Palm Oil: A Fat-tastic Tropical Superfood

palm oil

Story at-a-glance -

  • Palm oil — also known as red palm oil — contains high amounts of saturated fat, vitamins, and antioxidants
  • Studies have found that unrefined palm oil plays a role in promoting your cardiovascular health

While most public health advisories recommend avoiding saturated fat due to its false association with heart disease, this type of fat is actually important to your overall health. This is why I've included high-quality saturated fat in my comprehensive nutrition plan.

Coconut oil is one of the best sources of saturated fat as well as other beneficial properties. I personally use it and have discussed it in detail in many of my articles. But today, I'm going to discuss another tropical oil that deserves attention due to its high concentrations of saturated fat and phenomenal nutrient profile: palm oil.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is extracted from two types of oil palm fruit: Elaeis guineensis, which is common in African regions, and Elaeis oleifera, whichis found in South America.1 Historical accounts suggest that palm oil was a part of the diet of indigenous populations. At present, it has become the second most traded oil crop in the world, after soy, with Malaysia and Indonesia as its main producers.2

Palm oil is not to be confused with palm kernel oil. Both are obtained from the fruit, but the latter is derived from the seeds of the oil palm. Palm kernel oil has a higher amount of saturated fat, which makes it ideal for cooking as well.3 If you see palm oil that's colorless (also known as white palm oil), it means that it has been processed. The lack of color means it has been stripped off most of its nutritional properties.

Uses of Palm Oil

Some of the uses of red palm oil include:

Cooking oil — Similar to coconut oil, palm oil is resistant to heat compared to other vegetable oils. Its stability also makes it easy to store at room temperature for many months.

Tasty ingredient — Palm oil is used as an ingredient in soups and sauces, or as flavoring in certain dishes.

Dietary supplement — Palm oil has a superior nutrient profile that makes it useful for supplementation.4

Personal care and household products — Palm oil is added to soaps and detergents, cosmetics, and other household products.5

Skin moisturizer — Due to its nutrient-dense profile, palm oil is beneficial for skin health. It is added to a number of skin care products.

"Sunblock" — With its high levels of carotenes, red palm oil provides protection as a commercial sunblock with SPF15, but without the dangerous components.6

Biofuel — Palm oil is fast becoming a resource for biodiesel and as a fuel in electrical stations.

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Composition of Palm Oil

Palm oil contains about 50 percent saturated fat (majority of which is oleic acid), 40 percent monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), and 10 percent polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFAs).7 Palm oil gets its reddish color from the carotenes beta-carotene and lycopene, the same nutrients that give color to carrots and tomatoes. Its carotene levels are 15 times higher than carrots and 300 times higher than tomatoes.

This is why palm oil is hailed as the best source of beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, both of which are precursors to vitamin A. Palm oil also contains 20 other carotenes, as well as the following nutrients:

  • Vitamin E, particularly tocotrienol
  • Vitamin K
  • CoQ10
  • Squalene
  • Phytosterols
  • Flavonoids
  • Phenolic acids
  • Glycolipids

Benefits of Palm Oil

In one study published in the British Journal of Biomedical Science, it was reported that despite the high levels of saturated fat in palm oil, the oil did not contribute to atherosclerosis and/or arterial thrombosis.8 Researchers suggested that this is due to the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats in the oil, as well as its rich nutrient profile.

The tocotrienols found in palm oil also help support the heart against stress, suggesting its protective properties against heart disease. Other cardiovascular benefits associated with palm oil consumption include:

  • Reduced free radical damage and inflammation
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Regulated cholesterol levels
  • Reduced blood pressure

Studies suggest that palm oil's antioxidant properties help prevent various types of cancers. According to findings, tocotrienols exhibit their potent antioxidant properties and aid in inhibiting the development of skin, stomach, pancreas, lung, liver, breast, prostate, colon, and other cancers. Regular vitamin E cannot perform this.

Palm oil's antioxidant supply is also found to help prevent neurological degeneration by stopping free radicals that damage brain and nerve tissues, and promoting circulation, which increases your protection against diseases like dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other mental conditions.

Additional evidence also states that palm oil can help strengthen immune function and promote bone, eye, oral, lung, skin, and liver health. As a fat-rich oil, palm oil helps provide energy and enhance the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, and E.

How to Make Palm Oil

In small and large operations, the four main steps followed in order to create palm oil are:

  • Separation of the fruit from its bunch (Palm fruits grow in clusters)
  • Softening of the fruit flesh
  • Extraction of the oil from the fruit
  • Oil purification

Unfortunately, the quality of palm oil is altered and compromised during the purification process. Some manufacturers use refining processes that turns the oil white — meaning the oil is stripped of most of its nutritional properties.

How Does Palm Oil Work?

Palm oil is first and foremost an edible oil. I suggest using unrefined red palm oil to ensure that you experience its nutritional benefits. However, it has a strong taste, which some people do not find to their liking. Applying palm oil directly to your skin is also beneficial. Injuries like bruises, sunburn, and cuts also heal faster when palm oil is applied.

Is Palm Oil Safe?

While the health community is celebrating palm oil as a superfood, many environmentalists rally against it. Due to the increase in demand, rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia are cut down and are replaced with African oil palm plantations. Palm oil production has become associated with deforestation and has endangered wildlife like orangutans, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, and certain species of birds.9

To counter the damage to the environment, nonprofit environmental groups and palm oil manufacturers gathered in 2004 and established the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a global certification body.10 They have created eight ecological principles with 39 criteria11 to prevent the negative environmental impacts of palm oil production. Manufacturers must follow all of these criteria to be eligible for certification.

Side Effects of Palm Oil

Consumption of red palm oil is safe, even in large amounts. It does not have any side effect similar to those induced by drugs. Because of palm oil's composition, it metabolizes more effectively with food, so there is less risk of having abdominal discomfort or bowel problems.

One minor caveat, however, is when you consume large amounts of the oil, a yellowing of your skin may occur. This is due to the high levels of carotenes in the oil. On the bright side, this slight change means that your protection against harmful UV rays is enhanced.

Topical application of red palm oil can cause also your skin to turn yellowish-orange. Although this can be removed by washing, palm oil stains on clothes is more challenging to wash off. One solution would be to apply palm kernel oil, which is found to be absorbed more effectively by the skin than palm oil.