Is Palm Oil Bad For You? Why Many Products Avoid Using Palm Oil

The pros and cons of consuming palm oil.

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Palm oil is a plant-based cooking oil widely used in many types of food products.

Most average consumers have very little understanding of palm seed oil, leading to common questions such as: “Is palm oil bad for you?“, “Is palm oil good for you?“ and “Is palm oil a seed oil?

Some health experts claim that palm seed oil or palm kernel oil is bad for you, so in this guide, we will discuss whether palm oil is bad for you and why some products avoid using palm seed oil altogether.

Palm oil and palm oil fruit.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil, sometimes called palm seed oil or palm kernel oil, is a type of vegetable oil used in cooking that is made from the fruit of the oil palm plant (Elaeis guineensis).

The fruit of the oil palm tree is used to make two distinct types of cooking oils.

Palm oil is made by squeezing the juice of the fleshy fruit from the oil palm plant, whereas palm kernel oil is made by crushing the kernel at the center of the fruit borne by the oil palm tree.

Therefore, when people ask: “Is palm oil a seed oil?” the answer is no, palm oil isn’t a seed oil, but palm kernel oil is a seed oil.

Though this may seem like a nuanced technical difference, it is important to point out because sometimes palm oil is sold separately as just palm oil, or you can buy palm seed oil or palm kernel oil, and food products may contain one or the other or both.

Palm oil fruit dripping with oil.

Palm oil is a plant-based oil that is one of the most commonly used vegetable oils around the world due largely to its versatility. These palm oil trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia over 100 years ago.

In fact, according to the World Wildlife Foundation1WWF. (2018, November 12). 8 Things to Know about Palm Oil. WWF; WWF. https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil (WWF), palm oil is found in nearly 50% of the packaged products in supermarkets and is used in animal feed in many parts of the world.

Palm oil is an ingredient in packaged, processed foods frequently consumed in the typical Western Diet, including donuts, instant noodle soups, chocolate, pizza, peanut butter, ice cream, condiment spreads like Nutella, potato chips, and other popular snack foods.

In many countries, palm oil is also often used as an ingredient in vegetable shortening and margarine. At room temperature, palm oil stays in a semi-solida state, makig these products spreadable.

One thing that makes it challenging to determine if a food product contains palm oil is that there are over 100 different names or variations for palm oil that may be used on food labels.

Palm oil is also sold as a standalone cooking oil, much like olive oil, though in this case, it will be clear that you are purchasing and consuming palm oil.

So now let’s answer: why is palm oil bad for you? Or, why is palm oil good for you?

Palm oil.

Is Palm Oil Good For You?

There are some potential health benefits of palm oil.

Palm oil is high in tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E that exhibits antioxidant properties in the body and has been shown to potentially support brain health.

For example, studies have found that the tocotrienols in palm oil may potentially have a neuroprotective effect2Ismail, M., Alsalahi, A., Imam, M. U., Ooi, D. J., Khaza’ai, H., Aljaberi, M. A., Shamsudin, M. N., & Idrus, Z. (2020). Safety and Neuroprotective Efficacy of Palm Oil and Tocotrienol-Rich Fraction from Palm Oil: A Systematic Review. Nutrients12(2), 521. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12020521 that helps prevent cognitive decline and dementia, reduce the risk of stroke, and prevent the growth of brain lesions.3Gopalan, Y., Shuaib, I. L., Magosso, E., Ansari, M. A., Abu Bakar, M. R., Wong, J. W., Khan, N. A. K., Liong, W. C., Sundram, K., Ng, B. H., Karuthan, C., & Yuen, K. H. (2014). Clinical investigation of the protective effects of palm vitamin E tocotrienols on brain white matter. Stroke45(5), 1422–1428. https://doi.org/10.1161/STROKEAHA.113.004449

‌The primary reason why it is said that palm oil is bad for you is due to its potential consequences on heart health.

Palm oil is fairly high in saturated fat, which has, in some studies at least, been associated with raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality.

However, interestingly, there is also research to suggest4Voon, P. T., Ng, T. K. W., Lee, V. K. M., & Nesaretnam, K. (2015). Virgin olive oil, palm olein and coconut oil diets do not raise cell adhesion molecules and thrombogenicity indices in healthy Malaysian adults. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition69(6), 712–716. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2015.26 that palm oil may provide some protection against heart disease.

Some studies have found that palm oil actually improves heart disease risk factors, such as lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol rather than the inverse.

Palm oil and its fruit.

For example, one study found that palm oil seemed to have a similar LDL cholesterol-lowering effect as olive oil.5Lucci, P., Borrero, M., Ruiz, A., Pacetti, D., Frega, N. G., Diez, O., Ojeda, M., Gagliardi, R., Parra, L., & Angel, M. (2016). Palm oil and cardiovascular disease: a randomized trial of the effects of hybrid palm oil supplementation on human plasma lipid patterns. Food & Function7(1), 347–354. https://doi.org/10.1039/c5fo01083g

‌This doesn’t necessarily mean that consuming palm oil will reduce your risk of heart disease, as there is an abundance of risk factors that all come into play with heart disease and cardiovascular disease, but a reduction in cholesterol is certainly a step in the right direction.

