Take a peek at your shampoo bottle, go-to toothpaste or favorite jar of peanut butter, and you’re likely to be faced with palm oil (though it sometimes goes by other names—more on that below). The controversial oil is seemingly everywhere, which got us wondering: Is palm oil bad for you? What about for the environment? (The short answer is that there are pros and cons, health-wise, and yes, it's bad for the environment.) Read on for more information.
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of palm oil trees, which typically thrive in balmy, tropical rainforests. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), 85 percent of the global supply of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. There are two types of palm oil: crude palm oil (made by squeezing the fruit) and kernel palm oil (made by crushing the kernel of the fruit). Palm oil can be listed under palm oil or under one of about 200 other alternative names, including Palmate, Palmolein and sodium lauryl sulfate.
Where Is It Found?
Most often, palm oil is found in food and beauty products. Per the WWF, palm oil is found in foods like instant noodles, margarine, ice cream and peanut butter, and beauty products like shampoos and lipsticks. It’s used to improve texture and taste, prevent melting and extend shelf life. It’s also odorless and colorless, meaning it won’t change the products it’s added to.
Is it Bad for Your Health?
First let’s examine the nutritional facts. One tablespoon (14 grams) of palm oil contains 114 calories and 14 grams of fat (7 grams of saturated fat, 5 grams of monounsaturated fat and 1.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat). It also contains 11 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin E.
In particular, the vitamin E found in palm oil is called tocotrienols, which have strong antioxidant properties that may support brain health, per studies like this one from the Ohio State University Medical Center.
Still, even though palm oil doesn’t contain trans-fat, it is high in saturated fat, which means it can boost unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides, raising the likelihood of heart disease.
In general, palm oil is healthier than some cooking fats and oils, but it is not as healthy as others, like olive oil and ghee. (More on the healthier alternatives later.)
Is it Bad for the Environment?
From a health perspective, there are clear pros and cons to palm oil. From an environmental standpoint, palm oil is actively bad.
According to Scientific American, palm oil is partially responsible for rapid deforestation in areas in Indonesia and Malaysia, and also has negative effects on carbon emissions and climate change.
Per the WWF, "Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations. This clearing has destroyed critical habitat for many endangered species—including rhinos, elephants and tigers." On top of that, "Burning forests to make room for the crop is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Intensive cultivation methods result in soil pollution and erosion and water contamination."
So, Should We Stop Using Palm Oil Altogether?
Considering how many products contain palm oil, boycotting it altogether is near impossible. Plus, reduced demand for palm oil could force the companies harvesting it to instead transition to more intensive timber harvesting that could increase pollution. Instead of stopping altogether, the best solution seems to be to find sustainable palm oil when possible. How? Look for products with a green “RSPO” sticker or a “Green Palm” label, which show that a producer is making the transition to a more sustainable production process.
Cooking Alternatives to Palm Oil
While avoiding palm oil altogether is neither plausible nor advisable, if you are looking for healthier oils with which to cook, consider these alternatives.
1. Olive Oil
Linked to a reduced risk for heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, this one is the Superman of oils (if Superman were a Greek god). Its mild flavor makes it a healthy substitute for butter when baking, and its inherent skin-improving qualities can work their magic whether you ingest it or apply it topically. Store it in a dark place away from heat.
2. Avocado Oil
Great for high-heat cooking as well as in salad dressings and cold soups, this oil contains monounsaturated fats like oleic acid (read: the really good kind) that help lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Basically, it's a cooking oil powerhouse. You can keep your avo oil in the cupboard or refrigerate to make it last longer.
Made by slowly simmering butter and straining out the milk solids, ghee is lactose-free, contains no milk proteins and has a super-high smoke point. When made from grass-fed butter, it retains those good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Ghee can last for a few months without refrigeration, or you can store it in the fridge for up to a year.
4. Flaxseed Oil
This oil is highly flavored (some might say funky), so it’s best used sparingly: try mixing with a more neutral oil in a salad dressing, or using just a drizzle as a finishing touch to any dish. Flaxseed oil is sensitive to heat, so avoid hot applications and store it in the fridge.
5. Grapeseed Oil
A neutral flavor and high smoke point make this oil a perfect substitute for vegetable oil. It's packed with vitamin E and omegas 3, 6 and 9, as well as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. It's versatile enough for savory and sweet applications, so try swapping it for butter in your next recipe. Psst: Grapeseed oil can even become the star of your beauty routine. Store it in a cool, dark place (like your fridge) for up to six months.
6. Coconut Oil
This tropical oil smells great and is rich in healthy fats. It also contains lauric acid, a compound known for its helpful ability to kill bacteria that can cause infections. If you're not into its slightly sweet flavor, try it in your beauty routine: It's incredibly versatile. Coconut oil is best kept in a cool, dark place like your pantry (if you want it to remain solid at room temperature).