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Palm Oil: What’s The Controversy?


It’s one of the cheapest oils to produce and it is in more foods than you can imagine… In it’s raw form it has been found to have numerous health benefits. So why all the recent controversy surrounding palm oil?

The harsh reality is that its production poses a serious environmental threat to the Indonesian rainforests and its inhabitants. That’s not its only drawback, as once it’s processed and refined, palm oil also poses significant health threats to consumers – and that includes almost all of us, given how many products contain it.

Just go to your kitchen cupboard and look at the ingredients listed on the packaging of some of the items you’ve bought… I’m guessing that “vegetable oil” is listed on many of those labels, right? Vegetable oil is usually a blend of oils and in the UK, the oils used most in vegetable oil are soya, rapeseed, sunflower, maize and palm oils.

Palm Oil: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…

Palm oil in its natural raw form (red palm oil) promises to deliver many health benefits. Most of these benefits are linked to the high concentration of Vitamin E-tocotrienols (phytonutrient) it contains. Tocotrienol is a form of natural vitamin E that can protect against brain cell damage, prevent cancer and reduce cholesterol.

Here are some of the health benefits linked to red palm oil:

  • Atherosclerosis: Studies show that adding red palm oil to your diet can reverse the process of atherosclerosis. This has been proven in both animal and human studies. In one study, 50 participants were divided in to two equal groups. All participants were diagnosed with atherosclerosis and had suffered at least one stroke. With no other changes to their diets or medication, half of the participants were given red palm oil and the other half received placebos and served as the control. At the end of the study, in the group receiving red palm oil atherosclerosis was halted in 23 of the 25 participants. In comparison, no one in the control group showed any improvement.
  • Lowering cholesterol: In a US study at the University of Illinois College of Medicine researchers demonstrated a 10 percent drop in total cholesterol in 36 subjects with high cholesterol. The subjects were given red palm oil capsules for four weeks.
  • Antioxidant power: Red palm oil is the richest natural source of provitamin A carotenes (beta- carotene and alpha-carotene). It has 15 times more provitamin A than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes, proving it to be a – super antioxidant food – which makes it an ideal anticancer food.
  • Cancer: Studies show that palm tocotrienols inhibit the growth of skin, pancreatic, stomach, liver, lung, colon, breast, prostate and other cancers. Most research to date has been done with breast cancer where tocotrienols show great promise. Tocotrienols not only prevent cancer from taking hold but actively block its growth and initiate apoptosis – a process where diseased cells “commit suicide”. Ordinary vitamin E does not induce programmed cell death in cancer cells. Only tocotrienols have this effect.

Given these numerous health benefits, it is hard to believe that palm oil has suffered such bad press. But why?

Palm oil consists of 50 per cent saturated fat.

Saturated fat turns to trans-fat when put through a refining process called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation. Most of the palm oil used in our processed and packaged foods are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, so all that natural and powerful goodness has been destroyed and the result is simple: Man-made trans-fats with no nutritional value.

In fact, the only value it has is that it is cheap, adds bulk to products, has a neutral flavour and gives products a long shelf life.

What are the health risks associated with palm oil turned trans-fat?

Numerous health authorities have warned against the use of processed or refined palm oil in packaged foods. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute warned that the “high content of saturated fat… found in… palm kernel oil, palm oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter” puts people at risk for heart attack or stroke. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned there is “convincing evidence” that palmitic acid increases the risk of heart disease.

Coronary heart disease: The primary health risk identified for trans-fat consumption is an elevated risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). A comprehensive review of studies of trans-fats was published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine that concludes that there is a strong and reliable connection between trans-fat consumption and CHD.

Cholesterol: Eating trans-fats increases levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol), especially the small, dense LDL particles that may be more damaging to arteries. Unlike saturated fat, trans-fat has the additional effect of decreasing levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol).

Diabetes: There is growing concern that the risk of type 2 diabetes increases with trans-fat consumption. The risk is especially higher for those in the highest quartile of trans-fat consumption.

Obesity: A 6-year study revealed that monkeys fed a trans- fat diet gained 7.2 per cent of their body weight, as compared to 1.8 per cent for monkeys on a mono-unsaturated fat diet. Although obesity is frequently linked to trans-fat in the mainstream media, this is generally in the context of eating too many calories, but recently research indicates that trans-fat may increase weight gain and abdominal fat, despite a similar caloric intake.

Liver Dysfunction: Trans-fats are metabolized differently by the liver than other fats and interfere with delta 6 desaturase. Delta 6 desaturase is an enzyme involved in converting essential fatty acids to arachidonic acid and prostaglandins, both of which are important to the functioning of cells.

