Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). Crude or virgin palm oil is called "red palm oil" because of its characteristic dark red color due to the high beta-carotene content. Boiling destroys the carotenoids, causing the oil to lose its color. Two different types of oils may be extracted from the oil palm tree. Palm oil is derived from the fleshy portion of the palm fruit, while palm kernel oil is derived from the seed or the kernel. Palm oil contains mainly palmitic and oleic acids and is about 50% saturated, while palm kernel oil contains mainly lauric acid and is more than 89% saturated. Palm kernel oil does not convey as many health benefits as palm oil due to its higher levels of saturated fat.
Palm oil has an important role in the diet and the economies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is estimated that 90% of palm oil produced is used in foods such as margarine, shortening, and mayonnaise. It is commonly used as a cooking and frying oil, although there is evidence that its health benefits are lost during excessive heating or frying. Palm oil is also found in soaps, washing powders, cosmetics, and biodiesel. It is popular in processed foods, because it does not contain cholesterol and requires little or no hydrogenation, a process that produces trans-fatty acids. Many food manufacturers are using palm oil in place of hydrogenated oils in their products and then advertising them as being "trans fat and cholesterol free." However, many people consider palm oil to be unhealthy due to its high saturated fatty acid content.
Palm oil is a rich source of antioxidants, including vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols), carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene), and coenzyme Q10 and has been proposed as an alternative treatment of vitamin A deficiency for several reasons. Palm oil has been reported to have highly bioconvertible forms of alpha- and beta-carotene and to enhance the bioavailability of beta-carotene. It has also been reported to have a long shelf life and a higher cost-benefit ratio when compared to alternative treatments of vitamin A deficiency, like high-dose vitamin A supplements and the addition of retinyl ester fortificants to food. Supplementation of red palm oil as a capsule or a food fortificant may be effective against malnutrition.
Clinical trials have shown that palm oil is effective at treating and preventing vitamin A deficiency. Studies have also been performed to examine the benefits of using palm oil to prevent or treat heart disease, breast inflammation (following childbirth), diarrhea, high cholesterol, and obesity. However, at this time, high-quality human research supporting the use of palm oil for these or other indications are lacking.
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These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Vitamin A deficiency
Evidence suggests that palm oil is as effective as vitamin A for preventing vitamin A deficiency in humans.
Early research suggests that palm oil may have antioxidant effects. High-quality trials are needed in this field.
Preliminary evidence suggests that palm oil may help prevent atherosclerosis. Further studies are needed in this field.
Breast inflammation (postpartum)
Evidence supporting the use of palm oil for breast inflammation after childbirth is currently lacking. Further studies are needed in this field.
Limited evidence suggests that palm oil may have a role in treating diarrhea. Further studies are needed in this field.
Study results regarding the effects of palm oil on cholesterol levels are mixed. Further studies are needed in this field.
Limited evidence suggests that palm oil may benefit malnourished individuals. Further studies are needed in this field.
Evidence supporting the use of palm oil for obesity is currently lacking. High-quality trials are needed in this field.