Is Palm Oil Bad For You

All palm oil contains antioxidants, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats, and may have some benefits for heart and brain health. Unrefined palm oil is also rich in carotenoids that can help improve vitamin A status.

Is Palm Oil Bad For You? Nutrition Facts, Sustainability & How It Compares To Other Oils

Lindsay Boyers is a nutrition consultant specializing in elimination diets, gut health, and food sensitivities. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.

Expert review by
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Texas Christian University and a master’s in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts University. She lives in Newport Beach, California, and enjoys connecting people to the food they eat and how it influences health and wellbeing.

November 11, 2022

There are a lot of controversial oils out there (we’re looking at you, canola oil), but palm oil takes a lot of heat. Many people think palm oil is bad for you, but the downside of this oil is really in the sourcing and not so much in the nutritional profile. We consulted nutrition research and talked to a handful of experts to get the lowdown and to answer the question, “is palm oil bad for you?” once and for all.

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What is palm oil?

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Is Palm Oil Bad For You

Before digging into the merits (and potential drawbacks) of palm oil, let’s back up for a second and discuss what it actually is. Palm oil is a vegetable oil that’s made from the fruit of the oil palm tree. There’s crude palm oil, which is made by squeezing the fruit, and palm kernel oil, which is made by crushing the stone (or kernel) in the middle of the fruit.

, and over 85% of the global supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, although there are 42 countries that also make it, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

It’s considered a low-cost oil because it often produces a greater yield than other vegetable oils with an overall lower cost of production. While this sounds good in theory, it can create some environmental issues when production gets out of hand (more on that later). For now, let’s start with the different types of palm oil you’ll find on shelves.

Summary

Palm oil—the most widely used vegetable oil in the world—is made from the fruit or fruit kernel of the oil palm tree. The majority of our palm oil supply comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.

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Different forms of palm oil.

There are two main types of palm oil: refined and unrefined.

“The refined form, which is most widely used, goes through quite a bit of processing to get to its end product,” says registered dietitian Kristin Gillespie, M.S., R.D., LDN. She adds that refined oil is often used in cooking due to its high smoke point, but it’s also found in almost 50% of processed foods, like pizza, peanut butter, chocolate, coffee creamers, and margarine, and many personal care products, where it acts as a stabilizer. The majority of the palm oil we eat in Western diets tends to be found in these processed foods; we don’t use it for cooking.

“Unrefined palm oil is less processed than its refined counterpart. As a result, it has a stronger color and taste compared to refined palm oil, which is more neutral,” says Gillespie. Unrefined palm oil (also called red palm oil) is not as common in Western diets and tends to be more of a specialty product.

“Nutritionally and health-wise, they are similar; however, the carotenoids present in unrefined palm oil are lost during processing. Because of this, refined palm oil does not offer this nutritional benefit.”

Summary

Refined palm oil is highly processed and used as a stabilizer in many processed foods and personal care products. Unrefined palm oil is not as heavily processed and tends to be slightly healthier from a nutrition standpoint.

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Health benefits of palm oil.

Palm oil has been associated with a few health benefits, including brain and heart health and improved vitamin A status, according to Gillespie. “Palm oil is rich in tocotrienols, which is a form of vitamin E. These have antioxidant properties and have been linked to improved brain health2

link palm oil to better heart health, especially when substituted for trans fats. Palm oil is mostly saturated fat, but it also contains oleic and linoleic acids, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (respectively).

, palm oil has actually been shown to protect the heart and blood vessels and has no incremental risk for heart disease when consumed as part of an otherwise healthy, balanced diet.

Unrefined palm oil is also rich in carotenoids, which are converted to vitamin A. “As a result, palm oil consumption can help improve vitamin A status6

for those who are prone to malabsorption or deficiency of this key nutrient,” says Gillespie. “Of note: This benefit does not translate to refined palm oil (which is what we typically see used in the Western diet).”

