Palm oil is found almost everywhere. Unless you strictly avoid it, chances are you’ve likely eaten something that contains palm oil or used a product with it. In this article, you’ll learn what palm oil is, how it impacts human health, its environmental impact, and considerations for including it in your diet....READ THE FULL ARTICLE FROM THE SOURCE

What is Palm Oil?

As the name implies, palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm. It is native to West and Central Africa, where the exact species cultivated there is Elaeis guineensi, and it has been for over 7,000 years.

Other oil palm species are cultivated worldwide, mostly in Southeast Asia. You can find palm oil in most international markets, in jars or bottles, usually in its red variety.

The oil from the palm plant is deep red-orange and has a distinct taste and smell. This minimally processed product may be labeled as unrefined palm oil or red palm oil.

It can be further processed into a colorless, odorless product and labeled as refined palm oil. Because refined palm oil also has a longer shelf life and higher smoke point than its unrefined counterpart, it can be used in a variety of ways.

Uses

Palm oil is used primarily in culinary applications. In the African Heritage Diet, unrefined palm oil is found in many kitchens and is a commonly used cooking oil.

In most of the world, including the U.S., refined palm oil is widely used, largely due to its attributes as a semi-solid fat at room temperature and a high smoke point oil. These attributes make it ideal for the production of mostly processed, shelf-stable foods, including:

Cookies and baked goods

Nut butters

Chocolates

Margarines and shortenings

Cereals

Fried foods

Other uses of palm oil include:

Soaps

Toothpaste

Lipstick, makeup, and other cosmetics

Animal feed

Biodiesel

Nutrition Facts of Palm Oil

Oils, including palm oil, are 100% fat, with a tablespoon yielding around 120 calories. Half of its fatty acids are saturated, with the other half being a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Due to the saturated fat content, palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature.

Nutrient-wise, palm oil is high in carotenoids, a family of potent antioxidants that also gives palm oil its characteristic red-orang It is also a good source of vitamin E, another compound with antioxidant properties.

Antioxidants work to neutralize free radicals, compounds that can damage your DNA and cells, potentially leading to chronic diseases like cancer and atherosclerosis (the hardening of the arteries).

One tablespoon of unrefined red palm oil provides:

Calories: 130

Total Carbohydrates: 0 g

Dietary Fiber: 0 g

Total Sugars: 0 g

Protein: 0 g

Total Fat: 14 g

Saturated Fat: 6 g

Monounsaturated Fat: 6 g

Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.5 g

Potential Benefits

In general, dietary fats are essential in helping deliver fat-soluble vitamins and micronutrients throughout the body and contribute to forming active compounds such as hormones (like testosterone and estrogen). Other benefits include:

Good Source of Vitamin A

The beta carotene found in unrefined (red) palm oil is converted to vitamin A in the body and has several antioxidant properties. According to Cordialis Msora-Kasago, M.A., RD, a registered dietitian with Maitano Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine, this is important, especially for those with low vitamin A diets.

“With many African heritage diets lacking a variety of foods rich in vitamin A, palm oil is an important source and may consequently prevent blindness, strengthen the immune system and decrease the risk of pregnancy-related complications,” says Msora-Kasago.

Cardioprotective and Neuroprotective Effects

Palm oil contains tocotrienol (T3), a form of vitamin E that is a highly potent antioxidant. Research has shown that T3 confers protective effects in most of the body, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, stomach and bones. Also, T3 may help reduce LDL cholesterol (known as “bad” levels by up to 38%.

“Palm oil, particularly the red, unrefined variety, is a great source of vitamin E,” says Gregory Lafortune, M.S., RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Optimal Plan Nutrition.

“Because these powerful compounds may lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and reduce one’s risk for cognitive decline, incorporating unrefined palm oil can be a great addition to a healthy diet in spite of any common negative associations.”

Possible Downsides

Despite palm oil’s potential benefits, it may have some downsides due to its saturated fat content. Excessive intake of saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), as it elevates the LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL cholesterol (known as “good”).

However, a literature review on palm oil and health found no solid evidence linking palm oil use with cardiovascular disease. In fact, one of the studies reviewed suggested that excessive consumption of other dietary sources of saturated fats like red meat and dairy, along with lack of physical activity and other lifestyle factors, plays a larger role in contributing to CVD than consuming palm oil.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting their saturated fat consumption to 10% of their total daily calories. So, if you consume 2,000 calories, that would be 200 calories (or 22 grams) of saturated fat per day.

This means that palm oil can be safely consumed as part of a well-balanced diet. Just because palm oil contains saturated fat doesn’t mean it must be avoided entirely. “No food is the sum of a single ingredient,” says Msora-Kasago

Environmental Impact of Palm Oil Production

Palm oil frequently receives attention not just for its nutrition but also for its impacts on the environment. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where nearly 90% of commercially used palm oil is harvested, unsustainable palm oil production has destroyed forests, habitats and the wildlife within them.

While these effects certainly negatively impact the planet, destroying these ecosystems also hurts the people who rely on them as sources of traditional foods, medicinal herbs, and even potable water.

That said, do keep in mind that not all palm oil plantations are owned and operated by large corporations. Many small farmers and growers cultivate oil palm in a way that is sustainable, minimizes environmental impact, and adheres to fair labor practices.

Products with certifications from organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) assist consumers in making the best choice possible.

The Bottom Line

Palm oil has a variety of uses globally, both culinary and non-culinary. Despite its concerning saturated fat content, palm oil has a number of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that support human health, especially when enjoyed as part of a traditional African Heritage Diet.

Pay attention to where the oil you consume comes from and how it’s grown, and if possible, make an effort to use palm oils that have been sustainably sourced. Msora-Kasago reminds us that all palm oils are not equal and to select minimally processed, unrefined palm oil whenever possible.

“Palm oil in a stew of leafy greens, lean protein, tomatoes and aromatics such as kontomire stew is not the same as a palm oil that is used in cookies, cakes, and other foods.…READ THE FULL CONTENTS>>


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