All around the world, palm oil consumption is increasing.
However, it is a highly controversial food.
On one hand, it’s reported to provide several health benefits.
On the other, it may pose risks to heart health. There are also
environmental concerns related to the steady increase in its
This article takes a detailed look at palm oil and its effects
on health, the environment and sustainability.
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms. Unrefined
palm oil is sometimes referred to as red palm oil because of
its reddish-orange color.
The main source of palm oil is the Elaeis guineensis
tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa. Its use in
this region dates back more than 5,000 years.
A similar oil palm known as Elais oleifera is found in
South America, but it’s rarely grown commercially. However, a
hybrid of the two plants is sometimes used in palm oil
In recent years, oil palm growth has expanded to Southeast
Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia. These two countries
currently produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil supply
coconut oil, palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature.
However, its melting point is 95°F (35°C), which is
considerably higher than 76°F (24°C) for coconut oil. This is
due to the different fatty acid compositions of the two oils.
Palm oil is one of the least expensive and most popular oils
worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil
It is important to note that palm oil should not be confused
with palm kernel oil.
While both originate from the same plant, palm kernel oil is
extracted from the seed of the fruit. It provides different
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Bottom Line: Palm oil comes from palm trees
native to Africa, where it has been consumed for thousands of
years. It is semi-solid at room temperature and differs from
palm kernel oil in nutritional composition.
How Is It Used?
Palm oil is used for cooking and is also added to many
ready-to-eat foods in your grocery store.
Its taste is considered savory and earthy.
Some people describe its flavor as being similar to carrot or
This oil is a staple in West African and tropical cuisines, and
it’s especially well suited for curries and other spicy dishes.
It is often used for sautéing or frying because it has a high
smoke point of 450°F (232°C) and remains stable under high heat
Palm oil is sometimes added to peanut
butter and other nut butters as a stabilizer to prevent the
oil from separating and settling at the top of the jar.
In addition to nut butters, palm oil can be found in several
other foods, including:
- Baked goods like bread, cookies and muffins
- Protein bars and diet bars
- Coffee creamers
In the 1980s, palm oil was replaced with trans fats in many
products due to concerns that consuming tropical oils might
jeopardize heart health. However, after studies revealed the
health risks of trans
fats, food manufacturers resumed using palm oil.
This oil is also found in many non-food products, such as
toothpaste, soap and cosmetics.
In addition, it can be used to produce biodiesel fuel, which
serves as an alternative energy source (3).
Bottom Line: Palm oil is used in cooking,
especially in West African cuisines and curries. It is also
found in certain foods, products and fuels.
Here is the nutritional content of one tablespoon (14 grams) of
palm oil (4):
- Calories: 114
- Fat: 14 grams
- Saturated fat: 7 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 5 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1.5 grams
- Vitamin E: 11% of the RDI
All of palm oil’s calories come from fat.
Its fatty acid breakdown is 50% saturated fatty acids, 40%
monounsaturated fatty acids and 10% polyunsaturated fatty
The main type of saturated
fat found in palm oil is palmitic acid, which contributes
44% of its calories. It also contains high amounts of oleic
acid and smaller amounts of linoleic acid and stearic acid.
Red palm oil’s reddish-orange pigment stems from antioxidants
known as carotenoids, including beta-carotene, which your body
can convert into vitamin A.
In fractionated palm oil, the liquid portion is removed by a
crystallizing and filtering process. The remaining solid
portion is higher in saturated fat and has a higher melting
Bottom Line: Palm oil is 100% fat, half of
which is saturated. It also contains vitamin E and red palm
oil contains antioxidants called carotenoids, which your body
can convert into vitamin A.
It May Have Health Benefits
Palm oil has been linked to several health benefits, including
protecting brain function, reducing heart disease risk factors
and improving vitamin A status.
Palm oil is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of
vitamin E with strong antioxidant
properties that may support brain health.
Animal and human studies suggest that the tocotrienols in palm
oil may help protect the delicate polyunsaturated fats in the
brain, slow dementia progression, reduce the risk of stroke and
prevent the growth of brain lesions (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
In a two-year study of 121 people with brain lesions, the group
who took palm oil-derived tocotrienols twice a day remained
stable, whereas the group who received a placebo experienced
lesion growth (10).
Palm oil has been credited with providing protection against
Although some study results have been mixed, this oil generally
appears to have beneficial effects on heart disease risk
factors, including lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol and
increasing “good” HDL
cholesterol (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18).
A large analysis of 51 studies found that total and LDL
cholesterol levels were lower in people who followed palm
oil-rich diets than those who consumed diets high in trans fats
or myristic and lauric acid (11).
