When it comes to cooking oils, Palm oil appears to be controversial.
Additionally, Palm oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil. Though both have their root from the same plant, palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit. It provides different health benefits. Palm oil has a variety of medicinal uses in Africa as well. It was used as an antidote for poison, a cure for gonorrhea, a natural laxative, a diuretic, and a treatment for headaches and skin infections. This article brings an objective analysis of Palm oil to settle the long-standing controversy.
Unrefined vs. refined palm oil
Unrefined palm oil is raw oil that is pressed directly from the palm plant. It’s reddish, with a distinct odor and flavor. This type is more often used in our traditional cooking. Refined palm oil goes through several processing steps to give it a neutral color and flavor. It is used more widely in food manufacturing or for frying mass-produced foods.
Palm oil nutritional Profile
According to the US. Department of Agriculture, one tablespoon (14 grams) of palm oil contains approximately:
- calories: 120
- fat: 14 grams
- saturated fat: 7 grams
- monounsaturated fat: 5 grams
- polyunsaturated fat: 1 gram
- vitamin E: 14% of the Daily Value (DV)
The organization further explained that palm oil calories originate from fat. The fatty acid breakdown is approximately 50% saturated fatty acids, 40% monounsaturated fatty acids, and 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids.
On the other hand, a study by Tan et al.(2021) explained that Red palm oil’s reddish-orange pigment emanates from antioxidants known as carotenoids, including beta carotene, which the body can convert into vitamin A.
Palm Oil, Scientific Benefits
Support Brain health
Palm oil is loaded with tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E which contains antioxidants that may support brain health.
One Animal and human study (Gopalan et al. 2014; Ibrahim et al. 2017 ) found that the tocotrienols in palm oil can help protect the delicate polyunsaturated fats in the brain, slow dementia progression, reduce the risk of stroke, and prevent the growth of brain lesions.
In the human study, Gopalan et al. (2014) conducted for 2-years involving 121 people with brain lesions, the group who took palm oil-derived tocotrienols twice a day remained stable, but for those who received a placebo, their lesions grow.
Furthermore, Ishmail et al (2020) conducted a review of 18 animal and test-tube studies and found that palm oil and palm oil tocotrienols support neuroprotective effects against cognitive decline.
Cholesterol-lowering, Heart health
Though some study results have been mixed, this oil largely appears to have beneficial effects on heart disease risk factors, including lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol (Fattore et al.2011; Ismail et al.2018; Lucci et al.2016; Voon et al. 2015)
In the case of Fattore et al.(2011), the study involved a large analysis of 51 studies and found that total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels were lower in people who consumed palm oil-rich diets than those who consumed diets high in trans fats or myristic and lauric acids.
Additionally, the case of Lucci et al.(2016) involved a 3-month randomized study from Columbia that examined the cholesterol-lowering ability of palm oil made from a hybrid of Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis oleifera trees.
In this study, people consumed either 25 mL (2 tablespoons) of olive oil or a hybrid palm oil daily. Based on a 15% drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol in both groups, researchers suggested this palm oil could be called “the tropical equivalent of olive oil”.
In a previous clinical trial, Zhang et al.(1997) also examined the effects of palm oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, and lard on cholesterol levels. The authors found that palm oil caused a 13.1 percent decrease in bad LDL cholesterol and a 6.7 percent drop in triglyceride levels in those with normal cholesterol.
Apart from Palm oil lowering your cholesterol levels, it also slows the progression of heart diseases. One clinical trial by Tomeo et al.(1995).
Examined the impacts of palm oil on heart disease for 18 months. They found that 28 percent of people with heart disease who were treated with palm oil demonstrated improvement and 64 percent remained stable. Equally, those in the placebo group also demonstrated improvement, however, 40 percent of cases got worse.
This means that Palm oil is a heart-healthy fat and should be part of a diet plan to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Enhanced vitamin A
One old study by McLaren(1999) and a recent review study by Tan et al.(2021)found that Red palm oil enhances vitamin A status in people who are deficient or at risk of deficiency because it’s rich in carotenoids that the body can convert into vitamin A.
