Is Palm Oil Bad For You? Nutrition Facts, Sustainability & How It Compares To Other Oils
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.
What is palm oil?
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.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world1, 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.
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."
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 in human and animal studies3," she says.
Other studies4 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).
According to a 2015 report in the World Journal of Cardiology5, 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.
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 and heart health specifically9. One review published in Frontiers in Physiology10 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.
So, is palm oil bad for you?
We try to steer clear of cliches, but when it comes to palm oil, we think it's best to take an "everything in moderation" approach. While the oil is rich in some nutrients, like vitamins A and E (as long as it's unrefined), its high palmitic acid profile may be cause for some concern if your diet doesn't have a balanced ratio of fats.
"When consumed in moderation, the fat profile of this oil is reasonable and [thought] to promote heart health. However, when consumed in excess, it may have the opposite effect," says Gillespie.
Quality also matters, as does the oil's freshness. While palm oil is one of the most shelf-stable oils you can buy, it can go rancid if not stored properly (in a cool, dark place like a pantry). When this happens, the oil becomes oxidized and can increase free radical production in your body. This is true of any cooking oil, though.
The bottom line? "I don't know that I would go so far as to say that palm oil is 'healthy' or 'good for you,' but it can be a good option when compared to other oils," says Gillespie.
Palm oil vs. other oils.
So, how does palm oil actually compare to other cooking oils? Let's break down a few of the most popular:
Palm oil vs. Canola oil
Canola oil is rich in PUFAs, which have been touted as the best fat you can eat. However, there's a bit of a gray area here. According to family physician and New York Times bestselling author Cate Shanahan, M.D., PUFAs are highly unstable and canola oil is often stripped of nutrients and antioxidants during the refining process. And if you eat too many PUFAs or the wrong ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, it may lead to inflammation11.
While canola oil is a go-to cooking oil due to its neutral flavor and high (400 degrees Fahrenheit) smoke point, you're better off skipping it.
Palm oil vs. Olive oil
Olive oil is the golden child of healthy oils. The research is pretty settled that this monounsaturated-fat-rich cooking oil can help reduce inflammation12 and protect against heart disease13 in a number of ways—two of which are reducing cholesterol14 and triglycerides (while simultaneously increasing HDL) and lowering blood pressure15.
And while there's been a lot of discussion around whether or not you should cook with olive oil, it actually has a pretty high smoke point of 410 degrees Fahrenheit. So as long as you keep the cooking temperature reasonable, olive oil—particularly extra-virgin olive oil—is a great choice.
Palm oil vs. Avocado oil
Another option that's rich in monounsaturated fats, avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points in the bunch (520 degrees Fahrenheit), even higher than palm oil's. It also has a neutral flavor, so you can use it for any type of cooking and baking without altering the flavor. It's an excellent substitute for canola oil, and it's better for you too.
Avocado oil is rich in oleic acid and other plant compounds called tocopherols, polyphenols, and phytosterols16 that promote heart health.
Palm oil vs. Sunflower oil
Like palm oil, sunflower oil has a high smoke point that makes it suitable for high-heat cooking. Most commonly, sunflower oil is sold as a "high-oleic" oil, which is more stable. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat that has also been linked to better heart health, as well as lower levels of inflammation.
Palm oil vs. Coconut oil
Coconut oil has also taken some heat due to its high saturated fat content. While it has some palmitic acid, it's mostly composed of lauric acid, which has also been unfairly criticized. In one review published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society17, researchers point out that most of the lauric acid you consume is actually taken to the liver where it's immediately used as energy. Because of this, coconut oil may aid in weight loss.
As far as cooking goes, coconut oil's smoke point is moderately high at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, but it's not as stable as palm oil.
When consumed as part of an otherwise balanced diet, palm oil can actually be a healthy addition. The biggest drawback of the oil is its negative impact on the environment and wildlife habitats. If you decide to include palm oil in your diet, make sure you're choosing one that's certified deforestation-free.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. 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.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.