During a recent visit to my local “African Store” I overheard two ladies debating the use of palm oil when cooking. One lady stated that she had read that palm oil was bad for the heart while the other lady claimed that it contained “many vitamins” and should be used everyday. I was so tempted to give my opinion on the whole debate but decided against it as I did not know them and have noted that people simply don’t like strangers joining in their conversations. Who was right? Well, scientists and dietitians continue to battle the evidence and the debate looms.
So what’s the controversy?
Health Concerns: Palm oil is believed to have negative effects on heart health. A 2005 article published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) cited some studies that concluded that due to it’s saturated fat content, palm oil has the potential to increase cholesterol, clog the arteries and contribute to heart disease. The same article discusses a 1987 health promotion in Mauritius in which palm oil was replaced by a soy based oil. The goal of the promotion was to reduce the soaring heart disease rates and the result was a 15% reduction in cholesterol levels.
Health Benefits: On the flip side of the controversy palm oil is believed to have wonderful health benefits. A study published in the British Journal of Biomedical Science (2009) suggested that the level of saturated fat content in palm oil did not promote the development of clots in the arteries. This was most likely due to the high presence of antioxidants (tocotrienols, tocopherols, vitamin E and beta-carotene) which fight disease. The American Palm Oil Council states that in animal studies, one of these antioxidants (tocotrienols) has demonstrated tumor fighting properties and may have the ability to reverse artery blockage and blood clotting. These benefits are important as they reduce the risk of stroke and improve blood pressure. The rich red color of palm oil indicates the presence of carotenoids, compounds found in vitamin A and known to improve the immune system and vision.
Take Home Message
I can not argue with the multitude of studies that demonstrate that saturated fats are detrimental to overall health. However, I strongly contend that people living in the tropical areas have enjoyed palm oil for centuries and not suffered the detriments of heart disease to the effect they are today as they adopt the “western” diet and lifestyle. Eliminating it from the African (and other areas) diet changes the taste of the dish, the color and to a certain extent, the culture of the food. I believe the benefits of maintaining palm oil in our diets by far outweigh the risks, but MODERATION IS KEY! Basic tips to remember include:
1. Choose palm oil as opposed to palm kernel oil. Palm kernel oil is obtained from the pressing of the palm seed and generally contains more saturated fat than palm oil which is obtained from the pressing of the palm fruit.
2. Use in moderation. Just because it has health benefits does not mean you need to eat it by the spoonful. Taken in excess, palm oil (much like most fats)may actually increase risk of heart disease, weight gain and certain cancers. If the red color is your goal, consider mixing a little tomato paste and using less oil.
The African Pot Nutrition wants to know….. How do you use palm oil in your diet and do you think substituting it with another oil would change the nature of the dish you were making?