Dr. Andrea Middleton - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Andrea Middleton

Is Palm Oil Bad For You?



Short answer

Palm oil contains 50% saturated fat, which can raise LDL ('bad') cholesterol levels, posing a risk for heart disease. However, it also has 'good' fats and, if part of a balanced diet, may have a neutral effect on cholesterol. The processing method and overall diet contribute to its health impact.



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Long answer

Saturated Fat Content in Palm Oil and Heart Health

The subject of palm oil and its relationship with heart health pivots largely around its saturated fat content. Saturated fats have been a point of contention among nutrition experts due to their association with increased levels of LDL cholesterol—often termed "bad" cholesterol—in the blood. Elevated LDL cholesterol is a recognized risk factor for heart disease. Here, we'll dissect palm oil’s fatty acid composition and explore what current research suggests about its influence on cardiovascular health.

Fatty Acid Breakdown: Palm oil is approximately 50% saturated fat, 40% unsaturated fat, and 10% polyunsaturated fats. The primary saturated fat in palm oil is palmitic acid, which comprises about 44% of its total fat content. A common point of discussion is how this particular type of saturated fat can have different effects on LDL cholesterol levels when compared to others, such as lauric acid or stearic acid.

Studies and Expert Opinions: Research offers varying perspectives on palm oil's impact. Some studies suggest that consuming palm oil may raise LDL cholesterol levels, potentially increasing the risk of heart disease. However, other research indicates that when palm oil is part of a balanced diet, it does not have a substantially negative effect on cholesterol levels or heart disease risk. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that palm oil might have a neutral effect on cholesterol when it replaces other sources of fat in the diet. Moreover, the saturated fats in palm oil have been shown to also raise HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol, which could potentially offset some of the risks associated with increased LDL levels.

Comparison with Other Oils: It's helpful to compare palm oil to other cooking oils. For instance, coconut oil, which is higher in saturated fat, may have a more pronounced effect on LDL cholesterol. Meanwhile, oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil, have been associated with more favorable effects on heart health. The ratio of these fats plays a decisive role in how they influence cholesterol levels and heart health.

Impact of Processing: The form of palm oil consumed also matters. Refined palm oil, the type typically found in processed foods, undergoes a procedure that strips away some beneficial nutrients and may create harmful compounds that could affect heart health. Unrefined, or red palm oil, retains more of its original nutrients, including vitamin E tocotrienols, which have been studied for their heart-protective properties.

Guidance from Health Organizations: Various health organizations acknowledge that while it's essential to monitor saturated fat intake, completely eliminating it from the diet isn't necessary. The American Heart Association advises that saturated fats should make up no more than 5-6% of your daily caloric intake. Within this framework, including palm oil in one's diet in moderation, particularly unrefined palm oil, could be incorporated without markedly impacting heart health.

Consider the Bigger Dietary Picture: It's also essential to consider overall dietary patterns. Saturated fat intake from palm oil might not be as concerning if it's consumed within a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, all of which contribute to heart health. Conversely, saturated fat consumption becomes more problematic when it's part of a diet high in processed foods and refined sugars, which can exacerbate the risk of heart disease.

Impact of Palm Oil on Cholesterol Levels and Cardiovascular Risk

Palm oil has been the subject of heated debates in both the nutrition world and the sustainability arena. Its impact on cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk, in particular, has drawn considerable attention from health professionals and consumers alike. Understanding how palm oil may influence these aspects involves delving into the composition of palm oil and its metabolic effects.

Firstly, it's essential to recognize that palm oil is high in saturated fats. Roughly 50% of the fat in palm oil is saturated, primarily as palmitic acid. Saturated fats have historically been linked to elevated blood cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease. However, the relationship between saturated fat, cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease is complex and nuanced.

