Palm oil is produced from the fruit of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis. It is a vegetable oil, not an animal or dairy product, and therefore does not contain cholesterol. Palm oil is sometimes confused with palm kernel oil, but in fact it is quite different compositionally.
Palm oil has been used in food preparation for over 5,000 years. Today it is consumed worldwide as a cooking oil, margarine and shortening. It is also used as an ingredient in fat blends and a vast array of food products. In the United States, palm oil’s principal edible use is as an ingredient in prepared foods (primarily baked goods).
Food manufacturers choose palm oil because it has a distinct quality, requires little or no hydrogenation, and prolongs the shelf life of products. These advantages are difficult to duplicate at the same cost with polyunsaturated oils, which often command higher market prices and require additional processing for the same characteristics.
While palm oil is becoming increasingly accepted and better understood worldwide, it is still comparatively new to many nations. This unfamiliarity with palm oil has lead to several myths. Palm oil is often judged solely on the basis of its saturated fatty acid content, while its numerous health benefits are overlooked. Many reputable scientists have conducted more than 80 research studies in order to help dispel these inaccurate myths and share the truth about palm oil.
The positive results of these nutrition studies have persuaded many to reconsider their previous judgments on palm oil. A major milestone for the positive reputation of palm oil, was when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in 1994 that it would no longer permit the use of “no palm oil” labeling. That news helped reinforce that “facts” rather than “myths” will prevail in regards to palm oil.
The Unjustified “Health Scare” on Palm Oil
Despite the prominent position of palm oil in world markets, it was not marketed extensively in the United States until the early 1980s. By 1985, palm oil had garnered only two percent share of the American market, which was dominated by soybean oil (with over 70% of the market share). Palm oil became the target of a massive negative advertising campaign, including widely published allegations that palm oil is “hazardous to health”. Palm oil was the victim of letter-writing campaigns to food companies complaining of palm oil’s allegedly adverse health effects.
In 1987, a bill was proposed in Congress to impose special labeling restrictions on food products containing tropical oils. The bill was withdrawn following stiff opposition – including criticism by the FDA, the office of the United States Trade Representative, and the scientific community. The campaign against palm oil was unprecedented. Palm oil was used widely throughout the world, and no government had ever labeled it unhealthful. The USFDA criticized the negative advertising campaign.
In February 1992, the Atlantic District office Issued a “Warning Letter” to Goodmark Foods, Inc. concerning fried potato products, stating: “The label statement “NO TROPICAL OILS” represents and suggests that the products contain little or no saturated fatty acids but the labels fail to reveal the level of saturated fatty acids in a serving of these products. Such a statement is further misleading in that the products contain partially hydrogenated oils.
Palm Oil Is A Healthful Product Which Does Not Increase Cardiovascular Disease Risk
In the past, palm oil was attacked as “saturated” since it contains 44% palmitic acid and 5% stearic acid, and thereby allegedly raises blood cholesterol and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, a sizeable and growing body of scientific evidence indicates that palm oil’s effect on blood cholesterol is relatively neutral when compared to other fats and oils. In a recent review article, Professor Charles Elson concluded “palm oil, an essential fatty acid-sufficient tropical oil, raises plasma cholesterol only when an excess of dietary cholesterol is presented in the diet.”
A number of pre-1990 human feeding studies reported that palm oil diets resulted in lower serum cholesterol levels then pre-study values. Indeed, five distinguished American scientists concluded that these studies, although “not specifically designed to study palm oil, have revealed that a palm oil diet lowered plasma cholesterol compared with the starting periods during which the subjects were eating their habitual Western diets.” These conclusions were questioned because the studies were not designed to measure the effects of palm oil. But subsequent studies, specifically designed to evaluate palm oil, confirmed that palm oil’s impact on serum lipid and lipoprotein profiles compares favorably to corn oil, lightly hydrogenated soybean oil, and olive oil.
