Is palm oil healthy? The most important questions and answers

Ist Palmöl gesund? Die wichtigsten Fragen und Antworten

Palm oil is one of the most controversial foods of our time. At the same time, almost every product in the supermarket contains palm oil and accordingly represents a large part of our diet. This raises the central question: Is palm oil healthy?

In this article, we answer this key question by highlighting both positive and negative aspects of palm oil. After reading this article, you will be able to judge whether palm oil has a positive or negative impact on our health. At the same time, we present you with essential information about palm oil.

the essentials in brief

  • Palm oil is obtained from the kernels of the fruit. This vegetable oil is particularly popular, traded the most on the market and is used especially in the food industry as a stabilizer.
  • In its untreated form, palm oil exhibits a multitude of health benefits for the body. The untreated palm oil contains a lot of carotene (vitamin A) and has antioxidant properties due to its vitamin E content.
  • Processing palm oil at temperatures that are too high, up to 200 °C, produces carcinogenic and toxic substances that can endanger health if consumed in excessive amounts.

Is palm oil healthy: What you should know

Below we have listed the most important questions and the corresponding answers. These questions and answers will help you get to know palm oil in a neutral way and the answer to the central question "Is palm oil healthy?" to determine for you personally.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is the world's most popular and most traded vegetable oil. It is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm. After the fruits are sterilized, they are squeezed to obtain the raw, orange-colored, liquid palm oil before being processed into the desired shape.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is orange in color due to its high carotene content. (Source: Achim Halfmann / pixabay)

Palm oil plantations now stretch around the globe in regions such as Indonesia and Malaysia, but originally come from South and West Africa.

Where is palm oil used?

Probably the best-known product that contains palm oil is the spread from Nutella & Co. In general, palm oil is primarily used in the food industry.

Palm oil is used as a stabilizer in spreads.

But you can also find palm oil in finished products, biscuits, bread, muesli and in cosmetics such as make-up or toothpaste. Palm oil can also be used to produce diesel. (1)

Is palm oil healthy?

Although palm oil is classified as unhealthy in many areas, the vegetable oil still has a positive impact on some areas of the body. In the following table we have listed some of these aspects for you: (4)

Area Impact of palm oil
Brain Palm oil is the richest source of the less distinctive vitamin E , alpha-tocotrienol, which is believed to be particularly beneficial for brain health due to its antioxidant properties . The natural vitamin E, α-tocotrienol, which is rich in carotene, acts on important molecular checkpoints in the brain to prevent neurodegenerative diseases in particular. (2.3)
Heart A study examining the antioxidant properties of palm oil in patients with atherosclerosis, a heart disease, showed that palm oil has a positive impact on the progression of this heart disease. In contrast, the comparison group, the placebo group, showed a deterioration. Many studies also confirm that palm oil has a positive effect on cholesterol levels and can therefore help prevent heart disease. (5,6,7)
vitamin A status A special variant of palm oil, red palm oil, is presented in a study as a rich source of bioavailable vitamin A. The study shows that red palm oil can be used as a dietary approach to improve vitamin A status during pregnancy.(8) Taking red palm oil daily is also more effective than taking vitamin A supplements to supplement the vitamin -A increase in body content . (9)

Is palm oil really bad for your health?

From a scientific point of view, there is no concrete answer to this question. So the answer is yes and no. The untreated form of palm oil is generally classified as non-carcinogenic, while palm oil may contain carcinogenic substances after processing. Scientists speak of refined palm oil.

At the same time, the European food authority Efsa found out that carcinogenic substances are produced primarily during the processing of palm oil, which takes place at high temperatures of up to 200 °C.

A scientific study shows that the three substances listed below in particular, which are also contained in refined palm oil, have carcinogenic and genotoxic characteristics and therefore give rise to possible health concerns for consumers. (10)

Material Characteristics carcinogenic?
glycidol EFSA has classified glycidol as genotoxic and carcinogenic. Thus, scientists came to the conclusion that glycidol has a highly negative impact on human health Yes
3-MCPD A study by the EFSA shows that this substance can cause organ damage. In addition, the substance is considered to be possibly carcinogenic because the tolerable daily intake (TDI value) of 0.8 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day is exceeded. possibly
2-MCPD This substance is described as toxicological, but there is not enough information available for a specific statement. possibly

(10)

When describing the three substances, it is striking that it is still uncertain to date whether these substances can be described as 100% carcinogenic. The substances 3- and 2-MCPD in particular provide too little information and at the same time not enough studies are available. Nevertheless, there is generally a high health risk when taking these substances.

