Is it good for you?
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil made from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). This oil accounts for 35% of world’s vegetable oil production and is widely adopted as a cooking oil in Asian countries. About 50% of all supermarket products list palm oil among their ingredients. These include biscuits, chocolates, ice-creams, breads, crackers and sausages. Besides foods, this oil is also found in household products, such as detergent, toothpaste, shampoo, lipstick and cosmetics.
Types of palm oil
Palm oil can be classified into several types:
Palm oil is extracted from the palm fruit. It contains around 50% saturated fatty acids and moderately high monounsaturated fatty acids. This oil can be categorised into cold-pressed and refined oil, with the latter being more commonly available on supermarket shelves.
- Cold-pressed palm oil
Also known as crude palm oil and is mildly processed. Hence, it is red in colour due to its abundant carotene content. It also retains most of the nutritional components including vitamin E. This oil is resistant to rancidity and its smoke point ranges from 150°C (300°F) to 235°C (450°F).
- Refined palm oil
It is bland, odourless and light yellow in colour. To produce this oil, red crude palm oil is refined, bleached and deodorised. Refining palm oil reduces or eliminates the beneficial substances originally present in the crude palm oil. meaning it has lower nutrients content than its cold-pressed counterpart. This oil has a high smoke point of around 235°C (450°F).
Palm kernel oil
This is extracted from palm seed. This oil is closer in composition to coconut oil than palm oil. It contains around 80% saturated fatty acids and little monounsaturated fatty acids. Palm kernel oil often undergoes harsher chemical processing than palm oil.
Besides coconut oil, palm kernel oil is also a rich food source for commercial extraction of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), accounting for almost 34% of MCT oil production. MCT oil is claimed to have numerous health benefits, including weight loss, improved brain power and enhanced athletic performance. Besides MCTs, palm kernel oil is also used for non-edible purposes, such as manufacturing soaps, cosmetics and detergents.
Fractionated palm kernel oil
This oil is made by partially crystallising and separating palm oil into high and low melting fractions. High melting fraction is used in the formulation of margarine, shortening, confectionery and vegetable ghee, etc, while low melting fraction is used in the formulation of instant noodles and fried food products etc.
Among the health benefits of cold-pressed (red) palm oil are:
- Protect brain function
Palm oil derived from Elaeis guineensis represents the richest source of the vitamin E tocotrienols. Several studies suggest that tocotrienols slow progression of dementia, improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of stroke and suppress the growth of brain lesions1,2,3.
- Support healthy cholesterol levels
Several studies demonstrated that palm oil could help decrease total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol in individuals with high cholesterol4,5,6 levels. Compared to those who consumed diets high in trans fats or myristic and lauric acids (saturated fatty acids), those with palm oil-rich diets have remarkably lower total and LDL cholesterol7.
- Support heart health
A study showed that 7 of 25 people with heart disease were given palm oil and showed improvement while 16 remained in stable condition. On the other hand, those from placebo group did not show improvement and yet, 10 of 25 people from this group showed disease progression. These results suggest that palm oil may help slow progression of heart disease8.
- Improve vitamin A levels
Red palm oil is a rich source of bioavailable vitamin A. Pregnant women who consume red palm oil could benefit the vitamin A status of their infants. Maternal diet containing red palm oil increased provitamin A carotenoids in breastmilk and serum of the mother and infant9,10. Besides pregnant women, red palm oil also improved vitamin A status of young children11, adults12 and people with cystic fibrosis13.
- Refined palm oil may pose health risk
Refined palm oil may contain chemical 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD), which is a food processing contaminant found in some processed foods and vegetable oils, mainly palm oil. 3-MCPD is suspected to be carcinogenic, and could pose risk to the kidneys and the male reproductive system. This harmful substance is a by-product of the oil refining processes. In addition, the refining process also removes or destroys carotene content (which has wide range of benefits), to derive a light yellow and stable refined oil.
- Unhealthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6
Palm oil contains higher amount of omega-6s than omega-3s, with an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1 : 9. Excessive consumption of omega-6s triggers the body to produce pro-inflammatory compounds, which may increase the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and obesity.
- Lack of omega-3 fatty acids
As palm oil contains only approximately 1% of omega-3s, it is not a good source of this essential fatty acids. The diet of modern lifestyles does not contain enough omega-3s which is incredibly important to the body and brain. Symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include rough or dry skin, brittle hair and dandruff, difficulty paying attention and mood swings. If you are concerned about omega-3 deficiency, you should eat foods that are rich in omega-3s, such as fatty fish, flaxseed, chia seeds and others. Another option will be replacing palm oil with other oils naturally high in omega-3s such as camelina oil or flaxseed oil.
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