Coconut has long reigned supreme out of all the tropical oils while unrefined, virgin red palm oil benefits have been virtually ignored, especially in the U.S. Considered a sacred food in some countries, there’s a reason this oil is growing in popularity – but there are things to be aware of with this oil!
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The Low-Down on Red Palm Oil
By now, most health food aficionados know that coconut oil is not only a superfood, but also champion of all healthy oils. Both grocery stores and health food stores alike stock their shelves with numerous varieties. With its distinct, lovely flavor, coconut oil can be used in a variety of dishes.
Red palm oil, however, is not as universal. While it also has a distinct flavor, many Americans do not find it appetizing – partially because we’re not as familiar with red palm oil benefits and partly because we’re spoiled by coconut oil.
Either way, thanks to celebrity endorsements and a lot of research, it’s possible red palm oil could take the top spot away from coconut and be crowned the new King of Healthy Oils.
Time will tell …
Red palm oil has been heralded as a “sacred food” for well over 5,000 years in the coastal regions of western and central Africa and Central and South America. Interestingly, there’s no good reason why this oil is so popular.
“The view still persists in some circles that palm oil is an unhealthy tropical grease, and it is difficult for palm oil producers to counter this perception because the product had little or no public image among Western and Asian consumers before the start of the recent media debate,” according to Cambridge World History of Food.
Fortunately, this image seems to be changing rather quickly. Red palm oil benefits have taken the spotlight away from other oils, especially in natural health and research groups.
Palm Oil Comes Into Its Own
Palm oil’s stardom started about a decade ago. During what appears to be independent research conducted in the early 2000s, scientists at Monash University in Australia and the University of Uyoin in Nigeria started looking at the important components that separate palm oil from other oils. What they discovered is shocking:
- Palm oil is one of the only fatty fruits that exists today and is common in our diet.
- Oddly enough, it’s the second highest consumed vegetable oil on the planet.
- Its fatty composition differs significantly from other plant and animal oils (50% saturated, 40% unsaturated, and 10% polyunsaturated), meaning it does not encourage atherosclerosis or arterial thrombosis.
- It is chock full of these phytonutrients:
- Water-soluble powerful antioxidants, phenolic acids and flavonoids
- Vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols)
- Sterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol and campesterol)
- Phospholipids, glycolipids and squalene.
Also, red palm oil benefits are unique and help fight a plethora of disease processes, including:
- Vitamin A deficiency
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol levels)
- Platelet aggregation (blood clotting)
- Macular degeneration
- Cognitive impairment
- Arterial thrombosis
- Alzheimer’s disease
But here’s the important information:
Palm oil has been used in the fresh state and/or at various levels of oxidation. Oxidation is a result of processing the oil for various culinary purposes. However, a considerable amount of the commonly used palm oil is in the oxidized state, which poses potential dangers to the biochemical and physiological functions of the body. Unlike fresh palm oil, oxidized palm oil induces an adverse lipid profile, reproductive toxicity and toxicity of the kidney, lung, liver, and heart. This may be as a result of the generation of toxicants brought on by oxidation. In contrast to oxidized palm oil, red or refined palm oil at moderate levels in the diet of experimental animals promotes efficient utilization of nutrients, favorable body weight gains, induction of hepatic drug metabolizing enzymes, adequate hemoglobinization of red cells and improvement of immune function. (2)
What does this mean? Basically we should steer clear of processed, hydrogenated oils. Any benefit found in palm oil is wiped clear during this process, which is used to extend the product’s shelf life. To keep safe, we should only be using unrefined, cold-pressed oils.
Red Palm Oil Benefits
1. Antioxidant and Pro-oxidant
A recent study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine looked at the antioxidant activity of oil palm leaves extract (OPLE) via oral application on mice with diabetes. After as few as four weeks of receiving this treatment in relatively high doses, researchers found that, due to OPLE, the animals experienced kidney dysfunction (hyperfiltration and proteinuria) and the increase of glomerulosclerosis and tubulointerstitial fibrosis, two things commonly linked to diabetic neuropathy.
But what’s more fascinating is that the researchers also found oxidative stress markers and the fibrotic cytokine, something that can be tied directly to heart disease and cancer, the two biggest killers on the planet. Even though doctors are not prescribing palm oil yet as a treatment for these diseases, the research is certainly causing a stir in the natural health community.
2. The Power of Vitamin E
While palm oil has a downside, those shortfalls can be redeemed by the oil’s surprising abundance of vitamins A and E. In fact, palm oil contains more of these important vitamins than any other plant-based oil. Simply put, vitamins A and E are effective cancer killers and are excellent for preventing stroke – I am not surprised the producing of this incredible oil has more than doubled since 1995.
A few years ago, scientists at Ohio State University Medical Center attempted to find out how potent α-tocotrienol is. A-tocotrienol is the strongest neuroprotective in Vitamin E. The results were nothing less than amazing. Not only did researchers find that 200 mg of a tocotrienol-enriched supplement considerably reduced lesions in the brain induced by stroke, but that it helped prevent the loss of white matter fiber tract connectivity. What this tells us is that foods enriched with Vitamin E, such as red palm oil, help to protect the brain from ischemic attacks. Now, if that alone is not enough to convince the medical world of palm oil’s superfood status, researchers also discovered that palm oil promoted new blood vessel development which provides even more protection to the heart and brain in the event of a stroke.
3. A New Super Oil
Right now, the benefits of red palm oil uses are limited to the funding available and the creativity of researchers and doctors to build new studies. And while the information we do have on palm oil is amazing, we know much more about coconut oil, which means it still holds the crown for the time being.
So, while the race is far from over, it is still too early to tell which healthy oil will dominate in the end. Are you using palm oil over coconut? Tell us about your experience with red palm oil uses in the comments below.
A Note About Sustainability
We encourage you to use wisdom when sourcing your red palm oil. As you know, not all oils are created equal and that’s certainly true of red palm oil where unethical growth practices put the environment and wildlife at risk. Organic, fair trade options are available, such as Nutiva Organic Red Palm Oil.
They say, “The region in Ecuador where our Organic Red Palm Oil is grown has numerous small family farms, averaging 10 hectares (about 25 acres), interspersed throughout the regional forests. These subsistence farms were planted many years ago and are now being worked by second and third-generation farming families. Palm oil grown in Southeast Asia is associated with the destruction of rainforest and orangutan habitat. It is important to note that in addition to the work we do with Natural Habitats, orangutans do not live in Ecuador and our red palm does not contribute to deforestation or habitat destruction.”
- Edem DO. Palm oil: biochemical, physiological, nutritional, hematological, and toxicological aspects: a review. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 2002; 57(3-4): 319-41.
- Rink C et al. Tocotrienol vitamin E protects against preclinical canine ischemic stroke by inducing arteriogenesis. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab 2011; 31(11): 2218-3
- Varatharajan R, et al. Antioxidant and pro-oxidant effects of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) leaves extract in experimental diabetic nephropathy: a duration-dependent outcome. BMC Complement Altern Med 2013; 13: 242.
- Wattanapenpaiboon N, et al. Phytonutrient deficiency: the place of palm fruit. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2003; 12(3): 363-8.