Palm oil and palm kernel oil are two different, edible vegetable oils that contain saturated fat and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). They are both very versatile — and therefore very popular. "[Palm oil is] in close to 50 percent of the packaged products we find in supermarkets," explains the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
But what are the benefits and bad health side effects of palm oil on the human body? To be more blunt: Does palm oil make you fat? Keep reading to learn more about how the MCTs and saturated fat in palm oil might affect your health and your cholesterol levels.
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What Is Palm Oil?
As the WWF points out, palm oil and palm kernel oil are both made from the fruit of a specific kind of palm tree called the oil palm, which grows in tropical climates such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Palm oil is made from the flesh of the fruit, while palm kernel oil is made from the seed kernel of the fruit. Both vegetable oils are widely used in cooking and food production. "[Palm oil] is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable," notes the WWF. "It is resistant to oxidation so can give products a longer shelf-life; it's stable at high temperatures so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; and it's also odorless and colorless so doesn't alter the look or smell of food products."
Palm Oil and Health
Palm oil and palm kernel oil are high in calories. They also contain fat in the form of MCTs.
Saturated Fat and Palm Oil
All of the calories in palm and palm kernel oil come from fat. In fact, a 1-tablespoon serving of palm kernel oil provides 117 calories and about 13.6 grams of fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
About 50 percent of the fat in palm oil is saturated fat, a type of fat that can "cause problems with your cholesterol levels" and "increase your risk of heart disease," according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Palm kernel oil, by contrast, is more than 85 percent saturated.
While neither palm nor palm kernel oil contain any dietary cholesterol, a diet high in saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease as it encourages the buildup of plaque in your arterial walls.
Each tablespoon of palm oil contains slightly more than half the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat as outlined by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. If you're regularly consuming palm and/or palm kernel oil in addition to other saturated fat sources — such as dairy, meat and processed foods — you might quickly exceed your daily limit.
The USDA recommends consuming no more than 5 to 7 teaspoons of total oil per day, including oils that occur naturally in foods such as nuts and seeds. The AHA, meanwhile, recommends that no more than 25 to 35 percent of your daily calorie intake comes from fats -- including all cooking oils, fats found in natural and manufactured food, and solid fats and spreads such as butter and margarine.
Cholesterol and Palm Oil
A diet high in saturated fat, such as that found in palm and palm kernel oil, increases LDL cholesterol, which can have negative health effects. "Saturated fat boosts 'bad' LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are risk factors for heart disease," observes Harvard Health Publishing.
Weight Gain and Palm Oil
"Palmitic acid is a saturated fatty acid whose blood concentration is elevated in obese patients," explains an overview published in July 2019 by the journal Inflammation Research (IR). "This causes inflammatory responses ... which are an important factor in the development of diseases associated with obesity, for instance, insulin resistance."
Palmitic acid can also lead to insulin resistance indirectly by initiating inflammatory responses in white blood cells called macrophages, researchers note. Insulin resistance, in turn, can lead to diabetes.
MCTs and Palm Oil
Palm and palm kernel oil are both sources of MCTs. "As the name suggests, MCTs are made up of medium-length chains of dietary fat," notes a September 28, 2022, article in the Cleveland Clinic.
Since they're shorter than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), MCTs are digested differently: Your circulatory system transports them directly to your liver, where they're converted into energy you can use.
Energy is good, observes the Clinic. "But if your triglyceride and cholesterol levels are high, that can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and pancreatitis, which is obviously bad," they conclude.
Verdict: While moderate use of palm oil can be safe for most, regularly consuming it could significantly raise your cholesterol levels and your calorie and saturated fat intake. If you currently have — or are at risk of having — diabetes, high cholesterol or concerns about your weight, other vegetable oils may be a healthier choice for you.
"Olive oil is a great choice due to its high levels of good monounsaturated fats, antioxidant polyphenols, low amount of saturated fat and vitamins like E and K," suggests a November 21, 2022, piece in The Washington Post. "Studies have shown that consuming olive oil can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer and death from all causes. Two other oils for good health are canola oil and soybean oil... Both have ample amounts of polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 and omega-6."
- World Wildlife Fund: "8 Things to Know About Palm Oil"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "FoodData Central - Vegetable Oil, Palm Kernel"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Cut Down on Saturated Fats"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "By the Way, Doctor - Is Palm Oil Good for You?"
- National Library of Medicine: "Palmitic Acid"
- Inflammation Research: "The Effect of Palmitic Acid on Inflammatory Response in Macrophages"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is MCT Oil Worth the Hype?"
- Washington Post: "Which Cooking Oils Are the Healthiest?"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Comparison of Effects of Lauric Acid and Palmitic Acid on Plasma Lipids and Lipoproteins