Palm oil (palm fat) is as commonplace as plastic: we encounter it in detergents, cosmetics, chocolate and ready meals. But palm oil is considered unhealthy - in its processing, even cancer-causing substances may arise. And also in terms of ethical and ecological aspects, the oil is in the criticism, because for its cultivation are cleared mainly in Southeast Asia rainforests - with serious consequences for humans, animals and the environment. Learn about the effects palm oil has on health, what products it uses, and what alternatives are available for purchasing palm oil products.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil or palm fat is a vegetable oil that is extracted from the pulp of the oil palm. The oil produced from the seeds of the fruits is called palm kernel oil.
Due to its high content of carotene, the oil, like the fruits, initially has an orange-red color, which is removed during refining. This processing also changes the taste: while raw palm oil tastes aromatic and slightly sweet, refined palm oil is almost tasteless.
The oil is very popular in the industry, because its cultivation is extremely productive and cheap. In addition, it is heat-stable, long-lasting and, similar to coconut oil, creamy-spread at room temperature. Therefore, it can be used in place of hydrogenated fats and is a common additive especially in finished foods or spreads. Because of these properties, palm oil is the world's most widely grown vegetable oil.
Palm oil - a danger to health?
Palm oil can by no means be called healthy. In recent years, many medical and consumer advocates have warned about the oil, which is now contained in about half of all finished food.
One criticism is the high proportion of saturated fatty acids. These can have a negative impact on blood lipid levels, especially LDL cholesterol, if consumed excessively. This in turn could affect the effect of insulin in the body and thus increase the risk of developing diabetes in the opinion of the doctors.
Damage to the vessel walls can also be caused by an excess of saturated fatty acids. One possible consequence is vascular calcification, which favors serious illnesses such as a stroke or a heart attack.
Saturated fatty acids allowed in moderation
Saturated fatty acids are not unhealthy in themselves, but should only be consumed in moderation. According to a recommendation of the German Nutrition Society, such fatty acids should not exceed seven to ten percent of the total energy intake.
The decisive factor is therefore not only the amount that one eats of a particular product, but whether the ratio between saturated as well as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids is right.
Incidentally, it is also recommended for other reasons not to consume palm oil in large quantities. Because as pure fat, palm oil is definitely not a slimming product - 100 grams have about 900 kilocalories.
Carcinogenic substances in palm oil
But palm oil is still considered harmful for a very different reason: carcinogenic substances can be produced during its processing. When palm oil is heated, pollutants, so-called 3-MCPD and glycidol fatty acid esters, are formed. These fatty acid esters are found in all refined (purified) vegetable oils and are therefore present in many foods. They are found for example in margarine, nut nougat cream or soy sauce.
Palm oil has the highest content of glycidol fatty acid esters of all purified edible fats. During digestion, glycidol can be eliminated from these substances, which has been classified as carcinogenic.
Also, MCPD, which can arise during digestion from 3-MCPD fatty acid esters, is suspected to increase the risk of cancer. In animal experiments, it caused tumors and toxic effects on the liver, kidneys and testes beyond a certain dose. It is therefore recommended that dietary intake of this substance be avoided.
Dangerous ingredient in baby food?
Baby food also contains the controversial 3-MCPD and glycidol fatty acid esters. But their emergence in the production of baby food is currently considered unavoidable.
Because baby food must contain certain fatty acid patterns that are similar to those of breast milk. The necessary fats need to be cleaned to form the fatty acid esters - at the moment there is no way around it. Although other manufacturing processes are being researched, there is currently a lack of alternatives.
However, there are no studies yet which effects these fatty acid esters have on humans, especially on babies. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment currently assumes no acute health risk and recommends parents who can not breastfed their child to use the breast milk substitute products as usual, as they provide vital nutrients to a baby. In addition, the fatty acid esters are also contained in breast milk.
Red palm oil
Despite all criticism, palm oil is also said to have various beneficial effects on health. The speech is not from industrially used oil, but from cold-pressed, unrefined palm oil, which you can buy as "red palm oil" - ideally in organic quality.
In its native form, palm oil contains about 15 times as much carotene (vitamin A) as carrots. In addition, it has a high content of vitamin E (especially tocotrienols) and coenzyme Q10, both of which act as antioxidants in the fight against free radicals and are therefore considered cancer preventative.
Palm oil in food
Around two-thirds of palm oil production is used in processed foods, where fat is highly valued for its creamy texture and heat resistance.
Examples of products with the vegetable fat can be:
- Ready meals such as frozen pizza and baguettes
- cake icing
- Biscuits and snacks
Cosmetics with palm oil and palm kernel oil
Also in cosmetics, the oil is often found, because it has moisturizing, skin smoothing and can repair cell damage. After all, a quarter of the world's palm oil is used in cosmetics and detergents.
Typical cosmetic products with palm oil include:
- shower gel
- Cream and lotion
- Eyeliner, mascara and other cosmetics for the eyes
In addition, detergents, candles and some medicines are made using vegetable fat. Also for the production of biodiesel as well as in feed palm oil is used.
Alternatives and replacement products
Products without palm oil are sometimes not easy to find. For example, the fat is needed for the production of many nut nougat creams, because most other vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature - except for coconut oil, which, however, has a strong taste.
Nevertheless, it is possible to replace the fat in most cases. In the production of soap, for example, beef tallow is a possible alternative to palm oil - which, however, is not suitable for vegans. But olive oil can replace palm oil in soaps.
Seal for sustainably grown palm oil
In addition, there are various seals that are used to label products containing palm oil from sustainable cultivation. The best known of these is the RSPO seal, which is highly controversial, as the underlying minimum standards have a reputation for being heavily influenced by industry.
Nevertheless, there are some vendors who use palm oil from ecologically responsible farming and fair trade. Information is provided by various environmental organizations.
Tips for shopping without palm oil
If you want to buy palm oil-free products, you often have to look carefully. Since December 2014, there is a labeling requirement for palm oil - but only for food. Often the fat also appears under a different name in the list of ingredients, such as:
- Sodium Palm Kernelate
- Palmitic acid
- Hydrogenated Palm Glycerides
Meanwhile, there are increasingly online retailers and lists of palm oil-free products as well as apps designed to make shopping easier.
However, the best alternative is to cook with fresh ingredients yourself. From a health point of view, rapeseed oil or linseed oil are preferable to palm oil, as these oils contain a high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Deforestation of rainforests
But palm oil is not only because of potential health hazards in the criticism. Every year about 60 million tons of palm oil are produced and the trend is rising.
In order to meet the growing demand and create space for the cultivation of oil palms, more and more rainforests are being cleared, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Deforestation is associated with the destruction of habitats of endangered animal and plant species and the release of greenhouse gases.
In addition, land expropriations and expulsions of the indigenous people as well as often catastrophic working conditions and use of pesticides on the palm oil plantations.