Eating well is not only about eating healthy, but sometimes about eating sustainably as well.
I first became aware of the issues surrounding palm oil when watching National Geographic’s “Before the Flood” documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio. Isn’t it interesting that we live in an era where movie stars and other celebrities, traditionally associated with excess and extravagant lifestyle, now promote sustainable living?
Production of palm oil is currently growing at an enormous rate that reportedly requires massive scale deforestation in West Africa and South-east Asia. This puts great pressure on several endangered species and could result in extinction in a matter of years. Deforestation also results in less oxygen production, and increased green house gases. Local populations who supposedly benefit from the agricultural development are often not fairly compensated for their inputs. Not only the indigenous fauna and flora, but also the local people, are exploited in the production of palm oil.
Health aspects related to palm oil have not been fully researched, and what little research currently exists is highly contradictory. Some research has been done into retinol (vitamin A) content of palm oil, specifically to address maternal and child vitamin A deficiencies, which is a common nutritional issue in rural areas all over Africa. Vitamin A deficiency results in increased risk of potentially fatal diarrhoeal disease and ocular disease in children. Studies thus far show highly bioavailable B-carotene (vitamin A precursor) and vitamin A in palm oil, which remains quite stable despite exposure to heat, and could play a large role in prevention of these diseases (Loganathan et al., 2017). However, with the processing of palm oil, including refining and bleaching, the vitamin and phytochemical content is removed, and with it, the health benefits.
Palm oil consists mostly of saturated fat, widely accepted to increase LDL cholesterol, which can contribute to formation of arterial plaque and heart disease. But it is theorised that healthy vs unhealthy fats are more complicated than saturated vs unsaturated. Some studies have been done to determine effects of palm oil on heart health, but results are often difficult to interpret, as people with diets high in palm oil, are usually also high in other saturated fats and refined sugars, which are already strongly linked to heart disease (Ismail et al., 2018). I have also found that palm oil is mostly present in South Africa in highly processed foods, cookies, chips, etc which is better avoided in any case!!
The moral of the story is to eat unprocessed foods and avoid buying products that contain large scale commercially farmed, processed palm oil.
Ismail, S. R., Maarof, S. K., Ali, S. S., & Ali, A. (2018) Systematic review of palm oil consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease. PLOS one. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193533
Loganathan, R., Subramaniam, K. M., Radhakrishnan, A. K., Choo, Y., & Teng, K. (2017) Health-promoting effects of red palm oil: evidence from animal and human studies. Nutrition Reviews, 75, 98–113.
I am a registered dietitian, and this is my blog.
Please don't see it as anything other than a blog; general information, snippets that I find interesting, and recipes that I enjoy. It is not meant to replace individual healthcare from myself or other healthcare professionals.