Weighing the health benefits of palm oil in our food
It is likely that in the course of our daily lives, we consume several food products containing some form of palm oil. What kind of nutritional value does palm oil have and what health benefits does it bring?
Palm oil is rich in vitamin E (specifically tocopherols and tocotrienols) which acts as an antioxidant in our bodies, boosting our immune systems. It also contains phytosterols, compounds found in plants that are scientifically proven to help lower cholesterol. These factors have in turn been linked with benefits such as better brain function, reduced risk of arterial blood clots (antithrombotic effect), and lowered blood pressure.
Vegetable oils are made up of different types of fatty acids, which is an area that has been widely discussed by the medical community and consumers alike. Trans fatty acids, created through the process of partially hydrogenating liquid oils to solidify them, are not desirable as they increase the amount of bad cholesterol in our system. That is why we have reformulated many of our palm oil products to completely eliminate all trans fatty acids.
However, when it comes to saturated fatty acids, it is not quite as straightforward. There isn’t enough evidence to draw a direct link between saturated fat and the increased risk of heart disease or cancer, but trying to replace it with highly processed carbohydrates could leave you worse off. In general, it is still recommended to moderate your intake of saturated fatty acids.
Palmitic acid is one of the fatty acids found in highest concentrations in palm oil, similar to what can be found in breast milk. This is the reason why palm oil (after it is modified to adjust the position of the palmitic acid on the triacylglycerol molecule) is often used in infant milk formula, as it most closely mimics the nutrition profile of breast milk.
What is perhaps one of the biggest benefits of palm oil, is that crude palm oil is the richest natural source of carotenoids — which contributes to its deep red colour — more so than even carrots, which are well-known for being a great source of carotene in our diets. A high amount of carotene in our diet is beneficial in preventing Vitamin A deficiency and related skin and eye diseases.
Current processing practices unfortunately remove much of crude palm oil’s flavour, colour and odour in order to make it more appealing to the mass market, stripping much of the carotenoids in the refining, bleaching and deodorising process so most of these benefits are never fully realised. The palm oil industry is making advances in this area, developing gentler refining techniques and multi-step deodorisation techniques at lower temperatures, which will help to maintain the natural beneficial minor components found within fresh palm oil.
The superior vehicle for Vitamin A fortification
Vegetable oil like palm oil is used in many developing countries as a food staple to deliver fat-soluble vitamins, like Vitamin A, to consumers.
The highest occurrence of Vitamin A deficiency is in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa . In these regions, governments have embarked on using fortified vegetable oil to fight Vitamin A deficiency.
The concern is that vegetable oils high in unsaturated fatty acids are prone to oxidation, leading to limited Vitamin A stability when fortified. Palm oil’s saturated fatty acid profile makes it semi-solid at room temperature and more stable to oxidation, making it one of the most suitable options for fortification. While palm oil is a suitable medium, the amount of Vitamin A present in the oil upon cooking is still dependent on storage and packaging conditions.
Like any other food product, palm oil has its pros and cons, and must be taken in moderation. Stay tuned as we explore how different forms of processing can improve the nutritional quality of our palm oil products!
Learn more about 10 products that palm oil helps make extraordinary here.
Dr. Paul Wassell is a specialist in edible fats & oils application working at GAR. He has over 35 years of experience in the field of food technology and application, in particular baking and confectionary applications. Paul has a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Chester in the UK.
 Soekirman, Soekarjo, D., Martianto, D., Laillou, A. & Moenchpfanner, R. (2012). Fortification of Indonesian unbranded vegetable oil: public — private initiative, from pilot to large scale. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 33, S301–S302.
 Benadé, A. J. (2003) “A place for palm fruit oil to eliminate vitamin A deficiency.” Asia Pac. J. Clin. Nutr. 12: 369–372.