The Many Shades of Palm Oil
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, they are incredibly cheap to produce and 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. The different types of palm oil can be confusing, however. Are they all equally healthy, you might wonder?
Many Names for Palm Oil – Are You Confused?
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. It 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. This is especially true 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. This variation is determined by the part of the palm fruit from which the oil is obtained.
Palm oil (Palm Fruit Oil) Benefits
Palm oil is derived from the fleshy part of the palm fruit. Hence, it is sometimes referred to as palm fruit oil.
It 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. This is a very low amount of these inflammatory type of fat, which is excellent.
Neither saturated nor monounsaturated fats are easily damaged by processing so this fat is a healthy shortening to include in a snack item.
The mild flavor and pale color of palm oil also works well for blending with a variety of foods.
Palm Kernel Oil Benefits
Palm kernel oil is derived from the hard and innermost, nutlike core of the palm fruit. It contains 82% saturated fat, much higher than regular palm oil.
The remainder is about 15% monounsaturated fat and only 2% polyunsaturated fats. Both of these amounts are significantly lower than palm oil.
Palm kernel oil is healthier than regular palm oil for 2 reasons.
Closer to Coconut Oil
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!
Rich in Lauric Acid
Secondly, palm kernel oil is a rich source of lauric acid, that magical medium chain saturated fat that is highly antimicrobial. It 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. This characteristic is particularly valuable 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. Note that food manufacturers remove some or all of the lauric acid from MCT oil. It is also called liquid coconut oil, but it does not confer the same benefits.
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 traditional fats that you have sourced yourself from reliable, green manufacturers.as you can using
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
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Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah earned a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Government (Financial Management) from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three 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, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.