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PALM OIL: A Better Choice for Home and Commercial Use
Bruce Fife, N.D.


      “No level of trans fats is safe,” so says the United States Institute of Medicine. The recent requirement for all food labels to list trans fat content has manufacturers scrambling to find replacements for hydrogenated vegetable oils—the sole source of artificial trans fats in our diet. Hydrogenated vegetable oils, including margarine and shortening, are found in most every packaged food item on the grocery shelves and used extensively in the food service industry.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils are popular in food processing because they are firm, resist oxidization, retard spoilage—all necessary for packaged, prepared foods. Liquid vegetable oils are unsuitable because they oxidize easily, readily develop off flavors, and lack the firmness needed for baking.

In an effort to find a replacement for hydrogenated oils, food chemists have been busy fractionating fats and oils, creating new fats, and recombining them in various ways to create relatively hard fats that are trans fat-free and contain as little saturated fat as possible. Agricultural scientists are also experimenting with genetically modified plants to find a solution. Some of these manufactured oils are now being incorporated into our foods.

A far simpler and healthier solution is to go back to the fats we used before we had hydrogenated oils—traditional fats that have been used successfully for generations. Some food manufacturers are doing that. One such fat that is gaining wider use is palm oil. Compared to other fats, palm oil is far superior in nutrient content and cooking properties. Palm oil is highly resistant to oxidation and rancidity and can withstand the high temperatures used in cooking, baking, and deep frying.

Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). The oil palm originated in tropical Africa but is now also cultivated in Southeast Asia and South America. Palm oil has been a part of the human diet for at least 5000 years. In the wild, animals regularly feast upon the fruit for its nutrient rich oil.

Palm fruit is about the size of a small plum and grows in large bunches. Each bunch may contain a 1000 individual fruits. The oil palm produces fruit continuously year round with a new bunch ripening about every month. So the fruit is always in season.

Palm fruit is rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. Crude or virgin palm oil is called “red” palm oil because of its characteristic dark red color. The color is from the high content of beta-carotene and lycopene, the same nutrients that give tomatoes and carrots their red and orange colors. Red palm oil contains the highest natural source of provitamin A carotenes (beta-carotene and alpha-carotene). It contains 15 times more provitamin A carotenes than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes. Our bodies can convert provitamin A carotenes into vitamin A. Because red palm oil is a rich source of carotenes, as well as many other nutrients, it is being used by governments throughout the world to fight malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency.

Palm oil is also one of the richest natural sources of vitamin E and the best source of a super powerful form of vitamin E known as tocotrienol. There are two major forms of vitamin E—tocopherol and tocotrienol. Each type has four subtypes, which are distinguished from one another by the prefix alpha, beta, gamma, or delta. Tocopherols are the most common form of vitamin E. Alpha-tocopherol is the form of vitamin E which we hear about most and the one used in dietary supplements and fortified foods. When people talk about vitamin E they are usually referring to alpha-tocopherol. For many years it was believed that alpha-tocopherol was the most biologically active form of vitamin E and, therefore, the most important. Most fruits and vegetables contain some mixture of all four tocopherols.

The more potent tocotrienols are not nearly as abundant. Some grains like wheat and rice contain small amounts. By far the richest source of tocotrienols is from palm oil. Palm tocotrienols display up to 60 times more antioxidant activity than regular vitamin E, making them super antioxidants, capable of affecting health far beyond the ability of ordinary vitamin E or even most other antioxidants. Recent medical studies have demonstrated the power of tocotrienols in blocking the formation of arterial plaque, regulating blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, fighting cancer, preventing neurological disorders, accelerating healing, and preventing free-radical damage that promotes premature aging. For these reasons, palm tocotrienols are now considered the premiere form of vitamin E. They are even appearing in vitamin supplements.

You can, of course, get this vitamin directly from red palm oil. Red palm oil is not only loaded with tocopherols and tocotrienols, but it comes with a variety of nutrients such as vitamin K, CoQ10, squalene, flavonoids, phytosterols, beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lycopene, and some 20 other carotenes. One tablespoon of red palm oil supplies the adult daily requirement for vitamins A and E in a synergistic mixture with other nutrients. The antioxidant content is extremely high so that the oil provides protection from destructive free-radical activity that occurs in our bodies every day. When you eat palm oil it is like taking a natural vitamin supplement. In terms of nutrient content, no other dietary oil comes close.

