Should I be afraid of palm oil?
Palm oil benefits depends on how and how much you use it.
What is palm oil and why is it so popular?
Palm oil is the name of the oil obtained from the fruits of tropical trees known as oil palms.
Like other vegetable oils such as sunflower or rapeseed, palm oil is generally beneficial. When freshly squeezed and unprocessed, it has a rich yellow-orange hue imparted by the pigment beta-carotene, the same pigment found in carrots. This substance is converted into vitamin A in the body and has antioxidant properties. Thanks to beta-carotene, this vegetable fat slows down the aging of the body and can help prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease, visual impairment, brain dysfunction, and even cancer. Furthermore, the raw product is rich in vitamin E, which also functions as an antioxidant.
But the main advantage of palm oil is its cheapness.
Oil palms are unpretentious and highly productive, allowing a considerable harvest to be collected with minimum cash investment. For this reason, palm oil is the most traded vegetable oil in the world. It is utilized not only in the food industry, but also in the manufacture of shampoos, toothpaste, soap, and other cosmetics.
Popularity, however, has led to serious environmental problems. To break more and more oil palm plantations, growers have burned the rainforests along with all its inhabitants, causing significant damage to biodiversity and increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But that is another story.
What are the features of palm oil?
Palm oil has two essential properties.
- High in Saturated Fat Palm oil is high in fat, with over 50% of it being saturated. Such fatty acids have a strict crystalline structure, that causes the oil to remain semi-solid at room temperature, unlike liquid oils such as sunflower oil.
From a culinary viewpoint, this is highly practical. Such oils are more stable and withstand deterioration longer. Furthermore, they are more convenient to use in baking due to their hardness. They are also used to thicken chocolate spreads and peanut butter.
- Ideal for Frying Palm oil is perfect for frying. It only starts to burn and smoke at 232 ° C, which is higher than most other oils, including sunflower oil. Additionally, when heated, the oil remains stable for longer: it does not darken, does not lose its appearance, and carcinogenic substances do not form in it for a long time.
Similar characteristics, combined with cheapness, are present in infamous trans fats that were commonly added to store-bought baked goods and fast food. When it became known that trans fats are hazardous to health, chefs looked for less harmful alternatives.
Nowadays, the use of trans fats is severely restricted. Palm oil has taken their place in the industry of cheap food products such as fast food, pastries, cereals, low-quality cheeses, chocolate, coffee creamer, and margarine.
Does this mean that palm oil is dangerous?
Palm oil itself is safe and, perhaps, even beneficial – thanks to the high content of provitamin A and vitamin E. However, a lot depends on the amount and nutritional value of the foods that we eat thanks to palm oil.
Saturated fats are believed to increase the level of “bad” cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This can cause atherosclerotic plaques to form on the walls of blood vessels and impair blood circulation.
Doctors do not have concerns about palm oil itself regarding this matter. Most studies indicate that its consumption even reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. So much so that palm oil is sometimes called the “tropical equivalent of olive oil.”
Nonetheless, saturated fats should not be taken casually. Their amount, according to current medical recommendations, should not exceed 10% of the total calories from the diet. If you consume an average of 2,000 calories a day, your saturated fat intake should not be more than 200 calories. Moreover, this class of fats includes not only palm oil products but also butter, milk, lard, and so on.
The list of products that include palm oil in their production is another point. In the vast majority of cases, this is unhealthy food: french fries, hamburgers, store-bought pastries, cheap chocolate bars. Such food has a high glycemic index, contributes to weight gain, and does not provide the nutrients that our bodies need. It is harmful in itself, and not because of the presence of palm oil in it.