  • Palmitic Acid: The predominant saturated fatty acid in palm oil is palmitic acid, which has been shown in some studies to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), otherwise known as the 'bad' cholesterol, when replacing carbohydrates or unsaturated fats in the diet. Raising LDL cholesterol could potentially contribute to atherosclerosis, leading to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  • Other Fatty Acids: Palm oil also contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are known for having a more neutral or even beneficial effect on heart health. However, the presence of these 'healthier' fats doesn't necessarily offset the significant amount of saturated fats found in palm oil.
  • Comparison with Trans Fats: When compared to trans fats, which are undeniably harmful to heart health, palm oil seems like a heart-healthier option. Trans fats worsen blood lipid profiles by increasing LDL cholesterol and decreasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the 'good' cholesterol. Hence, when palm oil replaces trans fats in products, it can be considered a step towards cardiovascular risk reduction.

Several research studies have explored the effects of palm oil consumption on cardiovascular health. A meta-analysis of 51 studies published in the journal Fat Science and Technology found that consuming palm oil did increase LDL cholesterol when compared to vegetable oils low in saturated fat, such as sunflower or canola oil. Yet, when compared to other high saturated fat oils, like coconut oil, the impact on cholesterol was similar or lesser.

It's also noteworthy that the processing of palm oil can affect its health properties. Refined, bleached, and deodorized (RBD) palm oil, which is the type commonly used in processed foods, may have different effects on cholesterol levels than unprocessed, red palm oil, which is higher in beneficial antioxidants like tocotrienols and β-carotene.

There's also a possibility that individual responses to saturated fat intake can vary widely. Some people may experience a significant increase in LDL cholesterol in response to diets high in saturated fats like palm oil, while others appear to be less affected. Furthermore, the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol and the presence of other cardiovascular risk factors (such as smoking, hypertension, and diabetes) are important considerations when evaluating risk.

While research is ongoing, the consensus among most health authorities is that moderation is key. Replacing a significant portion of saturated fat intake, including that from palm oil, with unsaturated fats is generally recommended for the maintenance of heart health. Yet, it's also important to consider the overall dietary pattern, as no single food or ingredient is solely responsible for cardiovascular disease.

In sum, while palm oil can raise LDL cholesterol relative to oils high in unsaturated fats, its impact may be less detrimental in comparison to trans fats. Ultimately, for the health-conscious consumer, incorporating a balanced intake of various types of fats, focusing on whole foods, and being mindful of the overall quality of the diet can help manage cardiovascular risk.

The Environmental and Ethical Considerations of Palm Oil Production

Palm oil is not just a health topic; it's a highly charged environmental and ethical issue. Understanding the origins of this ubiquitous ingredient is essential for a comprehensive grasp of its impact. The production of palm oil has severe implications for the planet and its inhabitants.

Deforestation and Loss of Biodiversity: The demand for palm oil has led to extensive deforestation, particularly in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce most of the world's palm oil. Forests are cleared to make way for palm plantations, resulting in the loss of critical habitats for endangered species such as orangutans, rhinoceroses, and tigers. According to a study in the journal Current Biology, an estimated 100,000 orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015, partly due to deforestation for palm oil.

Climate Change Contributions: Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. The removal of trees, a primary carbon sink, leads to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Peatlands, often drained for palm cultivation, release large quantities of carbon when disrupted. The Indonesian government stated that peatland drainage and fires are responsible for 42% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Soil and Water Pollution: The use of fertilizers and pesticides in palm plantations can contaminate soil and waterways, creating health hazards for local communities and wildlife. This pollution can lead to a loss of freshwater fish species, which are a key source of food for millions of people.

Human Rights Issues: Palm oil production has been associated with numerous human rights abuses. These include land disputes due to the seizure of indigenous lands, child labor, and exploitative work conditions. The US Department of Labor's report has identified palm oil as a commodity that is produced with forced and child labor, emphasizing the severity of this aspect of the industry.

For the conscientious consumer, choosing products with palm oil can be complex. However, awareness is growing, and sustainably sourced palm oil certifications, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), are becoming more commonplace. When possible, opting for RSPO-certified palm oil can help mitigate some environmental and ethical issues related to its production.