While red palm oil is recognized as an excellent source of antioxidants and other nutrients, some people have questioned its use because of its high saturated fat content. Most of the criticism comes from those who believe the saturated fat in the palm oil will adversely affect cholesterol levels. However, research shows that, if anything, palm oil has a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol.

Studies show that when red palm oil replaces other vegetable oils in the diet there is little change in total cholesterol. However, the cholesterol ratio often improves significantly. The cholesterol ratio is a far better indicator of heart disease risk than total cholesterol. Even if total cholesterol increases, if the cholesterol ratio decreases, then the risk of heart disease decreases.

In addition to lowering the cholesterol ratio, red palm oil also reduces a particularly insidious form of LDL cholesterol known as lipoprotein(a) or Lp(a). Lp(a) is similar in structure to LDL but contains a adhesive protein that enhances its ability to stick to artery walls. Lp(a) has been identified as a separate and distinct risk factor for heart disease. In fact, it is associated with ten times the risk as ordinary LDL cholesterol. Judging from cholesterol values, red palm oil appears to protect against heart disease.

Palm oil supplements rich in tocotrienols and other antioxidants have been shown to reverse blockages in the arteries of heart disease patients and reduce platelet aggregation (excessive blood clotting), thereby reducing the risk of a stroke or heart attack.

The high antioxidant content of red palm oil makes it a powerful natural weapon against cancer. Research at the University of Louisiana and University of Wisconsin, University of Reading in the UK, and University of Western Ontario in Canada, show that red palm oil is effective in preventing cancer and reducing tumor growth. The antioxidants in the oil not only block free radicals that promote cancer, but stimulate apoptosis or cell death in diseased cells. Much of red palm oil’s anticancer effects have been attributed to the tocotrienols. Researchers consider tocotrienols to be among the most potent natural anticancer agents known.

Free radicals have been identified as the primary cause or a contributing factor in at least 60 common health problems ranging from heart disease and cancer to arthritis and osteoporosis. Antioxidants quench the destructive action of free radicals. Because of its high antioxidant content, red palm oil has the potential to help prevent and even reverse many of these conditions. Therefore, palm oil may be of great benefit in helping to curb the onset and progression of many common health problems.

Palm oil not only protects your health but makes an excellent cooking oil. Its high saturated fat and antioxidant content makes it extremely stable and highly resistant to heat. It has a high smoke point of 437 degrees F making it suitable for all types of cooking.

Because it’s packed with health giving nutrients it enhances the nutrient content of foods. One of the great things about cooking with red palm oil is that when heated, it does not lose these valuable nutrients. Even fried foods, which many consider unhealthy, are made more nutritious.

Red palm oil is available at most good health food stores and from online dealers. Red palm oil has a high melting point so when you see it in the store it will be mostly solid. Its appearance may look orange-red. When melted it turns a darker red.

You can use red palm oil in all of your cooking at home. In recipes that call for vegetable oil, margarine, shortening, or some other fat you can substitute in red palm oil. The main difference you will notice is that the dark red color of the oil may give your foods a yellowish or orange color, depending on how much oil you use. This can actually enhance the appearance of your foods.

Because red palm oil is rich in carotenes, the oil has a distinct flavor. A good quality red palm oil will have a mild, savory taste that will enhance the flavor of your foods, just as butter enhances the flavor of foods. In Brazil, Africa, and other places that regularly use red palm oil in cooking, the flavor of the oil is essential for many of their traditional dishes.

When red palm oil is refined and processed many of the carotenes are lost but most of the tocotrienols and other nutrients remain, so even refined palm oil contains more nutrients than any other vegetable oil. Refined palm oil is sometimes referred to as “white” palm oil because it is white when solid. When liquid, it takes on a light yellow color. Unlike red palm oil, white palm oil does not impart any additional flavor or color into foods. For this reason, it is more popular with restaurants and food producers.

As hydrogenated vegetable oils are being removed, palm oil is becoming more popular in the food processing industry. When you look at ingredient labels and see “palm oil” listed, you know you are getting a healthy trans fat-free oil packed with nutrients.



Dr. Bruce Fife, ND is the author of 20 books including The Palm Oil Miracle and The Coconut Oil Miracle. He is the director of the Coconut Research Center



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