Another small study in 16 participants by Sommerburg et al.(2015)found that people with cystic fibrosis, a condition that makes it difficult to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, experienced an increase in vitamin A blood levels after taking two to three tablespoons of red palm oil daily for 8 weeks.
A previous clinical trial by Radhika et al.(2013) also found that Palm oil is mostly used as a supplement to help improve vitamin A status in those who are at risk for deficiency. This study emanated from the National Institute of Nutrition, Indian Council of Medical Research in India, for example, showed that treating pregnant women with red palm oil increased vitamin A levels for both women and their babies.
Another meta-analysis of nine high-quality studies by Dong et al.(2017)found red palm oil supplementation to increase vitamin A levels in both children and adults.
Fights Oxidative stress
Pham-Huy et al.(2008) study found that Free radicals are highly reactive compounds that form in your body as a result of factors like stress, a poor diet, or exposure to pollutants and pesticides. These free radicals can be mitigated by Antioxidants and protect the cells. This can be done by using Red palm oil which is high in beneficial antioxidants and has also been shown to reduce the inflammation and oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
For instance, one animal study by Varatharajan et al.(2013) in Malaysia examined the antioxidant activity of palm leaves extract (OPLE) in mice with diabetes. After just four weeks, OPLE was found to cause improvements in kidney dysfunction and fibrosis, two conditions commonly associated with diabetic neuropathy. Not only that but it was also found to decrease markers of oxidative stress and inflammation as well.
In case you want to use Palm oil for oxidative stress, Rachel, L(2018) article suggests you add plenty of other high antioxidant foods, such as turmeric, ginger, dark chocolate, and pecans.
Supports Skin and Hair Health
Rachel, L(2018) explained that many people swear by using red palm oil for skin and claim that it can do everything from improving the appearance of scars to fighting off acne. This is because it’s rich in vitamin E, a nutrient that plays a central role in skin health.
This notwithstanding, one randomized controlled trial by Jaffary et al(2015) reported that taking vitamin E by mouth for four months significantly improved symptoms of atopic dermatitis( a condition that makes your skin red and itchy) compared to a placebo.
Another study by Keen and Hassan(2016) found that vitamin E may be useful in the treatment of wounds, pressure ulcers, and psoriasis.
Beoy et al.(2010) in 37 participants with hair loss found that taking tocotrienol for eight months increased the number of hairs by 34.5 percent. Meanwhile, the placebo group saw a 0.1 percent decrease in the number of hairs by the end of the study.
Palm Oil, Side effects, and Concerns
There have been so many controversies regarding the consumption of Palm oil on health status. Let me address this here:
One, as humans, we behave differently. Hence, from studies, consuming red palm oil is likely to have a different impact on the individual. The fact is that many studies found that palm oil can reduce cholesterol levels, others have produced mixed results reporting that it can increase cholesterol concentrations for some individuals. I provide the studies on negative studies here:
- Utarwuthipong et al. (2009)-controlled Clinical Trial published in Journal of International Medical Research. Subjects were hypercholesterolaemic women( those with high levels of cholesterol in the blood). The study found a significant increase in these women consuming palm oil as compared to soybean oil (SBO), and rice bran oil (RBO)
- Bautista et al.(2001)- Randomized Crossover Trial on Colombian diets published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The subject was Twenty-eight healthy male students aged 20-34yrs.
- Tholstrup et al.(2011)- controlled double-blinded, randomized crossover Trial on 32 healthy men published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This study found that as compared with intake of olive oil, palm olein and lard increased total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
- Xian et al. (2012) also found that reheated palm oil could increase arterial plaque, which may result in an increased risk of heart disease. Due to this, I advise, avoiding repeated reheating as it may decrease the oil’s antioxidant activity and lead to negative effects on health.
Though did not chance on any such studies on Africans, I advise you to use palm oil in moderation and use it in combination with other healthy fats in your diet.
Another concern is that most of the palm oil on the market today is heavily processed and oxidized for cooking purposes. Rachel, L(2018) explained that this method depletes palm oil of its health-promoting properties and can have negative impacts on health. Hence, I advise you to use unrefined and cold-pressed palm oil to avoid any adverse health effects.
