Palm oil is the oil from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It has a distinctive re-orange color due to the presence of carotenoids in the oil. Carotenoids are the same chemicals that give carrots their color – hence the name.
Palm oil originates in West Africa and is a staple frying oil there, but it has spread across the world in recent decades as other tropical areas discover the benefits of growing and selling it and, at the same time, other food producers discover the benefits of cooking with it. Palm oil is cheaper than many other cooking oils and it makes a better cooking oil for deep-frying in many cases.
In consequence of these things, palm oil is now a major constituent in ready-made foods and can be found in the fryers of more and more take-out food places and restaurants, as well as homes.
But if popularity was a guide to health, high-fructose corn syrup would be a health food, right? Just because everyone wants to sell it to you doesn’t mean you should buy it. So, is palm oil bad for you?
Palm oil is on average about 41% saturated fat. Because it’s a vegetable product, there’s no cholesterol in it, but eating saturated fat drives up the cholesterol in your blood anyway. So if you have a heart problem you’ll need to monitor your intake of saturated fats and that includes palm oil.
Red palm oil is simply palm oil with a deep red color, caused by higher proportions of carotenoids in the oil. Red palm oil has health benefits because of these nutrients. It contains beta carotene and chemicals from the vitamin E family, and it’s exactly the same stuff as lighter shades of palm oil: the differences are due to how much it is or isn’t refined, just like the different colors of sugar or grades of molasses. The deepest palm oil colors are referred to as virgin, or extra virgin, just like olive oil. They’re actively sought out for their health benefits.
Virgin palm oil is rich in co-enzyme q10, which has a role in cellular respiration. As such, it also has a role in cosmetic creams and many of the facial and body creams designed to revitalize the skin get their co-enzyme q10 content from palm oil.
It’s also rich in vitamin E and it’s thought that the particular type of vitamin E found in palm oil may be more effective that the kind found elsewhere in other foods. The reasoning is that the vitamin E in red palm oil is made up of both tocotrienols and tocopherols; the vitamin E in most foods is mainly tocopherol, which may be less effective than the tocotrienols from palm oil. Both of these are fat-soluble antioxidants which also play other roles in the body, and they’re both vitamin E: but some people think that the tocopherols that most Americans are getting from corn oil and soybeans aren’t as effective in this role as the ones most Europeans are getting from olive oil and sunflower seeds and that the tocotrienols from palm oil are the best of all.
If you’re ecologically concerned there’s something you should know about palm oil. It’s getting the blame for deforestation in Indonesia as they switch over to oil palm monoculture and the orang-utan loses its habitat. But Indonesia is far from the only source of palm oil.
Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, if you have a heart condition, you’re best advised to tread lightly with refined palm oil because of its high saturated fat content. Virgin palm oil is more likely to help that to harm you but watch out for its taste: it’s supposed to smell like violets and taste of olives, according to one user. That’s not going to go with everything so choose what you cook in it wisely. Otherwise, apart from general guidelines about how much fat you should eat, palm oil is a perfectly healthy choice that won’t do you any harm.
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