Palm oil may not be a home kitchen staple like olive oil or canola oil. But researchers are taking another look at the health benefits and drawbacks of this widely produced tropical oil. Palm oil is on the ingredient list in numerous processed foods, and it’s used in many prepared dishes thanks to its high smoke point.
How does palm oil compare to other cooking oils, and is it as bad for you as experts used to think? We spoke to two nutritionists to find out.
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What is palm oil?
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree, a type of tree found mainly in warm climates such as Africa and Asia. It’s controversial because the trees grow in rainforest regions, and “the harvesting of this type of oil is being blamed for many negative environmental impacts,” New York City-based nutritionist Natalie Rizzo, RD told Health. At room temperature, palm oil is in a semi-solid form.
Pam oil is in greater demand these days. “Because the United States banned the addition of trans fats to food [that are sold in restaurants and on grocery store shelves], many manufacturers have turned to palm oil, which is an inexpensive substitute,” she says.
Palm oil’s nutritional profile is similar to other cooking oils, according to the USDA. One tablespoon contains about 120 calories and 14 grams of total fat, including 7 grams of saturated fat (the same amount as in butter), 5 grams of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and 1.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat. Palm oil also provides 2 grams of vitamin E and 1 gram of vitamin K.
These numbers are similar to that of olive oil, except for the type of fats. One tablespoon of olive oil contains only 2 grams of saturated fat (which can contribute to heart disease), with 10 grams of fat coming from the monounsaturated kind. Palm oil has less saturated fat than other tropical oils, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil.
How is palm oil used?
Palm oil is frequently added to store-bought processed foods. “Many ready-to-eat foods at the grocery store contain palm oil, such as peanut butter and coffee creamers,” nutritionist Maggie Michalczyk, RD, told Health. You’ll also find it in many brands of ice cream, pizza dough, bread, frozen foods, packaged soups, sauces, desserts, and snack foods, like cookies and chips, says Rizzo. In addition, palm oil is in some skincare and beauty products, like lipstick, detergent, and soap.
“Palm oil is also used for cooking because of its high smoke point,” says Michaelczyk, which means it’s better suited for cooking foods at high temperatures. In general, the more refined an oil is, the higher its smoke point will be, because refining removes impurities and free fatty acids that can cause an oil to smoke.
In terms of flavor, palm oil gives food a creamier, fattier mouthfeel. Palm oil is also versatile. “It can be processed and blended to produce a vast range of products with different characteristics,” says Michalczyk.
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Is palm oil bad for you?
Palm oil appears to have some health benefits. Some studies have shown that palm oil [can help reduce] the risk factors for heart disease and aid in brain functioning, says Michalczyk.
Palm oil is high in tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E that act like antioxidants. Some research suggests that tocotrienols can slow the progression of dementia and lower stroke risk, she adds.
Still, palm oil isn’t the healthiest oil you can use for cooking. And the jury is still out as to the other suggested health benefits. “The oil is about half good (unsaturated) and half bad (saturated) fats, but it’s in so many varying foods that it’s difficult for researchers to determine if it’s good or bad for you,” says Rizzo.
Some studies even show negative side effects. “There are studies that refute the studies that show palm oil has benefits for heart disease,” says Michalczyk.
Should you cook with it?
“My recommendation is that in terms of cooking, olive oil and avocado oil are the better options,” says Michalczyk.
As for the palm oil in processed foods you buy from the grocery store, it’s probably okay in moderation—but try to go with brands that nix it. “I always recommend looking at ingredient labels to check what is in something and if it’s something that should only be one ingredient like peanut butter or almond butter, skip the ones with added sugars and things like palm oil,” advises Michalczyk.
“Since it’s linked to negative environmental impacts, I wouldn’t suggest adopting this oil at home,” Rizzo adds. “I wouldn’t advise using it in place of other oils because we know the benefits of using olive oil, avocado oil, or even vegetable oil in cooking, and we don’t know the benefits of palm oil,” she says.
While palm oil isn’t as unhealthy as trans fats, it’s better to go with healthier cooking oil options when you prepare food at home or eat out, such as olive oil.
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