In a prior article we talked about coconut oil and its health benefits. Now, I’d like to share another popular tropical oil – palm oil, or palm fruit oil – which is extracted from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis. Palm oil has a little more controversy to it than coconut oil. Like many of my patients, you may remember the bad press that “tropical oils” received years ago with powdered coffee creamers being targeted.
With further research, however, it turns out that palm oil and coconut oil were not the real issue with powdered creamers; it was the hydrogenated soybean oil (trans fat) they contain. Like coconut oil, palm oil, has been used in healthy diets around the world for centuries. However, some research makes palm oil health benefits a little confusing.
Palm Oil – Natural, No Trans Fat Cooking
Palm oil is the most frequently used cooking oil around the world secondary to soybean oil. It has been used for over 5,000 years in Africa and in south Asian countries, like Malaysia, et al, since the early 1900’s. It is used in preparing foods either by baking or deep fat frying. It is shelf stable, high in vitamins A, E, CoQ10, K and contains no dangerous trans fats.
Although palm oil contains saturated fat, which medical research tells us can cause heart disease; the countries that use palm oil have much lower levels of heart disease than the United States. The difference may be that the American diet predominantly uses hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated, polyunsaturated oils that are trans fats. In addition, the typical American diet is much higher in refined sugar and high glycemic starches. A bad combination for hearts!
Palm oil (not to be confused with palm kernel oil), has even less saturated fat than coconut oil, and its unsaturated fat is mostly the monounsaturated type (like olive oil). It also contains good amounts of tocotrienol Vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant shown in research to lower cholesterol, prevent dangerous lipids oxidation and may even reverse dangerous arterial plaques.
Interestingly, Europe has banned trans fat oils since 2004. Surprisingly, European diets, especially the French, also contain large amounts of saturated fats like real butter. Yet, heart disease in France is also very low. This is known to medical researchers as the French Paradox. At least in France, the amount of red wine (and the resveratrol it contains) consumption was felt to be responsible for the low heart disease rates. Are the countries who consume high palm oil diets also consuming some other food/drink that is negating their high saturated fat diets as well?
To make matters more confusing, in 2009 researchers out of the U.S. ARS – Agricultural Research Service – did a study comparing diets containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat), palm oil (a saturated fat), canola oil (monounsaturated fat) and soybean oil (high polyunsaturated fat). The purpose of the study was to determine if palm oil could be a good substitute for trans fat type oils.
The results suggested that the people who consumed the trans fat and the palm oil diets would result in higher, unfavorable levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and apolipoprotein A (a protein that attaches itself to fat particles and carries it throughout the blood stream).
Perhaps there were other factors in the ARS research test diet, like high sugar/glycemic index foods which may have skewed the findings. High sugar/glycemic index foods consumed with saturated fats can create elevated triglyceride levels that can lead to hardening/thickening of arteries and build ups of arterial plaques. Also, it was not noted if the palm oil used in the ARS study was red palm oil or RBD type palm oil from which the heart-protective vitamin E content may have been stripped. Indeed, more recent research (2010) out of China, reported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health shows that “tocotrienol enriched palm oil” prevents atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries). Confusing research findings to be sure.
It should be noted, however, that the traditional diets of the countries that use palm oil do not contain refined sugar foods. They are predominantly root vegetables like yams, plantains, greens with natural sugars. However, it has been shown that when these peoples veer from their traditional diets towards a more western, American diet, i. e. adding more refined sugars and starches, their levels of heart disease also increase. In addition, the American Palm Oil Council cites palm fruit oil as capable of lowering LDL cholesterol and boosting good, HDL cholesterol.
Types of Palm Oil
There are two types of palm oil you can use – their only difference is the amount of natural vitamins they contain.
1. Palm shortening. This is a clear/white palm oil made from red palm oil that the Vitamin A carotene content/color has been removed from. Often referred to as RBD – refined, bleached, deodorized – palm oil. It is unclear if all the natural vitamins of red palm oil are also removed during the carotene color stripping. However, labels of at least one organic palm-shortening product do not list any vitamin E, K or Co-Q10 content. This type of palm oil is used when the natural color, taste, or odor of virgin palm oil is not desired. Not prone to rancidity, it does not need to be refrigerated and can be stored in a cupboard.
2. Virgin Red Palm oil – This oil retains its natural reddish color from the vitamin A carotenes and vitamin E tocotrienols and other vitamins that has been left in. Like palm shortening, red palm oil doesn’t have to be refrigerated after opening. Red palm oil also contains CoQ10, a powerful energy and heart enhancing agent, and vitamin K. The natural smell and color can affect the taste of foods that it is used with. I recommend using this type of palm oil over the RBD variety.
As I tell my patients, although there is confusing research findings, I feel that palm fruit oil can be a healthy alternative to cooking with partially hydrogenated soybean (or other) trans fat oils. I would recommend staying with the virgin palm oil to get the full array of vitamins, especially vitamin E tocotrienols it contains, to ensure good heart health.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
photo credit: superfoodplus.co.uk
Palm Oil Not A Healthy Substitute For Trans Fats, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090502084827.htm
Palm Oil Health Benefits, http://www.americanpalmoil.com/benefits.html
Tocotrienol enriched palm oil prevents atherosclerosis through modulating the activities of perixosome proliferator-activated receptors, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20138624