Palm oil – harmful to health?

Palm oil (palm fat) is as commonplace as plastic: we encounter it in detergents, cosmetic products,  chocolate  and convenience foods. But palm oil is considered unhealthy – its processing can even produce carcinogenic substances. The oil has also been criticized from an ethical and ecological point of view, because rain forests are mainly cleared in Southeast Asia for its cultivation – with serious consequences for people, animals and the environment. Here you can find out what effects palm oil has on health, what products it is used in and what alternatives there are to buying palm oil products.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil or palm fat is a vegetable oil obtained from the pulp of the oil palm. The oil produced from the kernels of the fruit is called palm kernel oil.

Due to its high carotene content, the oil, like the fruit, initially has an orange-red colour, but this is removed during refining. This further processing also changes the  taste : while raw palm oil tastes aromatic and slightly sweet, refined palm oil is almost tasteless.

The oil is very popular in industry because its cultivation is extremely profitable and cheap. In addition, it is heat-stable, has a long shelf life and, similar to  coconut oil , is creamy and spreadable at room temperature. It can therefore be used in place of hydrogenated fats and is a common additive, particularly in ready-to-eat foods or spreads. Because of these properties, palm oil is the most widely grown vegetable oil in the world.

Palm oil – a health hazard?

Palm oil can by no means be called healthy. In recent years, many medical professionals and consumer advocates have warned about the oil, which is now contained in about half of all processed foods.

One point of criticism is the  high proportion of saturated fatty acids.  Excessive consumption can have a negative effect on blood lipid levels, especially LDL cholesterol. According to the doctors, this in turn could impair the effect of  insulin  in the body and thus increase the risk of   developing diabetes .

Damage to the vessel walls can also result from an excess of saturated fatty acids. One possible consequence is vascular calcification, which   promotes serious diseases such as a stroke  or  heart attack .

Saturated fat allowed in moderation

Saturated fats are not unhealthy in and of themselves, but should only be consumed in moderation. According to a recommendation by the German Society for Nutrition, such fatty acids should make up no more than seven to ten percent of the total energy intake.

The decisive factor is not just the amount of a certain product that you eat, but whether the ratio between saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids is right.

Incidentally, there are other reasons why it is advisable not to consume large quantities of palm oil. Because as pure fat,  palm oil is definitely not a slimming product  – 100 grams have about 900 kilocalories.

Carcinogenic substances in palm oil

But palm oil is also considered harmful for a completely different reason: its processing can  produce carcinogenic substances. 1  Pollutants known as 3-MCPD and glycidyl fatty acid esters are formed when palm oil is heated. These fatty acid esters are found in all refined (purified) vegetable oils and are therefore found in many foods. They can be found, for example, in margarine, nut nougat cream or soy sauce.

Of all purified edible fats, palm oil has the highest content of glycidyl fatty acid esters. During digestion, glycidol can be split off from these substances, which has been classified as carcinogenic.

MCPD, which can form during digestion from 3-MCPD fatty acid esters, is also suspected of increasing the risk of cancer. In animal experiments, it caused tumors and toxic effects on the liver, kidneys and testicles above a certain dose. 2  Therefore, it is recommended to avoid dietary intake of this substance whenever possible.

Dangerous ingredient in baby food?

Baby food also contains the controversial 3-MCPD and glycidyl fatty acid esters. However, their occurrence in the manufacture of baby food is currently considered unavoidable.

This is because baby food must contain certain fatty acid patterns that are similar to those in breast milk. The fats required for this have to be cleaned, whereby the fatty acid esters are formed – there is no way around this at the moment. Although research is being carried out into other manufacturing processes, there is currently a lack of alternatives.

However, there are still no studies on the effects of these fatty acid esters on people, especially babies. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment currently assumes no acute health risk and recommends that parents who cannot breastfeed their child use breast milk substitutes as usual, as they provide a baby with vital  nutrients  . In addition, the fatty acid esters are also contained in breast milk.

