Palm oil is the most widely-produced vegetable oil in the world. Which means, most of the packaged products currently shelved at general stores all over the world contain a derivative of palm oil, including cooking oil, biscuits, and cosmetics. Now comes the hard question: is palm oil bad for you?
Over many years, palm oil often took the center stage when it comes to environmental debate. Organizations like Greenpeace and The Forest Trust have been attacking palm oil players, from upstream to downstream, accusing them of destroying the world’s forest. At some point, they ran a campaign on Nestlé, implying that eating KitKat is the same as eating the thumb of a dead orangutan.
On the other side of this story, palm oil has been a key driver for the local development in many tropical remote areas. Collaborative efforts by the government, the private sector, and local population have been able to use proceeds from palm oil business to build infrastructure, provide free healthcare, and ensure children receive proper education.
With the two sides going down heavily on large issues like economy and environmental protection, issues that are closer to home such as nutritional benefits are often left out of the discussion. Palm oil has been around for thousands of years and now consumed by people all around the world. Nutritional benefits surely have an important role.
Mukherjee and Mitra (2009) stated that crude palm oil is probably the richest natural source of carotenoids (used by human body as vitamin A), at about 15 times more than carrots. Carotenoids has an important role by acting as antioxidants, protecting cells and tissues from the damaging effect of free radicals as well as improving cardiovascular health.
According to Haryadi (2010) red pam oil and crude palm oil has the most retinol-equivalent vitamin A, at 5,000 mg and 6,700 mg per 100 grams respectively. This numbers are way beyond orange (21), banana (50), tomato (130), and carrot (400).
Besides carotenoids, palm oil also contains the most Vitamin E among other vegetable oils. It has all apha, beta, gamma, and delta of tocopherols (20%) and tocotrienols (80%) (Man and Haryati, 1997). Especially on trocotrienols, the substance has been attributed to strong antioxidant properties, healthier brain and heart, as well as annihilation of cancer cell (Ebong et. al., 1995).
According to Slover (1971) and Gunstone (1986), palm oil has 1,172 ppm of vitamin E. More than other vegetable oils such as soybean (958), corn (782), and sunflower (546).
As one of three macronutrients, people need fat in their dietary intake. In an article on healthline.com by Franziska Spritzler, one tablespoon (14 grams) of palm oil contains 14 grams of fat. Mukherjee and Mitra (2009) stated that the palm oil and palm kernel oil are high in saturated fatty acids, about 50% and 80% respectively and are esterified by glycerol.
Oil palm produces this much-needed nutrient very efficiently, as oil palm takes only 1/10 land of what is usually needed for other kind of oil-producing plants (e.g. soybean, rapeseed, sunflower, etc.) to produce the same amount of oil. In developing countries, vegetable oils are replacing animal fats because of the cost and health concerns and palm oil has become one of the major edible oils in the world (Chandrasekharan, 1999).
Popular literatures, however, attributed increased risk of coronary heart disease to elevated levels of serum cholesterol (which may be caused by fat-containing palm oil). Despite that, a growing scientific evidence indicates that palm oil’s effect on blood cholesterol is relatively neutral when compared to other fats and oils.
Additionally, palm oil stimulates the synthesis of protective HDL cholesterol and removal of harmful LDL cholesterol, which may contribute to decreased risk of coronary heart disease. It is reassuring to know that the consumption of palm oil as a source of dietary fat does not pose any additional risks for coronary artery disease when consumed in realistic amounts as part of a healthy diet (Pedersen et al. 1999).
McNamara (2010) argues that the notion that tropical oil’s fat, especially palm oil’s, is bad for health might had been insinuated in America in the 1980s by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Omaha industrialist Philip Sokolof. Together, they launched an aggressive anti-saturated fat campagin in the media, pushing American businesses to replace the tropical oil with high level of saturated fat with other vegetable oil.
Responding to this campaign, American businesses replaced tropical oils with America-made hydrogenated vegetable oils, which mostly based on America-produced soybean. This oil, albeit low on saturated fat, is high on trans-fat.
The companies who switched to trans-fat were soon back in hot water when it was found that trans-fat acids increase harmful LDL and decrease protective HDL, increasing risk of coronary heart disease. CSPI made a 180 degree turn and was among the first to demand the removal of trans-fat from food supply, filing lawsuits for the use of trans-fat-containing oils.