Access to all articles, new health classes, discounts in our store, and more!
As consumers begin to search labels and avoid foods containing unhealthful hydrogenated trans fats, food manufacturers are looking for suitable replacement oils. Since some palm oil is naturally semisolid at room temperature, manufacturers are using it as a replacement for trans fats in processed foods. This allows the foods to be labeled as having “no trans fats,” making them more attractive to savvy consumers.
But is palm oil a healthful alternative to trans fats? The answer is a resounding yes!
There are several types of palm oils available today, and the health benefits vary from type to type.
Palm kernel oil
The seed inside the palm fruit is called the kernel, which, not surprisingly, is the source of palm kernel oil. Because it is rich in lauric acid and high in saturated fat, palm kernel oil is a stable cooking fat that is resistant to oxidation and rancidity and works well in food manufacturing. It’s naturally white in color and solid when cool, becoming transparent and liquid as it is warmed.
According to Bruce Fife, ND, author of The Palm Oil Miracle, palm kernel oil boasts a medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA) content that is greater than 50 percent. These MCFAs act as antimicrobials within the body, support the immune system, increase energy levels, and stimulate metabolism. Fife notes that palm kernel oil is reputed to be a healing oil in parts of Africa, where it is considered to be an effective remedy for many illnesses.
Fruit of the palm oil TreeRed palm oil is virgin palm oil
Oil from the fruit of the palm is called palm oil; it has less saturated fat than palm kernel oil (about 50 percent vs. about 80 percent). In its natural, unprocessed state, palm oil is a deep reddish-orange color as a result of abundant carotenes like lycopene and beta-carotene – the same nutrients responsible for the color and many of the health benefits of tomatoes and carrots. Beta-carotene is an excellent antioxidant, and the body can convert some beta-carotene into vitamin A. However, true vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin found only in animal fat; so rely on palm oil for its numerous health benefits but not as a quality source of vitamin A.
Red palm oil also has a high level of tocotrienols, making it an outstanding source of vitamin E and a powerful antioxidant.
Virgin red palm oil is used as cooking oil, but its health-promoting properties are so significant that it is also packaged and sold in capsule form as a nutritional supplement. For ease of digestion, it’s best to take the supplement with meals, and the oil also improves the absorption of many nutrients in the food.
Fractionated palm oil
Due to the different melting points of the different triglycerides found in palm oils, they can be separated by carefully heating the oil to a specific temperature. The fats can then be separated into liquid (olein, with 46 percent saturated fat) and into solid (stearin, with 65 percent saturated fat), which can then be used for different purposes.
As oleins are liquid, they are usually used when a liquid fat is needed, such as in a salad dressing. The stearins are used when a solid fat is needed, such as for deep frying. Palm stearin is also known as palm shortening or white palm oil.
White palm oil
When refined, palm oil loses its color and its antioxidant properties. Like palm kernel oil, white palm oil is stable, has a clean “mouth-feel,” and is used extensively in food manufacturing. Processed palm stearin is sometimes called palm shortening and easily replaces hydrogenated shortenings in commercial baked goods and fried foods. White palm oil is sometimes called RBD oil, meaning it has been refined, bleached, and deodorized. These processes can certainly destroy many of the valuable nutrients available in organic red palm oil. However, white palm oil is still far superior to trans fats and is currently considered a possible alternative to the dangerous trans fats that are currently being reviewed by the FDA.
Palm oil processing
Like many other foods, what begins as a healthful food may lose its beneficial properties when it’s overprocessed. Palm fruit oil is usually mechanically expelled or pressed, and palm kernel oil can be expelled as well. Some high-capacity palm kernel mills use an extraction process that involves using solvents, which is not recommended for food-grade oils. A secondary pressing extracts a lower grade of oil, which is used for nonfood purposes like soaps or biofuel.
Look for palm oil that has not been extracted using a centrifuge, which is a very high pressure method of extracting oils. This pressure can cause oils to grow far too hot during the extraction process. Also, look for palm oil that has not been mixed with solvents during or after the extraction process. Virgin palm oil is extracted at low temperatures and low pressures and is not mixed with any solvents.
With increased interest in palm oils used as biofuel, there is concern about mass deforestation to make room for more palm plantations. To alleviate this, consumers can look for palm oil that is labeled “from sustainable sources.” Healthful, organic, sustainable, virgin red palm oil is readily available online and at many health food stores.
For more information, see “Red Palm Oil: A Daily Dose of Vitamins From Cooking Oil” by Bruce Fife, ND, in the Fall 2007 Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing.
Become a member today to receive this journal along with many health and nutrition resources.