Nutrition: Palm Oil and Health

The Importance of Fat in the Diet

Fats is an integral macronutrient that is a necessary part of the human diet. Fat is responsible for regulating many bodily processes, including brain and heart function, vitamin absorption, and hair and skin health (among many other functions), and is required for a healthy life. The fats the body obtains from food provide essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid. They are called “essential” because the body cannot make them itself, or work without them.

There are many different types of dietary fat, some forms better for health than others. All fats are made up of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Fats are called saturated or unsaturated depending on how much of each type of fatty acid they contain. Optimal health depends on a balanced intake of “good” fats, which primarily come from plant sources, and limited amount of “bad” fats, which primarily come from animal sources or hydrogenated oils.

As carbohydrates are the main source of fuel in the body, the body turns to fat as a backup energy source when carbohydrates are not available. Fat is a concentrated source of energy. One gram of fat has 9 calories, which is more than double the number of calories from carbohydrates and protein. Because fat is high in calories, limited daily intake is recommended, with the Mayo Clinic recommending a diet that garners 20 to 35 percent calories from fat. Based on an 1,800-calorie diet, this recommendation amounts to 40 to 70 daily grams of fat.


Omega-3 vs. Omega-6

Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids contain essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are important for good health. Our body does not produce these fats, which means we have to intake them with food.

The important point in taking omega-3 and omega-6 fats is to keep them in balance.

Both are polyunsaturated fatty acids that differ from each other in their chemical structure. Since omega-6 fatty acids are more inflammatory than those of omega−3, a diet that contains excessive amounts of omega-6 but low in omega-3 fatty acids (hence a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio) may cause more pro-inflammatory compounds being produced in the body.

In contrary, sources of omega-6 fatty acids are numerous in modern diets. They are found in seeds and nuts, and the oils extracted from them. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil, are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers. Nowadays, with the popularity of fast food, there is an overconsumption of omega-6.

Our modern diet tends to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids while being loaded with excessive omega-6 fats due to the prevalent use of PUFA-rich vegetable oils. Omega-3 ratio is sourced mainly from the cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish, or from plant sources that are high Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA), one of the essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids: flax, hemp and walnut are rich in ALA.

Our body needs fats for proper hormone function. Hormones derived from the two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Omega-6 fatty acids may increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids decrease those risks. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health.

As research suggests, “a lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids are more desirable in reducing the risk of many of the chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies, as well as in the developing countries, that are being exported to the rest of the world.” (A.P Simopoulos)

Smoke point

For sautéing and frying, it is better to use oil with a higher smoking point. Otherwise, oil will start to smoke in the pan, which means that the oil has been damaged and potentially cancer-causing properties have formed.

The following table compares the fats that are comprised in each type of oil, and its smoke point

Our body needs fats for proper hormone function. Hormones derived from the two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Omega-6 fatty acids may increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids decrease those risks. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health.

Oil Processing

Pressed vs. chemically extracted

Some oils are extracted using toxic chemical solvents such as hexane to pull out more oil from the crops. Traces of chemical residue are left in the oil, therefore, it is recommended to not consume chemically processed oil, to prevent excess intake of chemicals used in processing. Instead, it is recommended to seek out expeller, mechanical or cold pressed, the extraction method is mechanical, not using chemicals. C02 pressing is a relatively new method of pressing oils using carbon dioxide in a special environment, but this process is quite expensive and is used almost exclusively to press exotic seeds to extract the oil for nutritional supplements or cosmetics.


Hydrogenation is the process, when fatty acids have been converted chemically to a different form, causing oil to change its chemical structure. Changed chemical structure may cause an effect on human health and energy levels, which do not have a place in the modern healthy diet. As a result of this procedure, oil becomes more shelf stable, do not quickly go rancid and a higher melting point. For those reasons, hydrogenated oil is often used in frying and pastries. If you see on the label, “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil that means it also contains trans fats.


There are certain oils that are mainly produced from genetically modified crops. For example, soy, corn, canola and cotton are the most common genetically modified organism (GMO) crops and it is better to avoid them. Check for such labels as Non-GMO Project or Certified Organic on the package to avoid oils produced from genetically modified seeds.

Organic Oil

The difference between organic oils and conventional oils is in the farming and processing practices employed. Conventional oilseeds may have been grown using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Conventional oil processing may be extracted with chemicals and refined using non-natural processing aids. It is better to stick to organic where the oilseeds are grown and harvested without the use of chemicals, the oil is extracted using mechanical methods, and the refining of the oil is done with go GMO’s or non-natural processing aids.

