Coconut oil is all the rage lately, and many people have started to include it in their meal plans. However, coconut oil isn’t the only tropical oil in town. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are tropical oils as well, and while they may not be as popular as coconut oil, they’re quickly catching up. What are palm and palm kernel oils, and, most importantly, are they healthy to eat?
Palm oil, or palm fruit oil, is fat from the fruit of palm trees. Manufacturers use palm oil in cosmetics, toothpaste, soap, lubricants, waxes, and ink. In food, palm oil is used in margarine (including Smart Balance products), shortening, microwave popcorn, baked goods, and candies.
Palm oil is about 50% saturated fat (for comparison, olive oil is only 15% saturated fat), the kind of fat that may raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and possibly the risk for heart disease. However, palm oil also has vitamin E, and red palm oil has beta-carotene. Both vitamin E and beta-carotene are antioxidants that may protect against a number of diseases, including heart disease and cancer. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that participants who were fed palm oil had reductions in blood cholesterol levels, while those fed coconut oil had an increase in cholesterol levels.
While palm oil may provide some health benefits, it’s still very high in saturated fat, so it’s wise to use this fat sparingly. More evidence is needed from good clinical studies to show if palm oil can truly provide health benefits. Some people are also concerned that the production of palm oil is harmful to the environment, as it can lead to pollution, soil erosion, and rainforest destruction.
Palm Kernel Oil
Unlike palm oil, palm kernel oil is derived from the seed of the palm tree. The seeds are harvested from the tree and pressed in order to extract the oil. Palm kernel oil is found in margarine, creamers, chocolate, and ice cream, as well as in non-edible items like cosmetics, soap, and detergents. There is little evidence that palm kernel oil is beneficial in any way; in fact, palm kernel oil is about 80% saturated fat and may be more likely to raise blood cholesterol levels than palm oil, making this a type of fat to avoid or at least limit.
Although some interesting studies indicate that saturated fat may not be as harmful as we once thought, both the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute advise Americans to limit their intake of all saturated fats. Until we learn more about the role of saturated fat, it’s best to focus on using mostly unsaturated fats in your eating plan. These fats are considered to be heart-healthy, and include olive, canola, peanut, and safflower oils, as well as olives, nuts and avocados.