Red Palm Oil: Miracle or Madness?
Posted by , MS, RD, LD, FADA

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Red palm oil has received much media attention lately. Earlier this year, “The Dr. Oz Show” even included it on a list of “miracle solutions of 2013.” The claims made were that just two tablespoons of red palm oil a day can ignite the metabolism or stop signs of aging.

When deciding whether red palm oil fits into your eating habits, here are some points to consider:

  • Nutrition Impact. Red palm oil comes from the fruit of the identical name. It’s in the same botanical family as coconut, making it a tropical oil with similar properties to those I discussed in Is Coconut Oil The Latest Health Trend? Red palm oil is, however, lower in saturated fat than coconut oil, containing about 50 percent saturated, 40 percent monounsaturated and 10 percent polyunsaturated. What’s unique about red palm oil is the color, which comes from carotenoids. Found in carrots, tomatoes and other similarly colored fruits and vegetables, carotenoids are considered to be antioxidants. Recent research has raised the point that while antioxidants may provide benefit in the test tube, science hasn’t yet established that this same effect happens in the human body. Additionally, this oil contains tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E which preliminary science suggests may lessen plaque formation in the arteries by decreasing platelet aggregation. As with coconut oil, science is still conflicted on the overall benefit of palm oil for heart health prevention or treatment.
  • Calories. Two tablespoons of red palm oil provides 260 calories. This daily addition could add a pound of weight in two weeks, unless you’re careful to use palm oil to replace other fats.
  • Cost. At a natural food stores near my home, I paid $8.99 for 15 ounces of the oil. This isn’t unheard of when compared to virgin olive oils, but is quite a bit higher than trans fat-free margarines and canola oil pricing at a typical grocery store.
  • Sustainability. Most red palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. As the demand for the oil has increased, it has led to deforestation in these areas, which is negatively impacting the natural habitat of orangutans and other wildlife.

Adding complexity is that palm oil is often confused with palm kernel oil. Palm oil is derived from the flesh of the fruit whereas palm kernel oil comes from the fruit pit. Palm kernel oil has more than 80 percent saturated fat, a very different nutrition profile than red palm oil. Additionally, red palm oil is sometimes processed to remove the red color, with some of the beneficial nutrients stripped away along with the color.

When all is said and done, there may be a place in eating habits for red palm oil if it is used as a substitute for more highly saturated fats. The healthiest fat choices are still foods highest in omega-9 and omega-3s, such as canola oil, avocados and fatty fish like tuna and salmon. My concern is the idea that any one single food is a “miracle solution.” The reality is that balance, moderation and variety are the foundations of healthy eating habits, and there are no magic bullets or miracle solutions (even those touted by the media) that can cure all that ails us.