Risks with palm oil

After processing at too high temperatures, palm oil contains both toxic and carcinogenic substances. (Source: Tafilah Yusof / pixabay)

Is palm oil healthier only in small amounts?

Since palm oil, as a member of the vegetable oil family, is considered particularly high in fat from a health perspective and contains saturated fatty acids, scientists generally recommend limiting palm oil consumption, and the same usually applies to other types of vegetable oil.

Scientists are focusing on a more conscious diet, for example by reducing the consumption of finished products or sweets in order to build a healthy balance. More and more attention is being drawn to replacing palm oil with oils with a healthier fatty acid composition . (11)

If you look at the consumption of palm oil from an environmental point of view, environmental activists say that there are also good reasons not to use palm oil or to consume it in smaller quantities. This aspect is dealt with in more detail in the following question.

Is palm oil harmful to the health of the environment?

In addition to the health aspect, palm oil is also very controversial for its impact on our environment. Palm oil is very popular and the demand for it is increasing. The high demand leads to high stress on the environment: rainforests suffer most from deforestation and endangered animal species that are displaced by deforestation.

A study shows the high proportion of deforestation in rainforests linked to the oil palm economy. In Southeast Asia, 45% of the oil palm plantations studied came from what were forests in 1989. In South America the percentage was 31%. In contrast, in Mesoamerica and Africa only 2% and 7% of oil palm plantations, respectively, were planted in areas that were forest in 1989.

Destruction of natural habitat

Orangutans are losing their natural habitat due to the deforestation of rainforests and are therefore considered to be particularly threatened with extinction. (Source: Victor ADAM / pixabay)

The largest areas with endangered forests are in Africa and South America. Endangered forests in all four production regions contain a high number of mammal and bird species that are threatened with extinction worldwide. (12)

A scientific article points out that lowland forests are the primary habitat for orangutans, but these forests are increasingly being cleared or converted to high-yield industrial plantations (oil palm, rubber and timber). This threat to orangutans and many other animal species is also having a bad impact on our ecosystem. (13)

What alternatives are there to palm oil?

The increasing threats to the environment from deforestation of rainforests, the contribution to the destruction of our ecosystem and the unhealthy aspects of refined palm oil are leading to an increasing search for alternatives to palm oil.

The alternatives listed below and their pros and cons will help you get an overview of the palm oil alternatives on the market.

organic products

Organic products are one of the most popular alternatives to palm oil products. Most of them are completely free of palm oil or contain fair organic palm oil. Below we list the advantages and disadvantages of organic products.

Advantages
  • Production in organic quality
  • Gluten-free and fair
  • Use of shea fat, organic palm oil, certified coconut oil or beef tallow instead of palm oil
  • Contain PalmTrace certificates
  • Adhere to fair trading standards
Disadvantages
  • expensive
  • Not found in every supermarket or drugstore
  • Organic seal difficult to compare
  • Show a lower shelf life (for food)

coconut fat/oil

Coconut fat/oil is referred to as the alternative vegetable oil to palm oil. However, there are also advantages and especially disadvantages to consider that call this alternative into question.

Advantages
  • Has the same properties as palm oil
  • Particularly heat stable (for frying)
Disadvantages
  • More expensive
  • Coconut trees can only be grown in a limited area around the equator
  • Also has bad effects on the environment

However, WWF warns that replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils will not solve the problem of palm oil, but will only shift it, because other types of vegetable oil also need plantations. For this reason, the problem lies in the cultivation itself, which must be environmentally and socially responsible in order to be able to protect the environment in the long term. (14)

Conclusion

Whether palm oil can be described as healthy or unhealthy mainly depends on how it is processed. Refined palm oil, which is processed at high temperatures of up to 200 °C, has harmful aspects, while the unprocessed palm oil has far more health benefits.

However, the environment plays an important role in the production of palm oil and largely casts palm oil in a bad light, although alternatives to palm oil can help to protect the environment to some extent.

Palm oil is a current and highly controversial issue, both in terms of health and the environment. The central question "Is palm oil healthy?" is examined from both sides and invites the reader to obtain a personal statement with the available information on the subject.