A recent three-month study looked at the cholesterol-lowering
effects of palm oil made from a hybrid of Elaeis
guineensis and Elaeis oleifera trees.
In this study, people consumed either 25 ml (2 tablespoons) of
olive oil or a hybrid palm oil daily. Based on a 15% drop in
LDL cholesterol in both groups, researchers suggested this palm
oil could be called “the tropical equivalent of olive oil”
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that an increase or
decrease in LDL cholesterol levels alone cannot predict heart
disease risk. There are many other factors involved.
However, a controlled study in 1995 suggested that palm oil
might help slow disease progression in people with established
In this 18-month study, seven of 25 people treated with the oil
showed improvements and 16 remained stable. By contrast, 10 of
25 people in the placebo group experienced disease progression,
and none showed improvement (18).
Improved Vitamin A Status
Palm oil can help improve vitamin A status in people who are
deficient or at risk of deficiency.
One study found that people with cystic fibrosis, who have
difficulty absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, experienced an
increase in blood levels of vitamin A after taking two to three
tablespoons of red palm oil daily for eight weeks (22).
In fact, a study from India reported that preschool-aged
children who took 5 ml (1 teaspoon) per day had greater
increases in vitamin A levels than children who received
vitamin A supplements (24).
Bottom Line: Palm oil may help protect brain
function, reduce heart disease risk factors and increase
vitamin A levels in certain people.
Potential Health Risks
One study was conducted in women with high cholesterol.
It showed that levels of small, dense LDL (sdLDL) — the type of
cholesterol linked to heart disease — increased with palm oil
but decreased with other oils. However, a combination of palm
oil and rice bran oil decreased sdLDL levels (25).
Another study found that sdLDL didn’t change in the group that
consumed palm oil, while large LDL particles increased. Large
LDL particles are considered less likely to cause heart attacks
than small, dense LDL particles (26).
It’s important to note that these are only potential risk
factors and not evidence that palm oil can actually cause heart
However, one animal study suggests that consuming oil that has
been repeatedly reheated may cause plaque deposits in the
arteries due to a decrease in the oil’s antioxidant activity.
When rats ate food containing palm oil that had been reheated
10 times, they developed large arterial plaques and other signs
of heart disease over the course of six months, whereas rats
fed fresh palm oil did not (30).
Bottom Line: Palm oil may increase certain
heart disease risk factors in some people. Repeatedly
reheating the oil may decrease its antioxidant capacity and
contribute to the development of heart disease.
Controversies Regarding Palm Oil
There are several ethical issues regarding palm oil
production’s effects on the environment, wildlife and
In the past decades, increasing demand has led to an
unprecedented expansion of palm oil production in Malaysia,
Indonesia and Thailand.
These countries have humid, tropical climates that are ideally
suited for growing oil palm trees.
However, in order to accommodate oil palm plantations, tropical
forests and peatland are being destroyed.
A recent analysis found that 45% of land in Southeast Asia
currently used for palm oil production had been forest back in
1990, including more than half of all palm oil plantations in
Indonesia and Malaysia (1).
Deforestation is anticipated to have devastating effects on
global warming, as the forests play a crucial role in reducing
greenhouse gasses by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
In addition, the destruction of native landscapes causes
changes in the ecosystem that threaten the health and diversity
Especially concerning is the impact on endangered species such
as Bornean orangutans, which are facing extinction due to
habitat loss (31).
There have also been reports of human rights violations by palm
oil corporations, such as clearing farmlands and forests
without permission, paying low wages, providing unsafe working
conditions and significantly reducing the quality of life
Fortunately, experts say that there are more ethical and
For instance, a 2015 analysis found that limiting the expansion
of new palm oil plantations to areas without forests and
planting only in areas with low carbon stocks could reduce
greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60% (32).
The Roundtable on
Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an organization committed to
making oil production as environmentally friendly, culturally
sensitive and sustainable as possible.
They only award RSPO certification to producers who adhere to
their standards by following certain guidelines, including:
- No clearing of forests or areas that contain endangered
species, fragile ecosystems or areas critical to meeting basic
or traditional community needs.
- Significantly reduced use of pesticides and fires.
- Fair treatment of workers, according to local and
international labor rights standards.
- Informing and consulting with local communities before the
development of new oil palm plantations on their land.
Bottom Line: Replacing tropical forests and
peatland with palm oil trees is devastating the environment,
wildlife and people’s quality of life.
Take Home Message
Palm oil is one of the most widely used oils in the world.
However, the effects of its production on the environment,
health of wild animals and lives of indigenous people are
If you want to use palm oil, purchase ethical, RSPO-certified
Additionally, since you can get similar health benefits from
other oils and foods, it’s probably best to use other fat
sources for most of your daily needs.