Palm oil is a component of countless foods. The vegetable fat is also often found in cosmetic products. It is the cheapest and most popular vegetable oil. With the high demand, however, not only the production increases. The environmental impact of palm oil production is now massive.
Palm oil has therefore been viewed more and more critically in recent years. Huge areas of forest have to be cleared for production. Palm plantations are created, which take away the habitats of numerous animal species and are anything but managed sustainably.
In addition to this serious environmental damage associated with the production of palm oil, the question of how harmful this plant product is to our health is being questioned more and more frequently. Whether palm oil is unhealthy is being investigated in numerous studies. In this context, it is often said that palm oil is carcinogenic.
In this article, we will now address the question of whether and how harmful the consumption of palm oil is for humans. We will answer the most important questions on this topic. At the end we give you some tips for possible alternatives to palm oil.
the essentials in brief
- Palm oil is the most popular and cheapest vegetable oil. It is found in about half of all supermarket products. The high demand is partly responsible for the massive environmental damage caused by palm oil production.
- Palm oil is increasingly being discussed critically. It is not only the environmentally harmful production that is problematic. Industrially processed palm oil can be harmful to health. Children in particular should only eat a few foods with processed palm oil.
- Crude palm oil is considered healthy. Some positive effects are attributed to unprocessed palm oil. However, if palm oil is heated and processed, substances are produced that are unhealthy and suspected of being carcinogenic.
Is palm oil unhealthy? what you should know
The production of palm oil not only causes damage to the environment. Scientists are investigating whether palm oil is unhealthy. There are now many indications that at least an increased consumption of palm oil can be harmful.
Palm oil is not only problematic because of the often unsustainable production on monoculture plantations. Processed palm oil contains substances that are potentially harmful to health. (Image source: Pablo García Saldaña/unsplash)
We have summarized the current state of research, important findings and what you should pay attention to in your diet with regard to palm oil below.
Is palm oil unhealthy or not?
There is no clear answer to this question. Basically, one could formulate: palm oil can be unhealthy. However, palm oil also has positive properties and can even be beneficial to health in some cases. For example, some important vitamins can be found in palm oil.
Palm oil contains a lot of vitamin E in the form of tocotrienol.
Tocotrienol protects the unsaturated fatty acids in our brain. It has an antioxidant effect and supports brain health. At the same time, the course of dementia can be slowed down. There is evidence that the risk of stroke is reduced and the development of brain lesions can be reduced (1).
In addition to the brain, the heart can also benefit from palm oil. However, the study situation is not clear here. However, there are studies in which people should consume a relatively large amount of palm oil for a while. This group was subsequently observed to have low levels of LDL cholesterol compared to others (2,3). However, low cholesterol alone is not a contributor to a low risk of heart disease.
However, there are other studies that show that palm oil can slow down the progression of heart disease and help alleviate symptoms (4).
Another positive aspect of palm oil is the high vitamin A content. Vitamin A supports our immune system, is important for vision and skin formation. Experiments have shown that the concentration of vitamin A in the blood increases after ingesting red palm oil (5). There are other studies that show that vitamin A contained in palm oil is better absorbed by the body than vitamin A from other preparations. This applies in particular to people suffering from cystic fibrosis (6,7).
|Vitamin E (in the form of tocotrienol)||protects unsaturated fatty acids in the brain|
|Vitamin A||important for the function of eyesight, skin and the immune system|
That all sounds positive. In addition, there are numerous studies that make it clear that palm oil does have negative effects. The LDL cholesterols mentioned at the beginning are divided into subgroups. Palm oil can have negative impacts on parts of these subgroups.
A study shows that palm oil increases the LDL pattern B content in women with high cholesterol levels. This increases the risk of heart disease. In comparisons with other vegetable oils, on the other hand, the value fell (8). Other research even suggests that palm oil increases cholesterol levels in general ( 9Trusted Source ). These studies contradict the positive effects of palm oil on certain cholesterol levels described above. Further research is needed here.