It’s also worth pointing out that when used for cooking, palm oil has a relatively high smoke point of around 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Summary

All palm oil contains antioxidants, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats, and may have some benefits for heart and brain health. Unrefined palm oil is also rich in carotenoids that can help improve vitamin A status.

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The downsides of palm oil.

Now for the not-so-good news. Palm oil is especially rich in palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid that’s been linked to increased risk of heart disease7

in some studies. However, results have been mixed and controversial on the oil’s impact on health8

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in 2017 suggests that it’s not palmitic acid itself that’s problematic but the ratio of palmitic acid to polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) like omega-3s that you consume.

For the record, less than 10% of Americans get enough omega-3s, and according to Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, mbg’s director of scientific affairs, “We have a national omega-3 gap that needs to be addressed ASAP,” she previously told mbg.

And as we already mentioned, the World Journal of Cardiology has taken a pretty firm stance that there’s no benefit to replacing palm oil with unsaturated fats as long as you’re eating a nutritionally balanced diet otherwise (aka enough omega-3s and other important nutrients).

All that said, the biggest downside of palm oil actually goes beyond your health. Many old-growth forests are cleared away for palm oil plantations, most notably in Southeast Asia. As palm oil growers race to expand their land area to keep up with palm demand, they cut down trees, destroying wildlife habitats and harming a valuable carbon storage sink. Palm oil sourcing is a threat to the survival of orangutans, and it also threatens Sumatran elephants, rhinos, tigers, and the livelihoods of local community members.

It is possible to find sustainable palm oil, but you have to be extra diligent since cheaper versions of the oil are often found in packaged foods and personal care products. If you do purchase palm oil, make sure it’s RSPO-certified deforestation-free palm.

Summary

The saturated fatty acids in palm oil have also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease in some studies (though the research here is mixed). A major downside of palm oil is that biodiverse forest ecosystems are being cleared to make way for its production across Southeast Asia.

11 Best and Worst Oils for Your Health

While certain oils provide a health boost, others should be used with caution. Here’s what you need to know.

Leslie Barrie

By Leslie Barrie Medically Reviewed by Kelly Kennedy, RDN
Reviewed: December 3, 2020

woman pouring oil into blue bowl

Despite what you may have heard, fat isn’t a dirty word. Among its functions are aiding cell growth, protecting your organs, and playing a role in nutrient absorption, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). “Our bodies need fats in order to absorb certain fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, along with beta-carotene,” says Christine Palumbo, RDN, who is based in Chicago.

“Fat also contributes to satiety, or a sense of fullness, after a meal,” Palumbo says. According to the Mayo Clinic, the body processes fats, along with proteins, more slowly than carbohydrates, and this can help you feel fuller and support a healthy weight.

If you like cooking with oils in particular, that’s a smart move: “Fat is an essential nutrient, and liquid fats like oils are an excellent source,” says Jessica Levinson, RDN, a culinary nutrition expert in New Rochelle, New York.

Each day, women ages 31 and older should aim for 5 teaspoons (tsp) of oil, and men in the same age group should target 6 tsp per day, notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Just be sure you’re choosing the right oil. The AHA recommends swapping those with saturated fat for those high in healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, which can help reduce the risk for heart disease.

For a cheat sheet on which oils to choose, limit, and avoid, check out the list below.

The 8 Best Oils for Your Health

1. Olive Oil

Olive oil is a basic ingredient of the famously heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, and it is perfect for drizzling on salads, pasta, and bread. “Olive oil, and especially extra-virgin olive oil, is my favorite oil and the one I primarily use,” says Palumbo. Virgin olive oils are those in which the oil has been extracted without using chemicals, and extra virgin is the highest grade, according to Berkeley Wellness at the University of California. “[Extra-virgin olive oil] contains more than 30 different phenolic compounds, a group of phytochemicals that include many with anti-inflammatory and blood vessel-expanding actions,” Palumbo explains.