Prostate cancer: A recent US study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, has found a link between the consumption of trans-fats and prostate cancer.

So even though raw palm oil is healthy in many ways it is rarely used in this form in processed foods. Instead, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated palm oil is used which has been proven to be bad for your health.

Destroying the environment

If the confusion about the possible health benefits and risks of palm oil is not enough to make you question the use of this ingredient in processed food, then hopefully this will:

  • Many food manufacturers and suppliers aren’t sourcing their palm oil from sustainable sources.
  • The result is shrinking rainforests through deforestation and the total destruction of animal life in the rainforests
  • As a result animal species like the Indonesian orangutan and elephants are at risk of becoming extinct in the next 10 years.

Avoid the consumption of trans-fats

Many packaged foods now boast that they contain “no trans- fat”. For years, only true diet detectives knew whether a particular food contained trans-fat. This phantom fat – the worst fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body – was found in thousands of foods. But only people who knew that the code phrases “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “vegetable shortening” meant that trans-fat lurked in the food were aware of its presence.

To complicate matters for the consumer, in the UK, there is no specific requirement for the trans-fat content of products to be included on food labelling. However, some manufacturers have started to do so voluntarily.

On the up-side, hydrogenated fats must be declared on the label, so if a product contains hydrogenated fats, it may contain trans-fats. Look out for the words “partially hydrogenated” on food labels as these products may also contain trans-fats. If this is not listed on the label then “vegetable oil” should set off the alarm bells for you.

However, once you start looking for this ingredient you will be surprised to see how many products contain it:

  • Warburtons, the bread maker said palm oil accounts for between 15-20% of the blend of oils used in its products.
  • Unilever, the makers of Flora margarine, Knorr soups, Pot Noodles and Dove soap is the world’s biggest user of palm oil.
  • Premier foods, the makers of Hovis bread, Mr Kipling cakes, Cadbury cakes and Bisto gravy granules uses 30,000 metric tonnes of combined palm/vegetable oil each year.
  • Nestle, the makers of Kit Kat, Quality Street and Aero uses palm kernel oil in a range of their confectionery and dairy products.
  • Kelloggs, claims the vast majority of its cereals do not contain palm oil and, where present, it is in small quantities.

Make sure that the products you do use, contain palm oil that is harvested from sustainable sources such as Roundtable For Sustainable Palm Oil and GreenPalm.

Disclaimer: Bear in mind the material contained in this article is provided for information purposes only. We are not addressing anyone’s personal situation. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.


Vegetable oil allergy, published online by the Food Standard Agency in the UK, eatwell.gov.uk

Shining the Spotlight on Trans-fats, published online by Harvard School of Public Health, hsph.harvard.edu

Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good, published online by Harvard School of Public Health, hsph.harvard.edu

‘What are trans-fats?’ published online by the NHS, nhs.uk

‘Trans-fat: Health risks’ published online by the Palm Oil Truth Foundation, palmoiltruthfoundation

‘Serum Trans-Fatty Acids Are Associated with Risk of Prostate Cancer in ?-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial’ by Dr. Irena B. King, published online Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, cebp.aacrjournals.org

Red Palm Oil, by Dr. Bruce Fife, published online americanpalmoil.com/publications/Red Palm Oil.pdf

Palm oil products and the weekly shop, published online by the BBC, news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_8517000/8517093 .stm

Orangutan survival and the shopping trolley, published online 22.02.10, news.bbc.co.uk

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  • In knowing that the people that come up with these labels are intelligent people. When the figures don’t add up something hidden and fishy is going on. To sell the product to wise shoppers.

  • Here’s a question. How do we know which vegetable oil contains Palm Oil? With a general name for something that is bad, it’s very difficult to know what you get. Surely, Palm oil is not the only culprit here, there must be other vegetable oils that turns to the same trans-fats once they have been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated – so it really is hydrogenation which is the real problem (except for the monkeys being killed)!

    I sat and went through some of the food I’ve bought to see what contains vegetable oil and what not… We’ll I was surprised and it will be a nightmare to change my shopping list for the future, because it basically means I have to buy everything fresh and cook a fresh meal every day! Back to basics or turn a blind eye? I don’t know really.

  • Interesting and factual. However, Paula you must’ve seen the article on The Palm Oil Truth Foundation’s website about the BBC documentary? There is mention of the Indonesian Government’s efforts to replenish the lost forest and I am sure there must also be an effort to rehabilitate the orangutans affected by the harvesting of Palm Oil. Their effort may not be enough and it may not have a significant impact because it was left for far too long to be destructive, but any effort is better than no effort… The Palm Oil Truth Foundation is factual too, they just seem to have a different take on the facts. Perhaps they are overly conspiracists but they have a few good points of view… however it seems that finger-pointing dominates the debate and few solutions are forthcoming.