Palm Oil vs. Coconut Oil
Let me use this medium to also settle this controversy between the two: The biggest differences lie in the composition of these two types of oils. The fact is that Coconut oil is higher in saturated fats and medium-chain triglycerides. On the other hand, palm oil is divided into nearly 50/50 between saturated and unsaturated fats, coconut oil is almost entirely made up of saturated fats. Coconut oil also contains beneficial compounds like lauric acid, which has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and contains antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
When comparing red palm oil vs. coconut oil, however, both bring a different set of benefits and health-promoting properties to the table. Include both, along with other healthy sources of fat, in a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet to promote better health.
To studies there are numerous health benefits of palm oil including decreasing cholesterol levels, reducing oxidative stress, boosting brain health, slowing the progression of heart disease, increasing vitamin A status, and improving skin and hair health. Take notice of the negative aspect of reheating and reusing which possess a danger to our health. You can also derive the numerous benefits in Palm soup due to the tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E that has strong antioxidant properties that may improve brain health.
The writer is a Professor of Naturopathic Healthcare, President, Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine & Technology (NUCHMT)/African Naturopathic Foundation. E-mail: [email protected].
- Rachael Link,(2018) Red Palm Oil Benefits the Heart & Brain but Is It Bad for the Environment? https://draxe.com/nutrition/red-palm-oil/
- Sommerburg O, De Spirt S, Mattern A, Joachim C, Langhans CD, Nesaretnam K, Siems W, Stahl W, Mall MA. Supplementation with red palm oil increases β-carotene and vitamin A blood levels in patients with cystic fibrosis. Mediators Inflamm. 2015;2015:817127. doi: 10.1155/2015/817127. Epub 2015 Jan 26. PMID: 25688177; PMCID: PMC4321850.
- Utarwuthipong T, Komindr S, Pakpeankitvatana V, Songchitsomboon S, Thongmuang N. Small dense low-density lipoprotein concentration and oxidative susceptibility changes after consumption of soybean oil, rice bran oil, palm oil and mixed rice bran/palm oil in hypercholesterolaemic women. J Int Med Res. 2009 Jan-Feb;37(1):96-104. doi: 10.1177/147323000903700111. PMID: 19215678
- Xian TK, Omar NA, Ying LW, Hamzah A, Raj S, Jaarin K, Othman F, Hussan F. Reheated palm oil consumption and risk of atherosclerosis: evidence at ultrastructural level. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:828170. doi: 10.1155/2012/828170. Epub 2012 Dec 19. PMID: 23320039; PMCID: PMC3541024.
- Tholstrup T, Hjerpsted J, Raff M. Palm olein increases plasma cholesterol moderately compared with olive oil in healthy individuals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Dec;94(6):1426-32. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.018846. Epub 2011 Nov 9. PMID: 22071711.
- Bautista LE, Herrán OF, Serrano C. Effects of palm oil and dietary cholesterol on plasma lipoproteins: results from a dietary crossover trial in free-living subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2001 Sep;55(9):748-54. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601218. PMID: 11528488.
- Jaffary F, Faghihi G, Mokhtarian A, Hosseini SM. Effects of oral vitamin E on treatment of atopic dermatitis: A randomized controlled trial. J Res Med Sci. 2015 Nov;20(11):1053-7. doi: 10.4103/1735-1995.172815. PMID: 26941808; PMCID: PMC4755091.
- Keen MA, Hassan I. Vitamin E in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2016 Jul-Aug;7(4):311-5. doi: 10.4103/2229-5178.185494. PMID: 27559512; PMCID: PMC4976416.
- Beoy LA, Woei WJ, Hay YK. Effects of tocotrienol supplementation on hair growth in human volunteers. Trop Life Sci Res. 2010 Dec;21(2):91-9. PMID: 24575202; PMCID: PMC3819075.
- Dong S, Xia H, Wang F, Sun G. The Effect of Red Palm Oil on Vitamin A Deficiency: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2017 Nov 24;9(12):1281. doi: 10.3390/nu9121281. PMID: 29186779; PMCID: PMC5748732.
