The Many Shades of Palm Oil

by Sarah healthy fatsComments: 103

Palm oilAs more consumers educate themselves and wise up to the serious health problems associated with consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils like soy, corn, canola and sunflower which quickly become rancid and laced with free radicals when processed, food manufacturers are slowly but surely starting to respond.

Why has it taken so long you might ask? That’s an easy one. Food manufacturers and their shareholders love polyunsaturated oils – partially hydrogenated or not – for one reason and one reason alone:  they are incredibly cheap to produce and hence make the bottom line very attractive to corporate shareholders.

Fortunately, there is a healthy fat that can be used in processed foods in place of those nasty polyunsaturated vegetable oils that meets the profit demands of food company shareholders and also satisfies the ever growing consumer clamor for a healthy, traditional fat.

That fat is palm oil.

Wary consumers such as myself have been delighted to see palm oil becoming a more frequent player on the ingredients list of all sorts of packaged foods in recent years.   This trend seems to have gained momentum in 2012.

I even had a company email me just the other day which has come out with a new line of snacks using palm oil.   They are sending me a sample to try so stay tuned.

Many Names for Palm Oil – Are You Confused?

One thing that I’ve found confusing and I’m sure it’s confusing to other folks too are the various names used for palm oil on food labels.

The names I’ve seen used are palm oil, palm fruit oil, and palm kernel oil.  There is also red palm oil which is a very strong tasting oil that can be purchased for home cooking in ethnic grocery stores but is not used in processed foods – at least the ones I’ve examined.

I like to keep explanations simple as overly complicated things will rarely be remembered at that critical moment when you are about to decide in the store whether or not to buy a food based on what you see on the label.

The bottom line is that palm oil is a healthy fat regardless of the name used on the label.  Palm oil, palm fruit oil, and palm kernel oil are all just fine and dandy.

The difference is the amount of saturated versus monounsaturated fat in the various types of palm oil and this is determined by the part of the palm fruit from which the oil is obtained.

Palm oil or Palm Fruit Oil

Palm oil is derived from the fleshy part of the palm fruit and is hence sometimes also referred to as palm fruit oil.

Palm oil or palm fruit oil is approximately 50% saturated fat and 40% monounsaturated fat (oleic acid – the same type of fat in olive oil).   The remaining 9-10% is polyunsaturated fat in the form of linoleic acid.   Neither saturated nor monounsaturated fats are easily damaged by processing so this fat is a healthy shortening to include in a snack item.

Palm Kernel Oil

Palm kernel oil is derived from the hard and innermost, nutlike core of the palm fruit.   Palm kernel oil is 82% saturated fat  – much higher than regular palm oil.   Palm kernel oil also contains about 15% monounsaturated fat and only 2% polyunsaturated fats – both significantly lower than palm oil.

I personally prefer palm kernel oil to regular palm oil for 2 reasons:

First, the higher amount of saturated fat makes palm kernel oil a closer match to coconut oil than palm oil.   This is a good thing as I try to limit the amount of monounsaturated fats in my diet as they can contribute to weight gain.  In 1994, the journal The Lancet published a study which noted that fat tissue is primarily composed of monounsaturated fat.  Could this be a contributing reason for middle age weight gain that is so common in Mediterranean countries (Eat Fat Lose Fat, p.70)?   Being of middle age, this is definitely something that I watch out for!

Secondly, palm kernel oil is a rich source of lauric acid, that magical medium chain saturated fat that is highly antimicrobial and is specially produced by the mammary gland for a breastfeeding baby to ingest and benefit from.

Coconut oil is also high in lauric acid which is one reason it is such a wonderfat being studied by scientists all over the world for it’s anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties particularly in the face of the worrisome problem of increasing antibiotic resistance.

Hence, if I can get a food that includes palm kernel oil versus a similar one that has palm oil, I will personally choose the palm kernel oil every single time.

Is Palm Oil Sustainable?

There is a downside to all forms of palm oil and that is the issue of sustainability.  Deforestation to make way for palm plantations is certainly an extremely troubling environmental concern as is the loss of habitat for the orangutans in some locations such as Borneo.

As a result, it is important to support companies that use a sustainable source of palm oil so that your food dollars do not contribute to these environmental problems.

Another alternative is to just make as many of your snacks at home as you can using traditional fats that you have sourced yourself from reliable, green manufacturers.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Related Information

Coconut Sugar:  A Healthy and Sustainable Sweetener

Five Healthy Fats You Must Have in Your Kitchen

Walnut Oil: Healthy Sub for Flax Oil

Dr. Oz Gets it Really Wrong about Pumpkin Seed Oil

Argan Oil Benefits to Health

Red Palm Oil: Healthy Fat to Rival Coconut Oil

Selecting a Healthy Cooking Oil and Reusing it Safely

Caution When Using Chicken Fat for Cooking

Is Rice Bran Oil a Healthy Fat?

Cooking with Olive Oil: Yea or Nay?

The Healthy Home Economist holds a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Mother to 3 healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, ABC, NBC, and many others.

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