Palm Oil: Why Is It Bad?

Palm oil has been shown to have a negative impact on health, due to its lipid profile and the instability of the fatty acids that it contains. Here's everything you need to know.
Palm Oil: Why Is It Bad?
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 16 December, 2022

Palm oil is one of the most used ingredients in the food industry. It improves the texture and flavor of certain products, despite the fact that its nutritional characteristics aren’t good. At the same time, its overuse has led to an important environmental problem, due to the deforestation of palm forests.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are several types of oils and that not all have the same quality. They differ from an organoleptic point of view, but also in terms of their lipid profile.

The composition of palm oil

When the composition of palm oil is analyzed, we can observe that more than 50% of the fatty acids it contains are of the saturated type. In the past, the consumption of these elements was associated with an increase in cardiovascular risk. Currently, science has changed its stance on this issue, as the evidence isn’t solid in this regard. Now, if these lipids are subjected to high temperatures, the situation changes.

Saturated fatty acids contain only single bonds in their chemical structure. This makes them especially sensitive to heat. Applying aggressive temperatures, they’re transformed into trans fats, making them very harmful to the body. This is evidenced by an investigation published in the journal Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome.

To avoid alterations in the body’s lipid profile and an increase in inflammatory levels in the internal environment, it’s best that the fats that predominate in the diet be unsaturated. It’s not bad to include saturated fats, but these must be raw. Butter could be a good example of a beneficial food high in this class of lipids, as long as it’s not cooked.

In the food industry, palm oil is often added to food prior to a baking process. This improves its flavor and texture but makes it much less healthy.

Regular consumption of this kind of food increases inflammation and oxidation of the internal environment. Both mechanisms contribute to the development of complex diseases, according to a study published in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.  

The environmental problem with using palm oil

At the same time, the use of massive quantities of palm oil has caused a great environmental and ecological problem, as described in an article published in the journal Nutrients. Thousands of acres of trees have been deforested to use the land as a growing area for palm trees.

This deforestation entails an alteration in the exchange of gases at the atmospheric level, which ends up damaging the ozone layer and promoting all those processes that generate more climate change. With this in mind, countries have tried to sign agreements to reduce and limit the use of this ingredient.

However, the new recommendations and legislation haven’t achieved a reduction in palm oil consumption on a large scale. It’s true that more and more industrial foods can be found that state on the label that they don’t contain this ingredient, but this is used as a marketing strategy.

The fact that an industrial ultra-processed food doesn’t contain this fat inside doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes positive. There are many other components that are harmful when consumed.

Palm trees to produce palm oil.
Palm plantations and deforestation alter the atmosphere. The environmental problem that results from the massive production of palm oil has yet to be solved.

What type of oil is better?

When choosing an oil, it’s important to look at the lipid profile. As a general rule, it’s best for it to contain oleic and linoleic acid inside.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also decisive, as there’s evidence that they’re capable of controlling inflammation in the internal environment. In this way, the promotion of low-grade inflammatory processes is avoided.

Likewise, this class of lipids has been associated with protection at the cardiovascular level. Not only could they help lower blood pressure, but they also help prevent atherosclerosis.

For this reason, the most recommended oil to include in the diet is extra virgin olive. Not only is it excellent organoleptic level, but its nutritional characteristics are more than remarkable. Besides having optimal fat content, we must also mention the presence of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant.

Other good quality oils

There are other types of oils that can be included in the regular diet due to their high safety profile. For example, coconut is optimal to consume raw. It can be used as a dressing or even added to coffee; a combination that’s very popular within the context of ketogenic diets.

This type of fat contains medium-chain triglycerides; elements that also help to modulate inflammatory mechanisms. In fact, it’s one of the highest-quality vegetable oils. Avocado oil is also positive, although it’s harder to find and more expensive.

As a general rule, frying or breading food  prior to consumption should be avoided. Not only could the nutritional profile of the oil be degraded through these processes, but the caloric value of the food itself is increased.

The danger of seed oils

Just like palm oil, we can find seed oils on the market whose consumption isn’t recommended. An example is sesame oil, which is very common in oriental cuisine. This raw product has a fairly good nutritional profile, but if it’s subjected to high temperatures, it changes and oxidizes.

In this regard, it’s important to note that many of the margarines found on the market are made with this type of fat. We’re talking about an industrial ultra-processed product that can even contain food additives.

Ideally, fat should represent around 30-35% of the total calories in the diet. Although it’s true that in some diets, they can be increased to the detriment of carbohydrates, this strategy doesn’t always generate good adherence.

Olive oil.
If you can choose between all the oils on the market, you should always prioritize extra virgin olive.

How to reduce palm oil in your diet?

Limiting the presence of palm oil in your diet is a positive strategy. With this objective in mind, it’s a good idea to reduce the consumption of industrial ultra-processed foods, basing your diet on the consumption of foods that are fresh and have a high nutritional density.

At the same time, it’s essential to pay special attention to nutritional labels, especially to the list of ingredients. Here, the presence of palm oil or other partially or totally hydrogenated fats must be stated. These are considered trans-type fats and have been shown to negatively affect health.

Instead, the intake of fresh foods with healthy fats should be promoted. Extra virgin olive oil can be part of the diet, just like coconut oil or avocado oil.

Additionally, fatty acid supplementation may be recommended in certain contexts. For example, if the diet is lacking in fish, the consumption of omega-3 capsules is usually a good alternative. Even so, it’s always best to visit a nutritionist first.

It’s important to reduce the consumption of palm oil

Palm oil is a very low-quality product that shouldn’t be included in the diet on a regular basis. It’s used to improve the texture, taste, and shelf life of many ultra-processed foods, but at the cost of damaging the body.

Keep in mind that in order to achieve good health over time, it’s key to establish good habits, including a proper diet and regular physical activity.

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