It is important to note that boycotting palm oil entirely may not be the solution, as alternative oils could require even more land to produce the same amount of oil. A thoughtful approach that encourages sustainable production practices and addresses the associated human rights concerns may be a more effective way to combat the negative impacts of palm oil production.

Potential Toxins and Refinement Process in Palm Oil Industry

When it comes to the safety of palm oil consumption, one must consider the refinement process. Refined palm oil undergoes a significant transformation from when it's harvested as fresh fruit to when it lands on the supermarket shelf as a clear, neutral-tasting oil. This journey, while efficient at rendering a product that is stable and visually appealing, can sometimes be accompanied by the risk of toxin development.

The most common refinement steps for palm oil include degumming, neutralization, bleaching, and deodorizing. Each of these steps is designed to remove impurities, eliminate unwanted odors, and stabilize the oil, but they can also lead to the introduction of potentially harmful compounds.

  • 3-MCPD - During the refining process, especially at high temperatures, a compound called 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD) can form. Studies have linked 3-MCPD to organ damage in animal studies, and the European Food Safety Authority has classified it as a potential health risk.
  • Glycidyl Esters - Another refinement byproduct, glycidyl esters (GEs), have been found to be hazardous. GEs can be hydrolyzed in the digestive tract, releasing glycidol, a compound that has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as potentially carcinogenic to humans.
  • Benzo(a)pyrene - This polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon can form during the oil refining process, and it is considered a cancer-causing agent by IARC. While the presence of this compound in palm oil is typically low and well regulated within safety standards, it still warrants consideration for those concerned about their long-term health.

Manufacturers may also utilize bleaching clays in the process, aimed at decolorizing the oil. These clays can sometimes contain heavy metals, which could end up in the oil if not effectively removed. This aspect is less about the natural qualities of palm oil and more about the processing practices and quality controls in place during refinement.

It's essential to look at the source of your palm oil; some companies have made strides to reduce toxin levels through improved refinement techniques. Cold-pressing, while not as common for palm oil, can limit the potential for these toxins to form and is considered a safer alternative to traditional refining methods when available.

For those interested in the nitty-gritty science of oil refinement, one can look to studies such as the one by the European Food Safety Authority in 2016, which assessed the risks of refining-derived contaminants in vegetable oils. They provide in-depth analyses of how refining processes affect oil quality and safety.

In conclusion, while the refinement process can introduce potential toxins in palm oil, being an informed consumer and choosing products from reputable sources can mitigate these risks. Look for companies with high-quality standards and transparent practices to ensure the palm oil you're consuming is as safe and toxin-free as possible.

Palm Oil in Food Products: Labeling and Transparency

Palm oil is ubiquitous in food products, yet it often skulks in plain sight, hiding under various guises. Part of being a health-conscious consumer is deciphering food labels to understand what you're really consuming. Here's a helpful breakdown of palm oil labeling:

Aliases of Palm Oil: First, let's unveil its many names. Beyond 'palm oil,' it may appear as 'palmitate,' 'palmate,' 'palmolein,' 'glyceryl,' 'stearate,' 'vegetable oil,' and more. Some labels may tout 'sustainable' or 'certified,' indicating that the oil is sourced with eco-friendly methods, which doesn't necessarily comment on health implications.

  • Hydrogenated Palm Oil
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palm Oil Kernel
  • Palm Fruit Oil
  • Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil

Health Claims: Flip the script and look for health claims. These might clue you in on whether the palm oil used is refined or processed, aspects that can affect its health profile. Unrefined palm oil, for instance, maintains more of its natural nutrients.

Transparency and Certifications: When an ingredient bears a certification like RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), it implies more than environmental concern; it suggests a traceability and openness about the product's origins. While this still doesn't speak directly to health concerns, it can indicate a level of quality, as sustainable farming often aligns with better production practices.

Understanding the labeling of palm oil can be quite the safari through the nutrition facts wilderness. But with a keen eye, you can become an expert at spotting it, discerning its quality, and making more informed food choices. Because whether you're indulging in a luscious chocolate spread or a savory frozen entrée, knowing the details of what's inside is the first step to mindful eating.

