Palm Oil: Are There Health Benefits?

Palm oil is made from the fruit of the African oil palm. It’s been an important type of oil for several millennia, however, over the past several decades, it has become one of the most produced oils in the world. This is because palm oil is extremely versatile — it’s semi-solid at room temperature so it can be used as a spread, it’s resistant to oxidation so it can make products last longer, and it can withstand high temperatures making it perfect for frying food.

The production of palm oil has led to deforestation and habitat destruction for orangutans, elephants, and rhinos. The problematic production of palm oil has gained widespread attention in recent years.

However, it’s not just the oil’s production that is controversial, studies conflict on whether palm oil can provide health benefits. 

Nutrition Information

A one-tablespoon serving of palm oil contains:

Palm oil is a great source of vitamin E.

Palm oil is rich in antioxidants, one of which is vitamin E. This vitamin is critical for keeping your immune system healthy and for helping your cells communicate. Studies show that getting enough vitamin E in your diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and age related macular degeneration

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Potential Health Benefits of Palm Oil

Palm oil is a great source of antioxidants, however, the same aspects that make palm oil useful may sometimes cause complications for people with certain medical conditions.

Some of the health benefits that scientific studies currently support include:

Better Brain Health

The vitamin E found in palm oil has been connected to improved brain health. This form of vitamin E, known as tocotrienol, has been shown to protect brain tissue from dangerous free radicals more effectively than other antioxidants. In fact, one study showed that palm oil tocotrienols may even halt the progression of brain lesions. Yet, more studies are needed to further support these findings. 

Promotes Heart Health

Certain studies appear to show that the vitamin E in palm oil can also improve heart health. The antioxidant effects of vitamin E found in palm oil seem to reduce or even halt the progression of heart disease in some patients. While more studies need to be done to replicate this effect, palm oil extract may be useful for people fighting heart disease.

Vitamin Absorption

Palm oil may help increase the amount of vitamin A you can absorb, which is a critical vitamin for your retinas and general eye health. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that you need fat in your diet to absorb the vitamin efficiently. Adding palm oil to your diet has been shown to increase your body’s ability to absorb vitamin A, and presumably other fat-soluble vitamins. 

Potential Risks of Palm Oil

Because palm oil is a dense source of nutrition, it may have negative effects on some people. Consider the following before using palm oil in your cooking:

Increased Cholesterol Levels

While some studies suggest that palm oil decreases cholesterol levels, others suggest that it may raise “bad” cholesterol levels. These studies compared palm oil to other liquid oils such as olive oil, and generally found that palm oil performed worse than alternatives. One study found that palm oil increased cholesterol in healthy individuals. Palm oil is likely healthier than butter, but you should not add palm oil on top of other types of oil. 

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Linked to Atherosclerosis

Fresh palm oil and older palm oil show significantly different levels of tocotrienol. Because of this, reheated palm oil shows far fewer benefits than fresh palm oil. In fact, reheated palm oil may not just lose the heart benefits of fresh palm oil, it may actually increase your risk of heart disease such as atherosclerosis. If you are at risk for heart disease, avoid eating reheated palm oil or foods containing reheated palm oil. 

High in Saturated Fats

Compared to other liquid oils, palm oil is relatively high in saturated fats. Palm oil is about 34% saturated fat, while olive oil is less than half of that. Saturated fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and chronic health conditions. 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 22, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Palm olein increases plasma cholesterol moderately compared with olive oil in healthy individuals.”

BMJ: “Dietary fat and cardiometabolic health: evidence, controversies, and consensus for guidance.”

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon: “Oil, palm.”

Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine: “Reheated palm oil consumption and risk of atherosclerosis: evidence at ultrastructural level.”

FoodData Central: “Oil, palm.”

Journal of Tropical Pediatrics: “Impact of vitamin A supplementation through different dosages of red palm oil and retinol palmitate on preschool children.”

Lipids: “Antioxidant effects of tocotrienols in patients with hyperlipidemia and carotid stenosis.”

National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin A.”

National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin E.”

Stroke: “Clinical investigation of the protective effects of palm vitamin E tocotrienols on brain white matter.”

World Wide Fund for Nature: “8 things to know about palm oil.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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