A significant source of saturated acids, palm oil is an often contested ingredient, both for its health effects and its environmental impact
Palm oil is one of the most used oils in the world. Thanks to its versatility and low cost, its use goes from the food to the cosmetic industry. However, in recent years it has become subject of both health and environmental concerns. But is it really harmful? To know it, you need to understand how it is made.
what is palm oil
Palm oil is a vegetable oil which is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm, a tropical plant. It is rich in saturated fat and has a high smoke point (230°), making it suitable for cooking at high temperatures and for preserving products.
Palm oil is high in calories and high in saturated fatwhich can raise the level of LDL cholesterol (so-called “bad cholesterol”) in the blood when consumed in excess. This can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition to fatty acids, crude palm oil contains components such as vitamin E. However, some ways of refining palm oil for industrial use result in a reduction of up to 40% of the vitamin E content and most of the carotenoids. Palm oil has a higher saturated fatty acid content than most other fats used in food, such as sunflower seed oil, soybean oil and vegetable margarineswhich have a lower percentage content of saturated fatty acids and a higher content of mono/polyunsaturated fatty acids. Only butter has a percentage content of saturated fatty acids similar to that of palm oilwhile coconut oil shows even higher contents.
Is palm oil bad for you?
Till today there is no direct evidence in the scientific literature that palm oil, as a source of saturated fatty acids, has a different effect on cardiovascular risk than other fats with a similar percentage composition of saturated and mono/polyunsaturated fats, such as, for example, butter. The minor effect of other vegetable fats, such as sunflower oil, in modifying the plasma lipid structure is due to the lower intake of saturated fatty acids and the simultaneous higher intake of polyunsaturated fats. As specified by the Ministry of Health in a report on palm oil, “A product consumed infrequently will weigh less on average than a widely consumed product”. The other words, palm oil, like other hydrogenated fats, can pose a health hazard to the extent that it is taken in huge quantities and very frequently. Above all, segments of the population such as children, the elderly, dyslipidemic, obese, patients with previous cardiovascular events, hypertensive patients are more vulnerable than the general population. “For this reason, in the context of a varied and balanced diet, including naturally containing foods saturated fatty acids (meat, dairy products, eggs), it is necessary to reiterate the need to limit the consumption of foods containing high quantities of saturated fats which, in the intake estimates formulated in this opinion, appear moderately in excess in the diet of the younger sections of the Italian population “, concludes the report.
In addition to health concerns, the use of palm oil has raised significant concerns regarding its environmental impact. Palm oil production is associated with deforestation, loss of habitat for endangered species and greenhouse gas emissions. One of the advantages of palm oil is its high yield, which makes it an increasingly sought-after ingredient in the food and cosmetic industries. The increase in market demand has meant that in the main producing countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Latin America, there has been massive deforestation to make room for palm cultivation. This has resulted in the loss of entire ecosystems and increased greenhouse gas emissions. The advent of some certified crops has allowed a change of direction, but it is still too little compared to the environmental devastation that has occurred so far.
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