Refer to expert resources like the World Health Organization or the American Heart Association for guidance on the health impact of palm oil and its derivatives in your diet. And remember, labels can be slippery, so whenever in doubt, reach out to the manufacturer for the full lowdown.

Balancing the Diet: Healthier Fats and Sustainable Choices

When it comes to dietary fats, the balance and type of fats we consume matters greatly. Palm oil is a form of edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of oil palms. It's a saturated fat, which should be consumed in moderation within a balanced diet. However, not all saturated fats behave the same way in the body, and it is essential to distinguish between them.

Other sources of healthier fats include:

  • Monounsaturated fats - These are found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts, and can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Polyunsaturated fats - These fats are found in seeds, such as sunflower and sesame, fish, and algae. They include essential fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are known for their heart-health benefits and anti-inflammatory properties.

Substituting saturated fats with unsaturated fats has been shown to have a positive effect on heart health. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association indicated that replacing 5% of saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats resulted in a 25% lower risk of coronary heart disease.

Sustainability is equally essential. Palm oil production has been associated with deforestation and the loss of natural habitats. Environmentally conscious consumers might consider alternative sources of fats that are more sustainable, such as:

  • Oil from algae, which doesn't require vast land use.
  • Rapeseed or canola oil, which has a lower environmental impact compared to palm oil.
  • Butter from grass-fed cows, which is more sustainable than palm oil and contains beneficial fatty acids.

For those looking to maintain a diet that's not just healthy for them, but also for the planet, it's worth exploring and incorporating these alternative fat sources into daily meals. Try experimenting with different oils for salad dressings, or substituting butter for avocado in your baking. Every little change contributes to a bigger impact on your health and the environment.

Remember, moderation is key. While it's important to consider the type of fat consumed, portion control is equally crucial. Overconsumption of any type of fat can lead to an imbalance in the diet and potential health issues down the line. Therefore, it is advised to be mindful of quantities, and ensure a diverse intake of healthy fats to support both personal health and ecosystem resilience.

Frequently asked questions

Unrefined, or red palm oil, is less processed and retains more of its natural nutrients, including vitamin E tocotrienols and antioxidants like beta-carotene, which may offer heart-protective properties. In contrast, refined palm oil may contain harmful processing byproducts and fewer beneficial nutrients.

Yes, palm oil can be part of a heart-healthy diet if consumed in moderation and as part of a diet rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Opt for unrefined palm oil for additional health benefits due to its higher nutrient content.

Sustainable palm oil can be identified by certifications such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label. Look for terms like 'sustainable,' 'certified,' 'CSPO' (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil), or check the product manufacturer's sustainability commitments for reassurance on ethical and eco-friendly sourcing.

Palm oil is not inherently more harmful than other saturated fats, but it's important to consider its composition. Palm oil contains palmitic acid, which can raise LDL cholesterol, similar to other saturated fats. The overall health implications of palm oil consumption on heart health depend on individual dietary patterns and the presence of other healthful fats in the diet.

Ask a question about Palm Oil and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • increase in ldl cholesterol
  • potential nutrient loss in refined palm oil
  • exposure to harmful compounds from processing

Possible long-term side effects

  • increased risk of heart disease
  • potential organ damage from 3-mcpd
  • increased risk of cancer from glycidyl esters and benzo(a)pyrene

Commonly found in

  • processed foods
  • baking products
  • cosmetics
  • detergents

Ingredients to be aware of

  • palmitic acid
  • 3-mcpd
  • glycidyl esters
  • benzo(a)pyrene


  • unrefined palm oil rich in vitamin e tocotrienols
  • potential increase in hdl cholesterol
  • may be heart-healthier than trans fats

Healthier alternatives

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Nutiva Coconut Oil

  • USDA Organic certified
  • Non-GMO
  • Vegan & Keto friendly
  • Neutral for cooking
  • Moisturizes skin & hair
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Rachel Adams
Published on: 12-01-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Rachel Adams
Published on: 12-01-2023

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