Palm oil, also known as dende oil, is a vegetable oil produced from the mesocarp (flesh) of the fruit of the palm tree Elaeis guineensis. This palm grows in Africa, Asia and Latin America and its oil has been used in food for centuries. Today palm oil is the second most common edible oil in the world and it used in more than a hundred countries. It is commonly used as cooking oil, in solid fats such as margarine and shortening, and in many food products, especially baked goods and snacks.
Palm oil can be processed in one of two ways. Natural oil is minimally processed by pressing and crushing the fruit and retains a dramatically deep orange color due to the presence of vitamin A. It also contains a fair amount of vitamin E. Natural palm oil is organic because its refinement does not require the addition of solvents such as hexane. Processed palm oil has been refined, deodorized, and bleached with a variety of solvents to produce a clear oil with fewer nutrients. Further refinement isolates the oil into two types; a liquid called palm olein and a solid called palm stearine. Olein is commonly used as frying oil while stearine is used in a variety of baked goods and in margarine that does not contain hydrogenated oils.
One of the benefits of palm oil is that it is a solid at room temperature. Therefore manufacturers can use palm oil in place of other oils such as soybean oil that have to be hydrogenated to make them solid. This hydrogenation process is costly and has serious health concerns. It increases the amount of cholesterol in the oil and also produces harmful trans fatty acids. Palm oil does not contain any trans fatty acids. It also has a neutral taste and is less likely to oxidize and turn rancid, which increases the shelf life of goods made with it. Palm oil is often used in healthy organic foods since the only other solid organic fats are highly saturated butter and coconut oil.
Health concerns regarding palm oil
Palm oil has been commonly thought to be an unhealthy oil full of saturated fat, a form of fat that promotes heart disease. This is largely because palm oil is often confused with another oil called palm kernel oil. This oil comes from the kernel of the Elaeis guineensis palm instead of the flesh and requires solvents to be added for processing. Palm oil and palm kernel oil have very different fatty acid compositions. The palm kernel oil is certainly unhealthy because it contains a whopping 88% saturated fat, but palm oil contains only between 40-50%, about as much as butter.
Soybean oil producers in America spread most of the false health problems about palm oil during the 1980s. They were concerned about losing sales to imported palm oil and set up various health groups and newspaper ads that attacked tropical oils such as palm kernel oil and coconut oil. This is where the confusion between palm oil and palm kernel oil probably began. Today many people still think palm oil is an extremely unhealthy oil, while it is actually healthier than many oils and fats including coconut oil, shortening, and butter.
Palm oil also has other benefits compared to other oils and fats. Because palm oil is a vegetable oil it does not contain any cholesterol. Studies have shown that palm oil consumption does not raise cholesterol levels and may even lower harmful LDL cholesterol. The natural form of palm oil has carotenoids and tocopherols that are antioxidants that have been shown to inhibit the formation of cancer. Palm oil also contains linoleic acid, which is an essential fatty acid that the body cannot produce.