Originally, trans fats were produced as a way to solidify unsaturated fats/vegetable oils. This was more desirable than using animal fats in some products. Unfortunately, it turned out trans fats were extremely unhealthy. The FDA is currently in the process of banning trans fats from foods. The logical replacement for trans fats is palm oil. Palm oil is derived from the palm tree and is used in a wide variety of foods.
What is palm oil used for?
Palm oil is somewhat unique in that it is a vegetable oil that is very high in saturated fat. This makes it semi-solid at room temperature while most other vegetable oils are liquid. Solid fats are desirable in certain products including: energy bars, no mix peanut & almond butters, and baked goods. These products would not be convenient if their fat content turned to liquid at room temperature.
Is palm oil healthy?
The FDA banned trans fats because they were extremely unhealthy. Their consumption causes heart disease. Palm oil is higher in saturated than other vegetable oil and many have called its health status into question. There are numerous studies looking into the health risks associated with palm oil.
In a 2015 review, authors concluded there was no clear evidence that unequivocally associated palm oil consumption and an increase in cardiovascular disease risk1.
In a different study, researchers looked at palm oil consumption in 23 countries. They separated their results into two categories: 1) developing countries, and, 2) high income countries. They found for every additional kilogram of palm oil consumed per-capita annually, ischemic heart disease mortality rates increased by 68 deaths per 100,000. Stroke mortality rates increased by 19 deaths per 100,0002.
In high income countries, each additional kilogram of palm oil consumption was associated with an increase of 17 deaths per 100,000 for ischemic heart disease and 5.1 deaths per 100,000 for strokes. They concluded palm oil consumption was related to higher mortality rates2.
In a 2014 review of of 51 studies, researchers compared the effects of palm oil diets with diets made up of other types of fat. When palm oil was compared to unsaturated fats, total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and HDL (good) cholesterol were all significantly higher. Compared to trans fats, a palm oil diet resulted in higher HDL levels and lower total and LDL levels3.
The Bottom Line
The research is mixed. Palm oil is definitely a better option than partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats. The evidence currently available suggests neither complete elimination or increased consumption. However, in keeping with current recommendations of the 2015 dietary guidelines, you should limit saturated fat intake (including palm oil) to no more than 10% of your overall calorie intake.
- Mancini, A., & Imperlini, E. (2015). Biological and Nutritional Properties of Palm Oil and Palmitic Acid: Effects on Health. Molecules, 20(9), 17339-17361.
- Chen, B. K., & Seligman, B. (2011). Multi-Country analysis of palm oil consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality for countries at different stages of economic development: 1980-1997. Globalization and Health, 7(1), 45.
- Fattore, E., & Bosetti, C. (2014). Palm oil and blood lipid–related markers of cardiovascular disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary intervention trials. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99(6), 1331-1350.