In addition, there are animal experiments in which it was found that repeatedly heated palm oil leads to plaque deposits in the arteries. There were also other symptoms of heart disease. These effects were not observed in trials with fresh palm oil (10).
Palm oil has a very high proportion of saturated fatty acids.
Saturated fat can negatively affect blood lipids. This increases the risk of developing vascular diseases and diabetes.
Is palm oil carcinogenic?
Again and again we hear that palm oil is carcinogenic. This claim is a somewhat abbreviated account. To put it more precisely, it should be said that carcinogenic substances can be produced or released during the processing of palm oil.
Almost all industrially processed vegetable oils can contain substances that are suspected of being carcinogenic. However, the concentration of these substances is highest in processed palm oil. (Image source: Marina Pershina/pixabay)
Raw, untreated palm oil is not carcinogenic. When palm oil is heated to 200 degrees and higher during processing, fatty acid esters are formed. In this case, these are glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) and 3- and 2-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD and 2-MCPD). They are suspected of being genotoxic and carcinogenic. These substances are found in almost all vegetable oils. But their content in palm oil is particularly high. The concentration of glycidol fatty acid ester is by far the highest here (11).
Crude palm oil is considered healthy, while industrially processed and heated palm oil poses health risks.
In the food industry, processed palm oil is used on a massive scale. The consumption of foods that contain processed palm oil should therefore be kept to a minimum. However, this does not only apply to palm oil, but to all industrially processed cooking fats.
At the same time, it must also be mentioned that the state of research here is not yet clear. Studies on the substances mentioned so far only provide indications of increased cancer risks. This means that at the moment it can only be said that glycidyl fatty acid esters and MCPD are possibly carcinogenic. So there is still a need for research.
How much palm oil is safe?
There is no general answer as to whether palm oil becomes unhealthy above a certain amount. First of all, of course, a distinction must be made between raw and industrially processed palm oil. Since the really problematic substances only arise during heating, i.e. during processing in other foods, we are concentrating on this type of vegetable fat.
The EU stipulates limit values for certain substances in the manufacture of products that contain palm oil. Since 2018, no more than 1,000 micrograms of glycidyl fatty acid ester per kilogram of vegetable fat or oil may be contained. For baby food, it may only be a maximum of 500 micrograms. Even stricter rules apply to liquid and powdered infant formula (12).
|Glycidyl Fatty Acid Esters||1,000 micrograms per kilogram, max. 500 micrograms for baby food|
|3-MCPD||limit is still under discussion|
The situation is different with MCPD substances. These are also suspected of being carcinogenic. Limit values are being considered - but not yet decided. This is still being discussed in the relevant EU bodies.
Is palm oil particularly unhealthy for children?
The short answer here is yes. In 2019, the Bavarian Consumer Advice Center conducted its own investigation into this question. It became clear that children exceed the critical limit values much faster when consuming products with processed palm oil. The smaller and lighter a child is, the faster the critical values are reached (13).
These results are of particular concern since no binding limit values have yet been set for the 3-MCPD mentioned above. So far, manufacturers have only been encouraged to keep the concentration of this problematic substance as low as possible when processing palm oil.
Which products contain a particularly large amount of palm oil?
Palm oil can be found in countless products today. From soap to chocolate spread to packet soup: In the supermarket there are hardly any products without palm oil. Incidentally, the top food item is margarine. The average palm oil share there is 21%.
For a first overview, we have put together some foods and cosmetics in which the palm oil concentration is particularly high:
- chocolate cream
- chocolate bar
- skin cream
- Shower Gel & Shampoo
- packet soups
- muesli mixes
- roasted peanuts
This list can be extended much further. Around half of all products in the supermarket now contain palm oil. The absolute highest level of palm oil can be found in conventional candles. They consist of an average of 45% palm oil. This is less relevant from a health perspective. However, the environmental damage associated with the production of palm oil is of concern here.
What alternatives are there to palm oil?
