Health Risks of Palm Oil and How to Help

Palm oil is widely used for cooking especially in tropic regions where oil palms grow. Palm oil is extracted from palm tree fruits after which it may be refined before packaging. Palm oil is widely used in the preparation of processed foods. It is rich in antioxidants and vitamins A and E. Palm oil does not contain trans-fat. But, in spite of its benefits, it also has negative effects on your health. So, what are the health risks?

Palm Oil Health Risks

50 percent of palm oil is saturated fat. This type of fat becomes trans-fat after refining and hydrogenation. It is worth noting that most palm oil used in food processing is either partially or fully hydrogenated. The process destroys the natural good properties of palm oil as it is transformed into trans-fats which have minimal nutritional value. Its benefits only include low price, neutral flavor and its ability to extend the shelf life of processed foods.

Health Risks Associated with Palm Oil Turned Trans-Fat

Many health authorities advise against use of refined or processed palm oil in food processing. They warn that the high quantities of saturated fat in palm oil and other oils like cocoa butter and coconut increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. Besides, studies also show that palmitic acid actually raises the risk of developing heart disease.

  • Coronary heart disease: The most outstanding health risk associated with the consumption of trans-fat is an increased risk of developing CHD (coronary heart disease). This is the conclusion after a review of many studies which link trans-fat to CHD.
  • CholesterolRegular consumption of trans-fats raises the levels of LDL, also called bad cholesterol. LDL occurs in dense particles that float within blood and cause damage to arteries. Additionally, trans-fats decrease the levels of HDL or good cholesterol. These serious palm oil health risks do not happen with saturated fat.
  • Diabetes: Many studies indicate that continued consumption of trans-fat increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This risk is higher in people who consume the highest amounts of trans-fat.
  • Obesity: A study conducted on monkeys over a period of six years found that consumption of trans-fat led to 7.2 per cent rise in body weight, compared to a contrasting rise of 1.8 per cent mono-unsaturated fat. And while trans-fats have been linked to obesity for long, the rise has been associated with intake of too many calories. However, recent studies suggest that trans-fats cause a rise in body weight and belly fat in particular when compared to consumption of similar calories from other oils.
  • Liver dysfunction: The liver metabolizes trans-fats differently from other fats. This leads to interference with delta 6 desaturase, an enzyme that converts essential fatty acids to prostaglandins and arachidonic acid which have roles in some cell functions.
  • Prostate cancer: Recent research links trans-fat consumption toprostate cancer. Therefore, while raw palm oil has many health benefits, when refined and transformed into trans-fat it poses palm oil health risks including prostate cancer.

Hypertension Risks

Palm oil increases your risk of getting hypertension in two ways: it increases your cholesterol levels, and once heated, free radicals are released which irritate blood vessels and lead to arterial thickening.

Difficult to Digest

While experts acknowledge the health benefits of raw palm oil, most of the available palm oil is highly refined, a process which leads to depletion of nutrients and other beneficial properties. Using it in this form exposes you to the various health risks.


Some Nigerian researchers have pointed out that while fresh palm oil contains beneficial nutrients, oxidized palm oil pose a threat to biochemical and physiological functions in the body. They noted that oxidation happens during food processing and therefore processed foods contain oxidized palm oil. Oxidized palm oil may cause toxicity in the liver, heart, lungs, kidneys and the reproductive system. It can also increase phospholipids, free fatty acids and cerebrosides.

Degrading the Environment

In addition to the above health risks, use of palm oil also has negative effects on the environment in the following ways:

  • Food processing industries do not procure palm oil from sustainable sources such as farms, but from any source including naturally growing palm trees.
  • This practice is having a serious negative effect on the environment as a result of deforestation especially of rainforests which support a wide range of animal life.
  • The result is serious depletion of some animal species such as elephants and the Indonesian orangutan. The situation is so serious that some species face extinction within the next decade.

How to Help

Palm oil is big business in countries like Indonesia, and while this may not be the case in the West, avoiding palm oil and foods made using it can make a dent in palm oil trade.  

To do this, beware of products with “vegetable oil” listed as an ingredient because the term usually refers to palm oil. Opt instead for products with specific oil stated such as 100% flaxseed oil. Also note that most prepackaged foods contain refined palm oil.

You also need to watch out for products with saturated fat content going beyond 40% as this is likely to be palm oil. And avoid products with “palm” listed as an ingredient. Other palm oil derivatives used in food processing include palmate, palmitate, and hydrated palm.

Additionally, watch out for palm oil in toothpaste, cosmetics and shampoo because you could be saving yourself from palm oil health risks.