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Red Palm Oil: Are There Health Benefits?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 22, 2020

Palm oil is one of the most versatile food products in the world. It's used for preparing meals as well as an ingredient in margarine, ice cream and many other foods. Palm oil, and red palm oil in particular, is made from the fruit of the African oil palm, both the seed and the flesh. While this substance has been used by humans for thousands of years, the production of palm oil has skyrocketed over the past few decades. 

Red palm oil is less refined than bleached palm oil. The refinement process involved in producing red palm oil removes fewer nutrients, which makes red palm oil a potentially healthier alternative to standard palm oil.

Whenever a food becomes as universal as palm oil, it’s important to consider its effects on health. Science has taken to researching this oil to identify the health benefits it provides as well as its potential risks. 

Nutrition Information

A one-tablespoon serving of palm oil contains:

Red palm oil is a great source of carotenoids and vitamin E, which act as antioxidants to help prevent cell damage. Getting enough vitamin E also helps your cells communicate and keeps your immune system in good condition. Studies also show that getting enough vitamin E in your diet can reduce your risk of certain forms of cancer, heart disease, and age - related macular degeneration

Potential Health Benefits of Red Palm Oil

Red palm oil is a great source of nutrients and antioxidants, but factors such as its fat content and cholesterol can create complications for some people.

Studies have found some potential health benefits to consuming red palm oil:

Better Heart Health

In the right circumstances, red palm oil may offer significant benefits to heart health. The antioxidant effects of the vitamin E and carotenoids in red palm oil appear to help prevent atherosclerosis, or the narrowing of blood vessels. More studies need to be done to confirm this effect, but current research is promising. 

Improved Brain Health

As with heart health, red palm oil may offer brain benefits. The vitamin E in red palm oil may be able to reduce or halt the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease due to lesions on the brain. This is because vitamin E protects the brain from free radicals, which can damage your neurons. 

Support Eye Health

Studies suggest that getting enough oil in your diet can help you absorb vitamin A and other fat-soluble vitamins more effectively. If you have cystic fibrosis or another condition that makes absorbing fat difficult, adding palm oil to your diet may significantly improve your levels of vitamin A. This vitamin is also critical to the health of your eyes, so palm oil may help reduce your risk of vision problems. 

Potential Risks of Red Palm Oil

Because red palm oil has so many uses, you should consult with your doctor before taking it or any other supplement. Consider the following before using palm oil in your cooking:

Higher Cholesterol

While the vitamin E in red palm oil may improve heart health, other aspects of the oil can lead to heart problems. Compared with other liquid vegetable oils, red palm oil is worse at lowering cholesterol, and may even raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. One study found that palm oil increased cholesterol in healthy individuals compared with olive oil, for example. 

Increased Risk of Disease

Another drawback to red palm oil is that it is high in saturated fats compared with other oils. Olive oil, which is often touted as containing healthy fats, has less than half the amount of saturated fat as red palm oil. Because saturated fats have been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, this puts red palm oil at a disadvantage compared with other vegetable oils. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

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

Center for International Forestry Research: “The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia.”

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon: "Oil, olive, extra virgin."

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon: "Oil, palm."

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

Mediators of Inflammation: “Supplementation with red palm oil increases β-carotene and vitamin A blood levels in patients with cystic fibrosis.”

National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin A.”

National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin E.”

Nutrition Reviews: “Health-promoting effects of red palm oil: evidence from animal and human studies.”

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

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

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