  • I was horrified when I saw the BBC documentary and it is a shame that this kind of thing (murder to call it the least) has been going on for such a long time. To hell with the fact that Palm Oil is cheap and all that nonsense – the deforestation of the rainforest and the way in which it is harvested is killing innocent animals. The world is going green (albeit a bit late) but it’s time for people and corporations to apply ethical values in the production and manufacturing of their goods!!!

    I can’t give a hoot if Palm Oil is actually beneficial for ones’ health in it’s raw form or not – I am almost certain there are much safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives for it any way.

    I see many of the British food manufactures like Warbutons and Nestle are commiting to getting their Palm Oil from sustainable sources. This is good news. Even better news is that Unilever has distanced itself from Duta Palma – the Indonesian company which supplied Palm Oil to them. Great step forward but it’s time to act faster.

    Like Paula I went to the Palm Oil Truth Foundation website – always like to get all the facts – and what a laughing crock. Are there actually people like that walking this earth. Talk about misinformation… I also see this website have no listed contact details and their copyright is only dated till 2006 – clearly not a good source of trustworthy information…

    Thanks for this article and thank you for the truth. I hope news gets around and I hope we manage to turn around things for the sake of a legacy to our children.

  • Great Article!!! It’s good to see you cover all angles and you also respect our planet. There must be better options than using Palm Oil for any purposes – in my opinion it should be the last option if an option at all.

  • Look there’s many angles to take on this whole thing. Here’s how I see it: Raw palm oil has its benefits. Processed palm oil is bad stuff – end of! The bad stuff should not be in our food or household products!!! Small Holders need to feed their families and must have some livelihood to sustain themselves but too much harvesting (albeit turning unethical because it is done in protected areas) and corporate price-hikes should be capped. 3rd world countries with a strong and enforceable green policy should be rewarded by the international community (perhaps some form of dept relief) and they should be allowed to explore greener options to increase economical growth. In the same sense, should there be a international penalty system, penalising large corporations sourcing unethically harvested crops.

    The global community must work faster to bring ‘green solutions’ and accept that industry MUST go through a new revolution in the way it applies itself and sources its resources. Consumers must also accept responsibility for the effect they have in fuelling supply and demand…

    That of course is in a perfect world… and we don’t live in one…

  • Thank you for an excellent article! It’s good to see you also back the environment and endagred species like the orangutans – soemone should speak for those who don’t have a voice!!!

    As far as I am concerned Palm Oil is poison – unprocessed or not. There are many other options out there and I have learned that when you ‘go cheap’ you also ‘go nasty’.

  • Great article!!! After reading it I actually went for our monthly food shop and decided to see how much of the food I buy has vegetable oil in it… Goodness was I surprised!!! I also looked on labels to see if it said anything about hydrogenation and I must say I did find a very good indication of this on most labels – So, you were right!

    Pity is, I then went to the Palm Oil Truth Foundation website and see that they are advocating the ‘heart benefits’ of Palm Oil,
    but sadly they don’t mention much about killing off the orangutan and their natural habitat, neither do they mention anything about how these animals are treated and abused and tortured by those harvesting Palm Oil… So, in my mind if they don’t mention it, they must have something to hide…Ill Gotten Gains!!! Not much more ‘truth’ needed their. I am also appalled that they seem to side with the smallholders who plant palm oil for a living!!! Can’t these smallholders find something else to plant and harvest – change their way of life! Why should Nature suffer?

    I am sure you’ve seen the BBC investigation about the harvesting of Palm Oil and I think the killing of animal species and the destruction of a natural environment for the sake of harvesting Palm Oil that can easily be replaced by other vegetable oils – which are more sustainable and much more environmentally friendly – is good enough reason NOT to have Palm Oil at all.

  • I was impressed with the article on palm oil. I come from a region where we have coconut oil and most of our people in village use the oil with various foods either in raw form or with limited processing. Are there any health issues (positive or negative) with this oil. Has there been any research on this oil? Thank you, Mel Togolo.

  • Dear Sir, and all involved,

    thanking you for your dedicated information and

    journals, perhaps further info on the Palm

    fruit oil would make sense too.

    Kindest regards.

    Marianne Latinis

  • I read your article about Trans fatty acids. I checked my margarine tub and my Lurpak butter tub. The Lurpak states on the container that it “contains no hydrogenated fats or oils.” I followed your formula and the numbers did not add up. The total fat content was 4.4 grams higher than the other three so does this mean that Lurpak does contain some hydrogenated fat or oil? Thank you K.

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