One particular phytochemical is getting lots of attention for its potential protective effect against Alzheimer’s, as research suggests. “Certain types of extra-virgin olive oil contain a natural anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal,” says Palumbo. “If it’s present in the olive oil, you can taste it as a peppery finish in the back of your throat.”

Olive oil also shines for heart health. “Extra-virgin olive oil contains higher amounts of healthful monounsaturated fats compared to other oils,” she says. According to MedlinePlus, monounsaturated fat can help lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. A study published in February 2017 in the journal Circulation found that a Mediterranean diet enriched with 4 tablespoons (tbsp) of virgin olive oil per day helped improve HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

You can use olive oil for sautéed dishes and baked goods, but it has a relatively low smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and starts to smoke), so it’s not good for deep-frying, says New York City–based Beth Warren, RD, author of Living a Real Life With Real Food. Last, don’t believe the common myth that heating olive oil ruins its polyphenol content, according to a study published in January 2020 in Antioxidants. While cooking may degrade some of the polyphenols, enough of them remain to confer their health benefits.

2. Canola Oil

Canola oil has only 7 percent saturated fat and, like olive oil, is high in monounsaturated fat. It also contains high levels of polyunsaturated fat, according to Berkeley.

Still, the healthiness of canola oil has been questioned. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one concern centers around the solvent hexane, which is used to extract oil from rapeseed to make canola oil and some fear may be toxic. However, only trace amounts are in the final oil. Another concern is the trans fat in canola oil — though Harvard says that the low amounts of trans fat are no different from many other vegetable oils on the market.

Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and a neutral flavor, so it is better for higher heat cooking, such as roasting and frying, says Levinson. Because it doesn’t have as much flavor as some other vegetable and seed oils, Warren advises against it for salad dressings and other dishes in which you want the oil to add some flavor.

3. Flaxseed Oil

“Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid, a form of omega-3 fatty acids,” explains Palumbo. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines provide the other forms (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), per Mount Sinai.

In addition to their benefits for your ticker, omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat that your body cannot produce on its own, may lower your risk for certain types of cancer, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Flaxseed oil in particular may help reduce symptoms of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

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Another perk? Flaxseed oil contains omega-6 fatty acids, which are also important for your health, per Mount Sinai. A study published in May 2019 in the AHA journal Circulation found that higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids were linked to lower odds of heart disease, stroke, and early death.

While you may have heard omega-6s aren’t healthy, per Harvard Health Publishing, that isn’t true; just be sure to balance your intake of omega-3s and omega-6s.

Don’t heat this oil, as doing so can disrupt the fatty acid content, according to research. Instead, use it in cold dishes like smoothies and salads, Warren says. “It is fantastic drizzled over greens or whole grains, or as a marinade,” Palumbo suggests.

4. Avocado Oil

If you love avocados, why not give avocado oil a try? “Avocados and avocado oil are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats,” says Levinson.

A review published in June 2019 in the journal Molecules found that avocado oil has excellent nutritional value at low and high temperatures. “Avocado oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil, so it is better for higher-heat cooking,” says Levinson. It can be used for stir-frying, sautéing, or searing, says Sara Haas, RD , a chef in Chicago and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Meanwhile, Levinson advises that avocado oil’s neutral flavor makes it a good option for use in baking.

5. Walnut Oil

“Walnut oil is a healthy choice and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, primarily alpha-linolenic acid,” says Levinson.

“Walnut oil is unrefined and has a very low smoke point, so it should not be used for cooking. It has a rich, nutty flavor and is best for salad dressings and as a flavor booster to finish a dish,” says Levinson. Walnut oil is ideal for desserts and other recipes that benefit from a nutty flavor, adds Warren.

6. Sesame Oil

A staple in Asian and Indian cooking, sesame oil makes the AHA’s list of heart-healthy cooking oils.

