Palm effect on health has been a topic of debate since it first entered the US market in the 1980s, where soy bean oil is widely used for cooking.
In the following years, palm oil was described as “unhealthy” and “hazardous”, even though it is widely used in palm oil-producing countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
It didn’t take long for palm oil producers to support and produce a body of research to discount these claims, resulting in confusion, which still prevails among consumers worldwide. Today, if one asks whether palm oil is healthy or unhealthy, the best answer is probably “it depends”.
In this article, we attempt to answer some questions about palm oil by looking at some of the common myths surrounding it.
Myth #1: Palm oil and its products are unhealthy because they are high in saturated fat.
Palm oil has higher levels of saturated fat compared with other plant oils such as olive oil and sunflower oil. Saturated fat is commonly found in animal fats and excessive consumption can raise total blood cholesterol levels, which can raise the risk of heart disease.
However, it also contains mono-unsaturated fats and small amounts of polyunsaturated fats, which are generally considered “good” fats that can help improve blood cholesterol levels and decrease our risk of heart disease. Therefore, the effect of palm oil on health and cholesterol levels is generally viewed by scientists and nutritionists as neutral.
There are two types of edible palm oil – red palm fruit oil (commonly called palm oil) and fractionated palm oil. Palm oil contains about 50% of saturated fats while fractionated palm oil can contain up to 80% of saturated fats.
According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), palm oil is different from palm kernel oil, which contains about 80% of saturated fats. “Palm oil is mainly used for edible purposes, while palm kernel oil is used for non-edible purposes such as making soaps, cosmetics and detergents,” says the MPOC in its webpage on frequently-asked questions about palm oil.
Myth #2: Palm oil is used to make margarine, which usually has trans fat. Thus, palm oil must also have trans fat.
Trans fats are formed by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats that are mostly found in plant oils. This process, called hydrogenation, helps plant-based oils achieve the semi-solid states needed for the manufacturing of margarines, as well as confectionery and bakery products.
Various studies have shown that trans fat can increase our bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels. In turn, this increases our risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
Most margarine products contain trans fat, but margarines made from palm oil are trans fat-free as the oil is naturally semi-solid at room temperature. Hydrogenation is thus unnecessary to make it more solid for the production of margarines and other products.
Myth #3: When palm oil is used to fry food, it can become toxic.
Palm oil is a naturally stable plant oil that can remain stable at frying temperatures of between 160°C and 200°C. Studies have found that palm oil can maintain its chemical composition at very high temperatures, making it suitable for frying and baking foods at those temperatures.
The oil can also resist oxidation at high temperatures. Oxidation is one of the chemical processes that make oil rancid.
Myth #4: Palm oil is not nutritious because it’s just fatty acids.
Besides fatty acids, palm oil also contains high levels of carotenoids and vitamin E. Carotenoids are natural pigments found in plants, which act as antioxidants when we consume them. Palm oil contains high concentrations of beta and alpha-carotene, which can be converted by the body to produce vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for our vision and immune system.
Palm oil also has antioxidant activity due to its vitamin E content. However, repeated use of palm oil through frying may decrease the level of these nutrients.
Myth #6: As palm oil does not contain trans fat, all palm oil-based products are good.
Even though palm oil does not contain trans fat, it is still high in saturated fat. Therefore, we should exercise moderation when consuming it. While palm oil is stable at high temperatures, repeated use of it can lead to the release of unhealthy substances such as free radicals and the decrease of nutrient levels.
As a rule of thumb, the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines recommends a limit of total fat intake to 20-30% of our daily calorie intake. This should be fulfilled by consuming healthier fats like unsaturated fats (from plant-based oils) and avoiding trans fats (animal fats).
To gain the nutritional benefits of different oils, we should use a healthy mix of palm oil, other plant-based oils and some animal fats moderately and appropriately.
> This article is courtesy of Nestlé.
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