Palm oil has been used for centuries in food preparation, particularly in the tropics where palms grow naturally. The oil, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, enjoys widespread popularity in processed foods because it is free of artery-clogging trans fats and rich in natural antioxidants, including vitamins A and E. However, like many natural substances, palm oil does have its drawbacks, some of which might pose serious health risks.
High in Saturated Fats
While palm oil has no trans fats, it does contain high levels of saturated fats, which can be a significant threat to cardiovascular health. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that palm oil is second only to soybean oil in terms of worldwide popularity as a food oil. The use of palm oil in processed foods, its most widespread application in the United States, jumped sharply after government authorities took aggressive steps to reduce the trans fat content in processed foods.
In a 2005 report entitled “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest concedes that palm oil is less harmful than partially hydrogenated soybean oil, but it points out that it “is still considerably less healthful than other vegetable oils.” In support of its warnings about the dangers of palm oil, the center cites two meta-analyses that show that palm oil raises blood cholesterol levels. A 1997 British analysis evaluated 147 human trials and concluded that palmitic acid, an active ingredient in palm oil, raised total blood cholesterol levels. A Dutch analysis, released in 2003, weighed data from 35 clinical studies and found that palmitic acid significantly increased the ratio of total cholesterol to so-called “good cholesterol,” a widely recognized risk factor for heart disease.
Difficult to Digest
In “Cooking for Healthy Healing,” author Linda Page, Ph.D., a naturopathic practitioner, acknowledges some of the health benefits of palm oil but notes that it is very difficult to get palm oil that hasn’t been heavily refined. The refining process depletes many of the nutrients that occur naturally in the oil and also makes the oil much more difficult to digest. For these reasons, Page recommends that palm oil be avoided.
Can Cause Toxicity
In a study published in a 1999 issue of "Plant Foods for Human Nutrition," three Nigerian biochemistry researchers extol some of the nutrients found in fresh palm oil, but point out that the oil in an oxidized state can threaten physiological and biochemical functions of the body. They acknowledge that manufacturers of processed foods oxidize palm oil in their products for a variety of culinary purposes, meaning that much of the palm oil consumers eat is in an oxidized state. The dangers of oxidized palm oil include organotoxicity of the heart, kidney, liver and lungs, as well as reproductive toxicity, the researchers claim. Additionally, they note, oxidized palm oil can cause an increase in free fatty acids, phospholipids and cerebrosides.