“Sesame oil is another polyunsaturated fat,” says Levinson. A review published in July 2017 in the journal Cureus notes that sesame oil has known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, potentially helping lower the odds of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fat and other substances in the artery walls that causes these vessels to narrow and raises blood pressure.

“It has a high smoke point, which makes it good for high-heat cooking like stir-frying, but it does have a strong flavor,” says Levinson, adding that “a little goes a long way, and it can be overpowering.” She likes cooking with sesame oil for Asian-style dishes but primarily uses it in sauces and marinades. Palumbo is also a fan, noting that she keeps “a small bottle of toasted sesame oil in my fridge — it imparts a sweet, nutty flavor to stir-fries and marinades.”

7. Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed oil is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point, which makes it a healthy choice for all kinds of cooking and grilling, says Warren. Its nutty but mild flavor also works well in salad dressings or drizzled over roasted veggies.

Like flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil contains omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Grapeseed oil also contains vitamin E, which acts like an antioxidant to help fight free radicals and is a key vitamin for immune system support, according to the National Institutes of Health. According to the USDA, 1 tbsp of grapeseed oil is an excellent source of vitamin E.

8. Sunflower Oil

Another AHA-approved cooking oil, sunflower oil is high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fat. Research shows that opting for sunflower oil rather than an oil high in saturated fat could lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Like grapeseed oil, 1 tbsp of sunflower oil is an excellent source of vitamin E, according to the USDA.

3 Oils to Limit or Avoid

1. Coconut Oil

This oil is controversial. According to an article published in September 2016 in Ghana Medical Journal , coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, is composed of roughly 90 percent saturated fat — but some believe that not all saturated fats are equivalent. “This isn’t the same as the saturated fat found in red meat that clogs your arteries,” says Warren. Coconut oil has a high amount of medium-chain fatty acids, which are harder for the body to convert into stored fat, she adds. Another perk: A study published in March 2018 in BMJ Open found that the oil significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels, although not all studies have come to this same conclusion.

That said, coconut oil may also raise your LDL cholesterol levels, according to a study published in January 2020 in Circulation , and that isn’t good news for your ticker. “It would be difficult to get your LDL cholesterol into healthy ranges eating a lot of coconut oil,” says Kimberly Gomer, RD, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.

If you want to use coconut oil for cooking or baking, the Cleveland Clinic recommends that you do so in moderation, within the recommended limits for saturated fat intake, and as part of a wider healthy diet.

2. Partially Hydrogenated Oils

The primary source of unhealthy trans fats in a person’s diet is partially hydrogenated oil, which can be found in processed foods, according to the AHA. These artificial trans fats are created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.

The FDA ruled that these fats are so bad for health that manufacturers must remove all trans fats from their products by an extended deadline of January 2020. You should remove partially hydrogenated oils from your diet, too, Warren says. Still, in the United States, if you buy a food that has less than 0.5 grams (g) of trans fat, a company can label it 0 g of trans fat, according to the Mayo Clinic, and those small amounts of trans fat can quickly add up if you’re not careful. (To see if it’s in a product, check for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the ingredient list.)

“People should avoid partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fatty acids,” advises Palumbo. “[They] help maintain a product’s shelf life, but they are detrimental to human health.”

3. Palm Oil

Palm oil is composed of roughly equal parts saturated fat and unsaturated fat, research has found. According to Harvard Health Publishing, because it’s semisolid at room temperature, it’s often used in processed foods in place of partially hydrogenated oils — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering it contains less saturated fat than butter and contains no trans fats.

Still, when cooking, palm oil shouldn’t be your go-to, especially when you can easily opt to use oils with lower levels of saturated fat. Also, people with diabetes should pay close attention to their saturated fat consumption (since they are at a higher risk for heart disease) and avoid sources of the fat like palm oil, according to the American Diabetes Association.

There are also ethical concerns over the use of palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Fund, as palm oil production has been linked with deforestation and unjust working practices.

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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