There are good reasons why palm oil is so popular in the food industry. It is tasteless, heat-resistant and has a long shelf life. Palm oil has a solid consistency at room temperature and contributes to the spreadability of some foods. So it's not that easy to do without palm oil.
Hidden Palm Oil
You should also make sure that palm oil is not necessarily listed among the ingredients of a product and is still included. Palm oil is sometimes hidden behind other names or is contained in substances derived from palm oil. This can be:
- Palm, Palmate, Palmitate: Palm oil is certainly included
- Cetearyl, cetyl: Obtained by hydrogenating palmitic acid, often found in (natural) cosmetics
- Vegetable oil, vegetable fat: These are often inferior oils or oil mixtures. The origin usually remains unclear. Palm oil is mostly processed here.
- Lauryl, Lauroyl, Laurate: Contain esterified lauric acid or derivatives of lauric acid. This is mostly obtained from palm oil.
- Stearyl, Stearates: Contains esterified stearic acid. It is obtained from vegetable or animal fats. Here, too, palm oil is very often the basis.
This list shows once again how difficult it is in our everyday lives to actually use less palm oil. This problem was recognized by politicians in Germany. That is why there has been a labeling requirement here for several years. This states that at least when specifying vegetable oils, the type of oil must be named.
This makes it a bit easier for consumers to identify palm oil in products. The criticism of the immense consumption of palm oil has become louder and louder in recent years. It is therefore to be expected that this labeling obligation will be further tightened in the near future.
Despite all the difficulties, minimizing your palm oil consumption is definitely a good idea.
The environmentally harmful aspects of palm oil production are particularly problematic. The components of industrially processed palm oil that are harmful to our health are also contained in other vegetable fats. However, the concentration of these substances in palm oil is particularly high.
Rethinking in the industry
A rethink can now also be observed in parts of the food, cosmetics and care products industry. For many products that traditionally contain palm oil, there are alternatives with other ingredients.
In the cosmetics sector in particular, there are now some manufacturers who do not use palm oil at all. A good indication are also environmental seals such as Demeter, which prescribe certain minimum requirements for the cultivation and production of vegetable fats - including palm oil. Compared to others, the Demeter seal has some of the strictest guidelines. This guarantees you the minimum requirements of a biodynamic farm.
Some large companies are now focusing on sustainability in the production of palm oil. Primeval forests are no longer cleared and important habitats for animals are preserved. (Image source: Tejj/unsplash)
Incidentally, this also applies to the food industry. There are also many (organic) products here today that no longer contain palm oil and can be consumed without hesitation. Similar to products for intolerances, the range of foods without palm oil is also increasing.
In addition, the large companies and manufacturers of well-known products are now also relying on a sustainable profit from palm oil. Palm oil is produced on sustainably managed plantations. There is no clearing of primeval forests.
In view of the environmental damage caused by palm oil production, this development is very encouraging. However, sustainable production does not change the unhealthy substances contained in industrially processed palm oil.
Whether palm oil is unhealthy cannot be answered with a yes or no. Raw, unprocessed palm oil is considered healthy. The vitamins contained in raw palm oil are particularly well absorbed by our body. However, palm oil is particularly popular in the food, cosmetics and care industries for other reasons. It is cheap, durable and has other properties that have a positive effect on many products. This is where it gets problematic.
The processing of palm oil produces substances that are unhealthy. They are also suspected of being carcinogenic. For some of these substances, the EU has issued limit values that manufacturers must comply with. Limit values are still being discussed for other substances. Industrially processed palm oil should therefore not be consumed much. This is especially true for children.
Children weigh less than adults. When consuming palm oil, it exceeds the permissible limit values much more quickly. The good news is that the industry has started to think differently. Palm oil is increasingly being produced sustainably, which is good for the environment. Many manufacturers even try to do without palm oil entirely - which in turn is good for your health.
- Khanna S, Roy S, Slivka A, et al. Neuroprotective properties of the natural vitamin E alpha-tocotrienol. stroke 2005;36(10):2258-2264. doi:10.1161/01.STR.0000181082.70763.22 Source
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