What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruits of the Elaeis guineensis palm. The major producing countries are Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil is estimated to be the most widely used vegetable oil globally: up to 50% of supermarket products contain it. (5)
Its production represents approximately 35% of the total oils in the world¹. They are followed by soybeans (26%), canola oil (15%), and sunflower oil (9%).
Natural palm oil has a deep red color and a strong odor. Before being used in the food industry, it must be carefully filtered. Initially, the oil is liquid; due to the refining processes, it becomes solid with a texture similar to a wax similar to coconut oil.
The nutritional properties of natural palm oil are not as bad as its fame. Its fatty acid profile is similar to that of other vegetable oils. The problem: when heated, trans fats can appear in their composition. In addition, its impact on the ecology is devastating. A fact that has mobilized non-profit organizations to fight to limit their addition to the products that we see today on supermarket shelves.
Palm oil products
Due to its high ease of production, palm oil is one of the cheapest. After refining, it becomes colorless and tasteless; it does not burn and does not oxidize. These nutritional properties make it one of the first choices among producers.
The most common uses for palm oil are as a texturizer and gelling agent in many products: from waffles, sweets, and cakes to industrial ice cream and cookies. In addition, this oil is widely used in industrial snacks, both for frying French fries and corn-based tortillas.
Palm Oil Product List:
- Ice creams
- Industrial cakes
- Frozen meals
- Breakfast cereals
- Snacks (chips, corn tortillas)
- Sweet cookies
- Vegan and vegetarian cheeses
Palm oil benefits
The benefits of oil palm are attributed to its high content of carotenoids and plant vitamins—two antioxidant substances which give it the characteristic dark red color.
Vitamin A is necessary to restore skin tissues and mucous membranes. The benefits of vitamin A are to maintain the skin’s health and stimulate its regeneration after the damage caused by the sun.
One of the benefits of moderate use of palm oil is stimulating collagen synthesis. Retinoids (synthetic analogs of vitamin A) are one of the raw materials to make this molecule.
The fatty acid profile of palm oil comprises fatty acids that are saturated in the highest proportion and monounsaturated in the second place. One of the benefits of these fats in moderate amounts is hormonal balance. In excess, they can increase harmful cholesterol levels. (2)
The main component of palm oil is palmitic acid, a type of saturated fat. Studies suggest that regular consumption of this acid in food significantly increases the level of bad cholesterol in the blood – compared to other vegetable oils) ³. Palmitic acid is found in large amounts in butter and animal fat.
Nutritional information of 100 g of oil:
- Calories – 884 kcal
- Total protein – 0 g
- Total carbohydrates – 0 g
- Total fat – 100 g
- Saturated fat – 49.3%
- Monoinsaturadas – 37%
- Polyunsaturated – 9.3%
Palm oil uses
Palm oil is versatile and stable, so it has various uses in industries. The benefits of palm oil are:
- Food products
The widespread use of palm oil in food products is not due to its benefits but its low cost and organoleptic characteristics. First of all, it withstands heating at high temperatures without changing the taste. Second, the high content of saturated acids makes it taste similar to animal fats. Lastly, it can be stored for long periods without rusting.
- Cosmetic products
Another use of palm oil is in the cosmetic industry. The oil extracted from the seeds is used to make creams and sunscreens. The main advantage of this oil is its high content of tocopherols, the active form of vitamin E.
- Cleaning products
The uses of palm oil in the cleaning industry are broad, from the manufacture of detergents to products for washing cars and floors. It is also used to make soaps, conditioners, shower gels, and even toothpaste.
- Pet food
One of the lesser-known uses is as an ingredient in pet food. Although they do not provide any additional benefit, some animal feed products contain up to 20% palm oil in their composition. (6)
Damages and contraindications
- In nutrition
Palm oil in moderate amounts is considered a safe food. The main danger of palm oil is its excess. One of the main contraindications is the increase in harmful cholesterol levels. In addition, if it is used for frying, the trans fat content can increase by up to 3%.
In most countries, manufacturers must indicate the trans fat content on the packaging. The maximum amount recommended by WHO is about 2-3 g per day. Exceeding this amount can cause harmful changes in metabolism.
Glycidyl ethers can be formed in some manufacturing processes—a type of carcinogen with potential damage to health. In EU countries, the content of these substances in foodstuffs is regulated by law: no more than 1 mg/kg is allowed.
- Ecological damage
Palm oil is one of the products with the most significant ecological damage worldwide. The environmental impact of large oil palm plantations on local flora and fauna is devastating.
The cost of producing large amounts of cheap vegetable fat is deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity. The various environmental protection organizations have recorded irreversible damage to plant and animal species in Indonesia and Malaysia. Due to an increase in the global consumption of palm oil, these countries are devastating the natural habitat.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. Its most common uses are for the preparation of packaged food products and the fast-food industry. The properties of palm oil are not as bad as its fame. However, one of its contraindications is for people with a tendency to increase bad cholesterol. The damages to its production to the ecology of Malaysia and Indonesia encourage the search for substitute products.