Thus, palm oil’s impact on serum lipids is more like a monounsaturated than a saturated oil. A recent study comparing the effect of palm olein and olive oil enriched diets on twenty-one healthy, free-living normocholosterolemic subjects found no difference in total and LDL-cholesterol levels. There appears to be several explanations. Palm oil contains a high percentage of monounsaturates (40%). Palm oil’s saturated fatty acids are palmitic (44%) and stearic (5%), which do not appear to elevate blood cholesterol in people with cholesterol levels within normal ranges. Recent animal studies found that palm oil stimulates the synthesis of protective HDL cholesterol and removal of harmful LDL cholesterol. Palm oil is rich in vitamin E, (particularly tocotrienols), which appear to reduce serum cholesterol concentrations.
It also appears that palm oil, compared to polyunsaturated oils, poses a reduced risk for cancer. This may be due to the tocotrionols in palm oil. Indeed, Professors K.K. Carroll of the Centre for Human Nutrition at the University of Western Ontario and David Kritchevsky of the Wistar Institute recently concluded that evidence indicate that tocotrienols in palm oil are effective anti-cancer agents and provide adequate justification for clinical trials in human cancer patients.
Substitution of Hydrogenated Oils And Fats For Palm Oil Does Not Produce A More Healthful Product
Palm oil’s desirable texture and stability stem primarily form its fatty acid composition. Polyunsaturated oils must be processed by blending or hydrogenation to achieve a comparable degree of stability and texture. Hydrogenation transforms unsaturated fatty acids into saturates and creates more than a dozen unnatural trans fatty acids. Industrially processed vegetable oils are the major source of trans fatty acids in the American diet.
FDA officials have lamented that consumers are no better off when processed oils are substituted for palm oil:
Dr. Scarborough stated, “campaigns [against tropical oil] ignore the effects of hydrogenation and blending of the fatty acid content of most oils used in processed foods.” As noted above, FDA Warning Letters notified manufacturers that “no tropical oils” claims are misleading for products containing hydrogenated fats and oils. In January 1993, FDA acknowledged that scientific evidence suggests that trans fatty acids increase harmful LDL-cholesterol.
Until the last five years, little scientific attention was devoted to trans fatty acids. Evidence now gives every reason to be concerned about them, and in particular their negative effects upon serum lipids. Professor Scott Grundy has concluded that there is “convincing evidence that trans monounsaturated fatty acids definitely raise LDL cholesterol levels, in a manner similar to that of the cholesterol raising saturated fatty acids.” A Dutch human study concluded, “the effect of trans fatty acids on the serum lipoprotein profile is at least as unfavorable as that of the cholesterol-raising saturated fatty acids, because they not only raise LDL cholesterol levels but also lower HDL cholesterol levels.” More recently, Professor Grundy observed:
“It has been estimated that the average intake of trans monounsaturates in the American diet is six to eight grams a day. This intake will produce a five to seven milligram per dl increase in cholesterol levels. You might think that’s not very much, but when you consider that for every milligram of increase in cholesterol level there’s about a one percent increase in risk for coronary heart disease, then we could attribute five to seven percent of all coronary heart disease to trans fatty acids in the diet.”
In May 1994, Drs. Walter Willett and Alben Ascherio, members of the Harvard University Department of Nutrition and Epidemiology, reviewed the growing evidence on trans fatty acids and heart disease, and concluded: “Although the percentage of coronary heart disease deaths in the United States attributable to intake of trans fatty acids is uncertain, even the lower estimates from the effects on blood lipids would suggest that more than 30,000 deaths per year may be due to consumption of partially hydrogenated vegetable fat. Furthermore, the number of attributable cases of nonfatal coronary heart disease will be even larger.” Drs. Willett and Ascherio also concluded that trans fatty acids reduce the protective HDL cholesterol, and increase lipoprotein Lp(a), a potent indicator of cardiovascular risks. They recommended “a regulated phasing out or strict limitation of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet.”