation also threatens the future of the planet.

#2 Accelerated Climate Change

Big Palm Oil is accelerating climate change in two ways:

      1. By destroying thousands of acres of trees
      2. By releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere

Carbon dioxide — or CO2 — is a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun and measurably changes climates and weather across the globe[*].

Trees help counteract human industry by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing more oxygen, which helps defend against massive CO2 output.

Big Palm Oil, on the other hand, burns trees, which not only takes away our CO2 disposal system, it releases more stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Sustainable palm is different, and you’ll learn why soon. But first, a final drawback of Big Palm Oil — it’s role in the junk food industry.

#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 has been 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 take you from fat-burning mode to fat storage mode.

To be clear: palm oil isn’t what makes those foods unhealthy. Processed crap and sugar does.

Still, the spread of refined foods has been facilitated by Big Palm Oil. In other words, you won’t find unrefined sustainable red palm oil in junk food.

The Case For Sustainable Palm Oil

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 sustainable palm oil.

#1 Regenerative Agriculture

Organic palm oil producers don’t clear-cut acres of tropical forest. Instead, they take brown fields —  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 brown fields, 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 Rain Forest 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 exclusively 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. Basic human rights.

# 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.

So when you buy palm oil, buy the unrefined organic kind.

Now that you know what kind of palm oil to add to your pantry, how exactly should you use this nourishing oil?

How to Use Palm Oil

It’s easy to get started with palm oil. Here are some ideas:

#1 Cook With It

Red palm oil is the perfect cooking oil. High in stable saturated and monounsaturated fats, it holds up to high heat and won’t oxidize.

Plus it has a distinctive, nutty flavor. It may even become your “go-to” for cooking veggies, frying eggs, or sizzling a stir-fry.

#2 Just Eat It

Recall that red palm oil contains beneficial compounds like 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.

#3 Palm Oil For The Keto Diet

If you’re on a ketogenic diet, you want most of your calories from fat — 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.

A Vote For Sustainable Palm Oil

Palm oil does have a checkered reputation. Rainforest destroyer, orangutan killer, and junk food ingredient to name a few.

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 cast your vote, feel good, and enjoy your fat.

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