Freshness Tips

As with any product, oil can have a shelf-life. It can go rancid, which is a sign that the fatty acids have oxidized. Check for date of harvest or the best before date.

Here is the quick checklist how to store your oil:

  • Keep it in the dark
  • Keep oil cool (some oils are even better-off in the fridge or basement)
  • Watch the best by date
  • Keep lid tight

Saturated Fat

There is a long-standing perception that saturated fat is harmful to health, however, recent research shows that is not necessarily the case. Instead of categorizing all saturated fat into one category, the source of saturated fat can vary greatly, the chain length of the fatty acids can vary, and the impact on the body can vary.

All fats are composed of molecules called fatty acids, which are chains of carbon atoms. The different types of saturated fatty acids can be distinguished by the length of their carbon chains.

All fats are mixtures of saturated and unsaturated (poly- and monounsaturated) fatty acids. Though most of the fatty acids in tropical oils are saturated, not all saturated fats are harmful. In some studies, palm oil’s main fatty acid, palmitic acid, had no effect on cholesterol. Palm oil also contains a fair amount of monounsaturated fats.

Just because a food is high in saturated fat doesn’t necessarily mean it increases blood cholesterol or contributes to heart disease. The effect of saturated fat varies from person to person, depending on genetics, weight, other dietary and lifestyle factors, and even gender. In addition, tropical oils contain other substances that can affect the risk of heart disease—and how the oils are processed may matter, too. What’s key is your overall diet. Adding tropical oils in the context of a healthy diet is unlikely to affect blood cholesterol significantly.

After decades of bashing saturated fat, a 2010 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition brought light to the medical community that saturated fat is not as evil as previously thought. In a research analysis, scientists discovered that there wasn’t enough proof to link saturated fat to either heart disease or stroke.

Animal vs. Plant-Based Saturated Fat

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Decades of sound science has proven it can raise your “bad” cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.

Apart from dairy and meat sources, palm and coconut oil are significant contributors of saturated fat to the diet. Predominantly used in the East, these oils, particularly coconut oil, are now gaining more attention in the Western world, in part due to the medium-chain triglyceride content which has been shown to exert positive metabolic effects. According to BMJ Study there is no clear association between higher intake of saturated fats and all cause mortality, CHD, CHD mortality, ischemic stroke, or type 2 diabetes among apparently healthy adults. Consumption of trans unsaturated fatty acids, however, was associated with a 34% increase in all cause mortality, a 28% increased risk of CHD mortality, and a 21% increase in the risk of CHD. Further, these data suggest that industrial trans fats confer a 30% increase in the risk of CHD events and an 18% increase in the risk of CHD mortality.

Why Palm Oil

For generations, red palm oil has been revered as both a nutritious food and a valuable medicine. It was prized by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt as a sacred food. The oil was so highly valued that it was entombed with the pharaohs so that they would have access to it in the afterlife. (Bruce Fife, author of The Palm Oil Miracle).

Red palm oil is the fresh oil that is obtained before refining. It contains a vast number of nutritional elements, such as of vitamins, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients important for good health. Red palm oil is characterized by its intense beautiful reddish color. The color comes from carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene—the same nutrients that give tomatoes and carrots and other fruits and vegetables their rich red and orange colors. (Bruce Fife, author of The Palm Oil Miracle)

Palm Oil is a rich source of healthy fatty acids and Red Palm Oil is the most concentrated source of anti-oxidants of any vegetable oil. There are studies, which show that carotenes and tocotrienols may help to reduce LDL cholesterol, protect against heart attacks and even combat some types of cancers.

Palm Oil and Red Palm Oil have a high melting point, which makes them suitable for cooking with high temperatures, for frying and baking. Furthermore, palm oil is good in salad dressings as well.

Most oils become rancid from exposure to heat, light, and oxygen. Red palm oil is naturally protected by its high levels of vitamin E antioxidants, and has a natural resistance to oxidation and rancidity. It can be safely used for cooking and baking at high temperatures.

Red Palm Oil Nutrition

Red palm oil is a wonderfully nutritious food, full of antioxidants and good fats that can provide protective properties to the human body. Red palm oil is minimally processed, plant-based oil that naturally contains tocopherols and tocotrienols (vitamin E), and carotenoids (vitamin A)—which gives the oil its red color. It comes from the fruit of the tropical palm tree Elaeis guineensis, and has been used as a nutritious source of oil for thousands of years in Asia and Africa.