Red Palm Oil

Despite all the criticism, palm oil is also said to have various  positive effects on health  . However, we are not talking about industrially used oil, but about cold-pressed, unrefined palm oil, which you can buy as “red palm oil” – ideally in organic quality.

In its native form, palm oil contains about 15 times as much carotene ( vitamin A ) as  carrots . It also has a high content of  vitamin E  (especially tocotrienols) and coenzyme Q10, both of which act as  antioxidants  in fighting free radicals and are therefore considered to prevent cancer.

palm oil in food

About two-thirds of palm oil production is used in processed foods, where the fat is valued for its creamy consistency and heat resistance.

Examples of products with the vegetable fat can be:

  • Ready meals such as frozen pizza and packet soups
  • cake icing
  • chocolate
  • biscuits  and snacks
  • Margarine
  • spreads
  • cured meats
  • Muesli

Cosmetics with palm oil and palm kernel oil

The oil is also often found in cosmetics because it has a moisturizing effect, smoothes the skin and can repair cell damage. After all, a quarter of the palm oil produced worldwide is used in cosmetics and detergents.

Typical cosmetic products with palm oil are for example:

  • soap
  • shower gel
  • Shampoo
  • cream and lotion
  • Eyeliner,  mascara  and other cosmetics for the eyes
  • lipstick

In addition, detergents, candles and some  medicines are  made with the help of the vegetable fat. In detergents or soaps, palm oil is used to produce washing-active substances, so-called surfactants. Palm oil is also used to produce biodiesel and in animal feed. It is also often a component of conventional animal feed.

Alternatives and Substitutes

Products without palm oil are sometimes not easy to find. For example, the fat is required for the production of many nut nougat creams, because most other vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature – except for coconut oil, which has a strong taste of its own.

However, in most cases it is possible to replace the fat. When making soap, for example, beef tallow is a possible alternative to palm oil – which, however, is not suitable for  vegans  . But  olive oil  can also replace palm oil in soaps. Coconut and soybean oil are discussed as further alternatives, but since these plants are less productive than the oil palm and therefore require larger areas to cultivate them, their environmental balance is hardly better.

Newer approaches to at least produce surfactants from rapeseed or sunflower oil are being tested in Europe. Acrocomia palm oil is also considered a possible alternative to conventional palm kernel oil. So far it has been less productive than the oil palm, but it can be grown in drier climatic conditions. This means that no tropical rainforest would have to be cut down to grow the Acrocomia palm.

Seal for sustainably grown palm oil

There are also various seals that mark products that contain palm oil from sustainable cultivation. The most well-known of these is the RSPO seal, which is very controversial, however, as the underlying minimum standards are reputed to be heavily influenced by the industry.

Nevertheless, there are some suppliers who use palm oil from ecologically responsible cultivation and fair trade. Various environmental organizations provide information on this.

Tips for shopping without palm oil

If you want to buy palm oil-free products, you often have to take a close look. Since December 2014 there has been a labeling requirement for palm oil – but only for food. The fat often appears under a different name in the list of ingredients, such as:

  • Palmitate
  • Palmate
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Hydrogenated Palm Glycerides

There are now more and more online retailers and lists of palm oil-free products and apps that are designed to make shopping easier.

However, the best alternative is to cook yourself with fresh ingredients. From a health point of view,  rapeseed oil  or  linseed oil are  preferable to palm oil, as these oils have a high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Reduced meat consumption can also help to reduce the demand for palm oil, as feedstuffs containing palm oil are often used in conventional animal husbandry.

deforestation of rainforests

Palm oil is not only criticized because of possible health risks. Around 74 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, and the trend is rising.

In order to meet the growing demand and to make room for the cultivation of oil palms, more and more rainforest is being cleared, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Deforestation goes hand in hand with the destruction of habitats for endangered animal and plant species and the release of greenhouse gases.

In addition, there is land expropriation and the expulsion of the indigenous people as well as often catastrophic working conditions and the use of pesticides on the palm oil plantations.

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