- Pham-Huy LA, He H, Pham-Huy C. Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health. Int J Biomed Sci. 2008 Jun;4(2):89-96. PMID: 23675073; PMCID: PMC3614697.
- Varatharajan R, Sattar MZ, Chung I, Abdulla MA, Kassim NM, Abdullah NA. Antioxidant and pro-oxidant effects of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) leaves extract in experimental diabetic nephropathy: a duration-dependent outcome. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Sep 29;13:242. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-13-242. PMID: 24074026; PMCID: PMC3829664.
- McLaren DS. Vitamin A deficiency disorders. J Indian Med Assoc. 1999 Aug;97(8):320-3. PMID: 10643184.
- Radhika MS, Bhaskaram P, Balakrishna N, Ramalakshmi BA. Red palm oil supplementation: a feasible diet-based approach to improve the vitamin A status of pregnant women and their infants. Food Nutr Bull. 2003 Jun;24(2):208-17. doi: 10.1177/156482650302400207. PMID: 12891825.
- Tan CH, Lee CJ, Tan SN, Poon DTS, Chong CYE, Pui LP. Red Palm Oil: A Review on Processing, Health Benefits and Its Application in Food. J Oleo Sci. 2021 Sep 4;70(9):1201-1210. doi: 10.5650/jos.ess21108. Epub 2021 Aug 6. PMID: 34373407.
- Ibrahim NF, Yanagisawa D, Durani LW, Hamezah HS, Damanhuri HA, Wan Ngah WZ, Tsuji M, Kiuchi Y, Ono K, Tooyama I. Tocotrienol-Rich Fraction Modulates Amyloid Pathology and Improves Cognitive Function in AβPP/PS1 Mice. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;55(2):597-612. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160685. PMID: 27716672; PMCID: PMC5147513.
- Ismail M, Alsalahi A, Imam MU, Ooi J, Khaza’ai H, Aljaberi MA, Shamsudin MN, Idrus Z. Safety and Neuroprotective Efficacy of Palm Oil and Tocotrienol-Rich Fraction from Palm Oil: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 18;12(2):521. doi: 10.3390/nu12020521. PMID: 32085610; PMCID: PMC7071496.
- Fattore E, Bosetti C, Brighenti F, Agostoni C, Fattore G. Palm oil and blood lipid-related markers of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary intervention trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun;99(6):1331-50. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.081190. Epub 2014 Apr 9. PMID: 24717342.
- Bucci P, Borrero M, Ruiz A, Pacetti D, Frega NG, Diez O, Ojeda M, Gagliardi R, Parra L, Angel M. Palm oil and cardiovascular disease: a randomized trial of the effects of hybrid palm oil supplementation on human plasma lipid patterns. Food Funct. 2016 Jan;7(1):347-54. doi: 10.1039/c5fo01083g. PMID: 26488229.
- Voon PT, Ng TK, Lee VK, Nesaretnam K. Virgin olive oil, palm olein and coconut oil diets do not raise cell adhesion molecules and thrombogenicity indices in healthy Malaysian adults. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;69(6):712-6. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2015.26. Epub 2015 Mar 25. PMID: 25804278.
- Ismail SR, Maarof SK, Siedar Ali S, Ali A. Systematic review of palm oil consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease. PLoS One. 2018 Feb 28;13(2):e0193533. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0193533. PMID: 29489910; PMCID: PMC5831100.
- Zhang J, Ping W, Chunrong W, Shou CX, Keyou G. Nonhypercholesterolemic effects of a palm oil diet in Chinese adults. J Nutr. 1997 Mar;127(3):509S-513S. doi: 10.1093/jn/127.3.509S. PMID: 9082037.
- Tomeo AC, Geller M, Watkins TR, Gapor A, Bierenbaum ML. Antioxidant effects of tocotrienols in patients with hyperlipidemia and carotid stenosis. Lipids. 1995 Dec;30(12):1179-83. doi: 10.1007/BF02536621. PMID: 8614310.