References

  1. Ebong PE, Owu DU, Isong EU. Influence of palm oil (Elaesis guineensis) on health. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1999;53(3):209-22. doi: 10.1023/a:1008089715153. PMID: 10517280. Source
  2. Khanna S, Roy S, Slivka A, et al. Neuroprotective properties of the natural vitamin E alpha-tocotrienol. stroke 2005;36(10):2258-2264. doi:10.1161/01.STR.0000181082.70763.22 Source
  3. Sen CK, Rink C, Khanna S. Palm oil-derived natural vitamin E alpha-tocotrienol in brain health and disease. J Am Coll Nutr. 2010 Jun;29(3 Suppl):314S-323S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2010.10719846. PMID: 20823491; PMCID: PMC3065441. Source
  4. Ebong PE, Owu DU, Isong EU. Influence of palm oil (Elaesis guineensis) on health. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1999;53(3):209-22. doi: 10.1023/a:1008089715153. PMID: 10517280. Source
  5. Tomeo AC, Geller M, Watkins TR, Gapor A, Bierenbaum ML. Antioxidant effects of tocotrienols in patients with hyperlipidemia and carotid stenosis. lipids. 1995 Dec;30(12):1179-83. doi: 10.1007/BF02536621. PMID: 8614310. Source
  6. Fattore E, Bosetti C, Brighenti F, Agostoni C, Fattore G. Palm oil and blood lipid-related markers of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary intervention trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun;99(6):1331-50. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.081190. Epub 2014 Apr 9. PMID: 24717342. Source
  7. Voon PT, Ng TK, Lee VK, Nesaretnam K. Virgin olive oil, palm olein and coconut oil diets do not raise cell adhesion molecules and thrombogenicity indices in healthy Malaysian adults. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;69(6):712-6. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2015.26. Epub 2015 Mar 25. PMID: 25804278. Source
  8. Radhika MS, Bhaskaram P, Balakrishna N, Ramalakshmi BA. Red palm oil supplementation: a feasible diet-based approach to improve the vitamin A status of pregnant women and their infants. Food Nutr Bull. 2003 Jun;24(2):208-17. doi: 10.1177/156482650302400207. PMID: 12891825. Source
  9. Sivan YS, Alwin Jayakumar Y, Arumughan C, Sundaresan A, Jayalekshmy A, Suja KP, Soban Kumar DR, Deepa SS, Damodaran M, Soman CR, Raman Kutty V, Sankara Sarma P. Impact of vitamin A supplementation through different dosages of red palm oil and retinol palmitate on preschool children. J Trop Pediatr. 2002 Feb;48(1):24-8. doi: 10.1093/tropej/48.1.24. PMID: 11871368. Source
  10. Jan Alexander, Lars Barregard, Margherita Bignami, Sandra Ceccatelli, Bruce Cottrill, Michael Dinovi, Lutz Edler, Bettina Grasl-Kraupp, Christer Hogstrand, Laurentius (Ron) Hoogenboom, Helle Katrine Knutsen, Carlo Stefano Nebbia, Isabelle Oswald, Annette Petersen, Vera Maria Rogiers, Martin Rose, Alain-Claude Roudot, Tanja Schwerdtle, Christiane Vleminckx, GĂĽnter Vollmer and Heather Wallace. Risks for human health related to the presence of 3- and 2-monochloropropanediol (MCPD), and their fatty acid esters, and glycidyl fatty acid esters in food. EFSA Journal 2016;14(5):4426. DOI: 10.2903/j.efsa.2016.4426 Source
  11. Shankar B, Thaiprasert N, Gheewala S, Smith R. Policies for healthy and sustainable edible oil consumption: a stakeholder analysis for Thailand. Public Health Nutr. 2017 Apr;20(6):1126-1134. doi: 10.1017/S1368980016003037. Epub 2016 Nov 24. PMID: 27881191. Source
  12. Vijay V, Pimm SL, Jenkins CN, Smith SJ. The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss. PLoS One. 2016 Jul 27;11(7):e0159668. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159668. PMID: 27462984; PMCID: PMC4963098. Source
  13. Wich SA, Gaveau D, Abram N, et al. Understanding the impacts of land-use policies on a threatened species: is there a future for the Bornean orangutan?. PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49142. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049142 Source
  14. WWF Germany. topics and projects. focal points. Agriculture. products from agriculture. Palm oil. Status: 23.10.2020 Source
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