Origin of Palm Oil

Palm oil is omnipresent in our daily lives, making it likely that you have encountered it in various products unless actively avoiding it. This article provides insights into palm oil, covering its origins, impact on human health, environmental footprint, and dietary considerations.

Originating from the fruit of the oil palm tree, primarily in West and Central Africa, specifically the Elaeis guineensis species, palm oil has been cultivated for millennia. It is also grown globally, predominantly in Southeast Asia. Available in most international markets, palm oil is typically found in jars or bottles, often in its distinctive red form.

This minimally processed product is often referred to as unrefined palm oil or red palm oil. It can also undergo further processing to become refined palm oil, which is colorless and odorless. Refined palm oil boasts a longer shelf life and higher smoke point compared to its unrefined counterpart, making it suitable for various culinary application

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Where can we find Palm Oil and what can it be used for?

Palm oil is predominantly used in culinary settings. In many kitchens, particularly those following the African Heritage Diet, unrefined palm oil is a staple cooking oil. Refined palm oil is widely utilized worldwide, especially in the production of processed, shelf-stable foods, including:

  • Cookies and baked goods
  • Nut butters
  • Chocolates
  • Margarines and shortenings
  • Cereals
  • Fried foods

Additionally, palm oil finds application in non-culinary products such as:

  • Soaps
  • Toothpaste
  • Lipstick, makeup, and cosmetics
  • Animal feed
  • Biodiesel.

Basically everywhere around you.

Top 5 African Heritage Diet Foods for Combating Chronic Diseases, Recommended by a Nutritionist.

Nutrition Facts of Palm oil, like other oils, is entirely composed of fat, with a tablespoon containing approximately 120 calories. Half of its fatty acids are saturated, while the remaining portion consists of a mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Its saturated fat content renders palm oil semi-solid at room temperature.

From a nutritional standpoint, palm oil is rich in carotenoids, a group of powerful antioxidants responsible for its distinct red-orange hue. Additionally, it serves as a good source of vitamin E, another antioxidant compound. Antioxidants play a crucial role in neutralizing free radicals, harmful compounds that can inflict damage to your DNA and cells, potentially leading to chronic ailments such as cancer and atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries).

Potential Benefits…

In general, dietary fats play a crucial role in delivering fat-soluble vitamins and micronutrients throughout the body and contribute to the formation of active compounds such as hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Other benefits include:

Rich Source of Vitamin A

The beta-carotene present in unrefined (red) palm oil is converted into vitamin A within the body and possesses several antioxidant properties. According to Cordialis Msora-Kasago, M.A., RD, a registered dietitian with Maitano Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine, this is particularly important for individuals with diets low in vitamin A. Msora-Kasago states, “With many African heritage diets lacking a variety of foods rich in vitamin A, palm oil serves as an important source and may consequently prevent blindness, strengthen the immune system, and reduce the risk of pregnancy-related complications.”

Cardioprotective and Neuroprotective Effects

Palm oil contains tocotrienol (T3), a form of vitamin E known for its potent antioxidant properties. Research indicates that T3 provides protective effects throughout the body, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, stomach, and bones. Additionally, T3 may assist in lowering LDL cholesterol levels (referred to as “bad” cholesterol) by up to 38%. Gregory Lafortune, M.S., RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Optimal Plan Nutrition, highlights, “Palm oil, particularly the red, unrefined variety, serves as an excellent source of vitamin E.” Lafortune adds, “These potent compounds have been shown to lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and decrease the risk of cognitive decline, making the incorporation of unrefined palm oil a valuable addition to a healthy diet despite any common negative associations.”

Possible Downsides

Despite the potential benefits of palm oil, it may have drawbacks due to its saturated fat content. Excessive consumption of saturated fat is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as it raises LDL cholesterol levels while lowering HDL cholesterol (referred to as “good” cholesterol). However, a literature review on palm oil and health found no solid evidence linking palm oil consumption to cardiovascular disease. In fact, one study suggested that excessive consumption of other dietary sources of saturated fats, such as red meat and dairy, coupled with lifestyle factors like physical inactivity, plays a larger role in contributing to cardiovascular disease than palm oil consumption. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat intake to 10% of total daily calories. Therefore, palm oil can be safely consumed as part of a balanced diet. As Msora-Kasago emphasizes, “No food should be judged solely on the basis of a single ingredient.”

Bottom Line

Palm oil serves various purposes globally, both in culinary and non-culinary applications. Despite concerns regarding its saturated fat content, palm oil contains numerous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds beneficial for human health, particularly when consumed as part of a traditional African Heritage Diet.

When using palm oil, it’s important to consider its source and cultivation methods. Whenever feasible, opt for sustainably sourced palm oils. Cordialis Msora-Kasago highlights the importance of choosing minimally processed, unrefined palm oil. She emphasizes that not all palm oils are created equal, noting that palm oil used in savory dishes like kontomire stew differs from that used in baked goods like cookies and cakes.

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