Lastly, there is a small amount of evidence6Dong, S., Xia, H., Wang, F., & Sun, G. (2017). The Effect of Red Palm Oil on Vitamin A Deficiency: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients9(12), 1281. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9121281 to suggest that palm oil consumption may help improve vitamin A status in those who are deficient in this fat-soluble vitamin because palm oil contains the carotenoids7Tan, C. H., Lee, C. J., Tan, S. N., Poon, D. T. S., Chong, C. Y. E., & Pui, L. P. (2021). Red Palm Oil: A Review on Processing, Health Benefits and Its Application in Food. Journal of Oleo Science70(9), 1201–1210. https://doi.org/10.5650/jos.ess21108 that the body can use to manufacture vitamin A.

Is Palm Oil Bad for You?

So, is palm oil bad for you, and if so, why is palm oil bad? Let’s take it one step further, is palm oil healthy?

Palm oil is typically not considered “healthy“ or “good“ for you per se, but it is healthier than some oils, and plenty of health and nutrition experts wouldn’t go as far as to say that palm oil is “bad“ for you.

Palm oil is healthier than certain oils and fats that are used for cooking, such as lard, shortening, margarine, and potentially even butter (this last one may be somewhat controversial).

The reason that palm oil is healthier than these other cooking fats is that it does not contain any trans fats and contains less saturated fat.8REPLACE trans fat: an action package to eliminate industrially produced trans-fatty acids. (n.d.). Www.who.int. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240021105

Butter simmering in a pan.

Although trans fats have been banned from being used in food products in the United States, there are still traces of trans fats in some of these products and certainly in some of these products overseas. 

On the other hand, palm oil is not as healthy as vegetable oils such as avocado oil, olive oil, and canola oil. 

All in all, the research has not conclusively demonstrated9Kadandale, S., Marten, R., & Smith, R. (2018). The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases. Bulletin of the World Health Organization97(2), 118–128. https://doi.org/10.2471/blt.18.220434 that palm oil is bad for you. 

Some studies have found that palm oil can indeed be part of a healthy balanced diet without increasing the risk of heart disease or cardiovascular disease at large, while other studies have found there to be an association between high levels of palm oil consumption and mortality rates due to heart disease.10Odia, O. J. (2015). Palm oil and the heart: A review. World Journal of Cardiology7(3), 144. https://doi.org/10.4330/wjc.v7.i3.144

‌The research about the potential health risks associated with saturated fat is mixed.

According to Harvard Health,11MD, C. R.-N. (2007, October 1). By the way, doctor: Is palm oil good for you? Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/by-the-way-doctor-is-palm-oil-good-for-you#:~:text=Palm%20oil%2C%20palm%20kernel%20oil about 50% of the fat in palm oil is saturated fat, which is lower than that of palm kernel oil and coconut oil, both of which have a fat content that is approximately 85% saturated fat. 

Someone pouring avocado oil into a bowl.

Harvard nutrition experts recommend consuming palm oil over fats such as butter and lard, but liquid oils such as olive oil and canola oil should be favored over palm oil where possible.

In addition to being high in saturated fat, one of the reasons why palm oil is bad for you—or at least why palm oil can be bad for you—is that studies have found12Risks for human health related to the presence of 3‐ and 2‐monochloropropanediol (MCPD), and their fatty acid esters, and glycidyl fatty acid esters in food. (2016). EFSA Journal14(5). https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2016.4426 that the palm oil production process can possibly produce a potential carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

If palm oil is heated to a very high temperature (at least 200 degrees Celsius or 392 degrees Fahrenheit), it can potentially become contaminated with this carcinogenic compound, although further research is necessary to understand the risk of this occurring.

Furthermore, one of the challenges of drawing conclusions from the body of evidence we currently have about the health implications of palm oil is that much of the research has been conducted by manufacturers involved in the palm oil industry.

This can potentially lead to bias in the study design and interpretation of results because there is a vested interest by those in the palm oil industry to demonstrate that palm oil is healthy, or at least not bad for you.

A palm oil tree field.

Independent research studies conducted by third parties and affiliated with the palm oil industry are necessary to better understand the health effects of consuming palm oil.

Most people focus on the potential health concerns of palm oil, but another factor that plays into the decision to choose palm oil or an alternative oil is the environmental impact and sustainability of palm oil.

The palm oil plantations that produce the majority of the world’s palm oil (which are located in Indonesia and Malaysia) cause deforestation and have destroyed entire rainforests and the habitats and ecosystems of endangered species, affecting biodiversity.

Some of these endangered species include the Sumatran rhino, Orangutan and pygmy elephant, not to mention the effect this desforestation can make on climate change.

Fair labor practices are often not employed, and certain indigenous groups have been displaced in order to make room for the Royal Palm plantation.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has been formed to work towards making the palm oil industry more sustainable.

With that said, the environmental impact of palm oil is actually much less deleterious in comparison to certain other oils.

In addition, palm oil is considered fairly sustainable in the grand scheme of cooking fats and oils, as well as other major crops such as corn, which is also used for corn oil.

Palm oil can be cultivated on much less land, using fewer pesticides and fewer chemical fertilizers, reducing the relative environmental impact over many other types of oils.

As mentioned, the evidence surrounding the health effects of palm oil is still mixed and potentially biased.

Therefore, if you are in a position to choose alternative oils that are known to be healthier (such as avocado and olive oil), it is advisable to make the decision to use these in preparing your food and limit or avoid processed foods that contain palm oil or one of its derivatives.

If you would like to check out more of our nutrition guides, click here!

A bottle of oil.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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