According to a Smart Publications research report, “red palm oil has a higher bioavailability of antioxidant nutrients (proportion of nutrients that are usable by the body) than other vegetable sources and is a particularly important dietary oil for people who are not taking an excellent vitamin E supplement, with tocopherols and tocotrienols, and full-spectrum carotenoid nutritional supplement. It is considered the richest natural source of carotenoids with concentrations of 700- 1000 ppm. That’s 30 times more than is contained in carrots!”

The same research report also informs that “carotenoids are most stable and best absorbed in the presence of fat, which acts as the carrier. In addition to the beta-carotene, which accounts for 55% of the carotenoids in red palm oil, it contains several other carotenoids which have properties different from their pro-vitamin A activity. Alpha-carotene (35%), lycopene, phytoene, and zeta-carotenes are the other major constituent carotenoids in red palm oil. All of these carotenoids have shown impressive anti-cancer properties, and unlike synthetic beta-carotene supplements, red palm oil contains a natural mix of many carotenoids.”

When it comes to the Vitamin E contained in red palm oil, research shows that Vitamin E can help reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, raise “good” HDL cholesterol, reduce risk of heart attack, rev up the immune system, fight cancer, and lower the risk of developing cataracts. Additionally, the antioxidants contained in red palm oil offer many benefits to skin and hair health, helping to protect skin cells from UV radiation and toxins.

Red palm oil is not hydrogenated, not processed with toxic solvents such as hexane, and contains no trans- fatty acids.

Palm Oil Applications

Palm oil has had a long history of food use, dating back to over 5,000 years. It has been used for generations by the people of tropical Africa, Asia, India and South/Central America as an essential ingredient in ethnic dishes. Today, palm oil is a versatile fat that can be used in many different ways in food and personal care applications.

Food Applications

  1. In stews with spinach, cassava or sweet potato leaf. A bit of peanut butter may be added to thicken the stew and blend the taste. For example, okra stew (okra, palm oil, lots of onions, meat, fish or both), palm oil stew (meat, onions, tomatoes, tomato paste, whole pepper, salt and palm oil.) About ½ cup of organic red palm oil for a large stew.
  2. You can use palm oil as an addition to flavor butter or coconut oil.
  3. Popcorn.
  4. Goes nicely with omelets and scrambled eggs.
  5. With stir-fried lamb, onion, garlic, and carrots on the low heat.
  6. As a food-based vitamin E/carotene supplement.
  7. With spicy or strong flavored ingredients, such as ginger, chili, garlic, lime, turmeric or coriander leaf.
  8. With plantains: Mince ginger, a clove or two of garlic, some dried chili or cayenne, and some lemon juice and salt. Toss it through chunks of raw plantain. Let it stand for a while, so plantain would absorb the flavors. Then fry the plantain in red palm oil.
  9. Baked goods
  10. With seafood
  11. Red palm oil comes natively from Africa. So, it is added in a variety of dishes.

These African resources provide tasty recipes:


No, palm oil is naturally free of trans fats. It is a healthier alternative to partially hydrogenated oils, which contain harmful trans fats.

Some studies suggest that palm oil, when consumed as part of a balanced diet, can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. However, more research is needed in this area.

When consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, palm oil is not associated with negative health effects. Like any oil, it should be consumed in moderation.

Palm oil can be used in cooking and baking. It adds a rich, buttery flavor to dishes. It can also be used in salad dressings or as a spread.

Yes, palm oil is a healthy oil. It contains a balanced amount of saturated and unsaturated fats, along with antioxidants like tocotrienols and tocopherols, which can have positive effects on health.

Yes, sustainable palm oil is produced in a way that protects the environment, wildlife, and local communities. Look for certifications like RSPO to ensure the palm oil is sustainable.

Why You Should Get Involved
with Palm Done Right

Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:

  • Our planet, due to palm oil’s land efficiency.
  • Local communities, due to the economic development oil palm production creates.
  • Our market, due to palm oil’s versatility and functionality as an ingredient, lifting product quality and performance.

Together, we can influence change for:

  • Manufacturers that are still using conflict palm oil for their products.
  • Retailers that are still listing products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Brokers and distributors that are still supplying their customers with products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Shoppers that have the power to vote with their dollar.

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