Health Risks of Palm Oil

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palm oilPalm oil is a common and long-standing ingredient used in food preparation. Unsurprisingly harvested from the palm tree, the oil is favored because it is trans fat-free and contains good levels of vitamin A and E. When kept at room temperature, palm oil has a consistency similar to butter or shortening and is sometimes used as a substitute for those ingredients in processed food.

As companies try to remove trans fats from confectionaries, cookies, fast food, and other dishes, they often turn to palm oil, because it is so versatile and can be used to substitute butter, lard, or other vegetable oils. While all of this sounds good on the surface, the problem is that palm oil has several other properties, most of which are undesirable.

No Trans Fat Doesn’t Mean Fat-Free

The two kinds of fats to avoid are saturated fats and trans fats. Palm oil lacks the latter, but has quite a bit of the former. Saturated fats elevate the body’s cholesterol levels and build up plaque in the arteries. Over time, this results in cardiovascular conditions and can cause a stroke or heart attack.

A single tablespoon of palm oil contains 120 calories and 6.7 grams of saturated fat. For perspective, a healthy 2,000 calorie-per-day diet should have no more than 16 grams of saturated fat. Since palm oil is used a lot in food processing, it’s easy to go over this limit without realizing it.

Palmitic Problems

The saturated fat in palm oil contains a large amount of palmitic acid. Not all saturated fats have the same levels of palmitic acid—butter, for instance, has less palmitic acid than the same amount of palm oil. A 2005 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that looked at various studies found that palm oil could raise blood cholesterol levels. This is in line with a 1997 analysis of 147 human trials, which also showed that palmitic acid contributed to blood cholesterol levels.

Hypertension Risks

Palm oil can increase your risk of hypertension not only because of its ability to raise cholesterol levels, but because of one of its other properties. When heated, palm oil releases free radicals that agitate the blood vessels and can lead to arterial thickening—a potential cause of high blood pressure.

Most Nutrients Don’t Survive

Other than having no trans fats, the main saving grace of palm oil is its nutritional content. Or, it would be, if much of that content made it into the final product. Almost all palm oil on the market is heavily refined and has been depleted of many vitamins and nutrients. Without this content, there is little left except fat and various other waste elements your body doesn’t know what to do with. The result is that palm oil is hard for your body to digest while providing few benefits in return.

It’s Bad For the Environment

Most palm oil is harvested in Indonesia and Malaysia. In order to meet demand for the product, huge swaths of forests are regularly cut down to clear the way for palms to be planted. The land-clearing in Indonesia is also largely illegal, meaning there are no controls on production facilities, resulting in human rights and safety abuses. The clearing and burning of forests is also responsible for most of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions and its place as the world’s third largest polluter.

The Animals Don’t Appreciate It

Mass deforestation upsets ecosystems and deprives wildlife of their homes. Those that don’t die as a result are forced to become invaders in other habitats just to survive. The result is a massive depletion of animals in Indonesia. The orangutan in particular has suffered the loss of over 90% of its habitat in the past two decades and up to 5,000 perish each year. The World Wildlife Federation estimates that orangutans will become extinct within 20 years. Tigers, elephants, and other species are also placed at significant risk. Roughly one-third of the mammals in Indonesia are considered critically endangered due to the palm oil industry.

It Has a Human Cost

Locals rely on the forest for their livelihood as well. The Indonesian government often sells away large plots of land for palm oil production without regard for its current inhabitants. Those deprived of work or land by the development of palm oil farms are left without support, safety, or income, often leaving them with no choice but to work on the same plantations that deprived them in the first place. Poor wages, bad working conditions, and child labor are rampant in these locations.

How to Help

Palm oil production is such a large focus in Indonesia because palm oil products are so profitable. Although the U.S. is only a small part (under two percent) of the global palm oil market, every bit helps when trying to reduce the money companies can make from this product.

Be wary of buying any products that list “vegetable oil” as an ingredient, since this usually means palm oil. Instead, choose products that clearly list the type of oil, such as “100% flaxseed oil” or “100% canola oil.” Many prepackaged foods also contain palm oil, so be extra cautious when buying them.

When looking at nutritional information, keep an eye on the saturated fat content. Products with more than 40% of their fat coming from saturated sources are likely made with palm oil. Keep your eyes peeled for anything with the word “palm” in the ingredients list as well. Palm oil has several derivatives that are also used in food production such as palmitate, palmate, or hydrated palm glycerides.

Lastly, check your non-food items, too. Palm oil is very versatile and is found in shampoo, toothpaste, cosmetics, and more.

Sources for Today’s Article:
“6 Reasons to Avoid Palm Oil,” CalNaturale Svelte web site, July 8, 2014; http://www.drinksvelte.com/2014/07/6-reasons-to-avoid-palm-oil/.
Amerman, D., “What Are the Dangers of Palm Oil?” Livestrong.com, May 21, 2015; http://www.livestrong.com/article/198975-what-are-the-dangers-of-palm-oil/.
Brown, E. et al., “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife,” Center for Science in the Public Interest web site; http://www.cspinet.org/palmoilreport/PalmOilReport.pdf, last accessed September 28, 2015.
“How to Stop Buying Palm Oil and Help Save the Orangutans,” Care2.com, November 23, 2012; http://www.care2.com/greenliving/how-to-stop-buying-palm-oil-and-help-save-the-orangutans.html.
Kannall, E., “Palm Oil Health Hazards,” Healthy Eating web site; http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/palm-oil-health-hazards-7375.html, last accessed September 28, 2015.
“Worse Than Crude: The Case Against Palm Oil,” NPR web site, May 22, 2008; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90714122.

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