Is palm oil good for you? Is coconut oil healthy? Actually, in moderation, cooking with coconut and palm oil may have many health benefits.
Is cooking with palm and coconut oils good for you? A jar of coconut oil in the kitchen and bath — with its moisturizing as well as antibacterial properties — is becoming an increasingly common sight. Red palm oil is another plant-based oil grown in tropical regions.
The idea seems counterintuitive. Red palm oil contains about 50 percent saturated fat, while coconut oil has about 90 percent, and science has been collecting evidence of the harms of saturated fat for decades.
Yet, because they’re plant-based, both may differ from the animal-based fats that science is based on. In cold-pressed and unrefined versions, each oil contains healthy nutrients: unrefined red palm oil, for example, provides vitamin E and beta carotene (a vitamin A precursor) as well as phytosterols.
Traditional components of many tropical diets, these two oils are getting increased attention from nutritional experts. In West Africa and other tropical regions, both have been consumed for centuries. In a recent review, experts in Ghana noted that chronic disease — in the form of cardiovascular disease and obesity — has worsened as sub-Saharan African countries have switched to alternative, supposedly healthier, imported vegetable oils. They observe a similar pattern in Sri Lanka, which has moved from a centuries-long reliance on coconut oil to corn and other polyunsaturated plant oils.
Coconut oil’s possible benefit for weight loss has probably attracted most attention. About two-thirds of the fat in coconut oil is in the form of medium-chain fatty acids. These special fats are a favorite of athletes because they’re absorbed directly through the intestine, meaning they avoid the cholesterol-depositing journey through the bloodstream that makes most saturated fats so unhealthy. Researchers aren’t sure yet whether the specific medium-chain fats in coconut oil — mostly comprised of lauric acid, which hasn’t been studied extensively — affect the body in the same way.
There is some evidence they do. One 2009 study examined weight loss in 40 women with abdominal obesity. Half were given 30 milliliters of soybean oil each day, while the other half had the same amount of coconut oil. Both groups followed a low-calorie diet and walked for 50 minutes a day. After 12 weeks, those taking the coconut oil had higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, along with lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, and as well as reduced waist circumference. Those taking soybean oil saw their total and LDL cholesterol rise, and HDL cholesterol levels drop. Coconut oil seems to reduce abdominal obesity, the researchers concluded. Though studied in cells rather than humans, coconut oil was also shown to reduce fat accumulation in a 2016 study, providing support for the idea.
Meanwhile, some studies suggest palm oil can lower cholesterol. Here, too, the science is conflicting — a January 2017 study also found just one serving of palm oil (equivalent to the saturated fat found in two bacon cheeseburgers and a large side of French fries) led to signs of insulin resistance and increased fat deposits in the liver.
In red palm’s refined form, as white palm oil, it’s extremely versatile — it’s used in at least half of the products in grocery stores, from soaps to cereals to cookies. (Red palm oil is not to be confused with the far less healthy palm kernel oil, made from a different part of the tree.) Some researchers propose palm oil isn’t artery-clogging in small doses when consumed as part of a balanced diet.
The role of saturated fats in health is still being studied. Yet the benefits of healthy fats — the kind in olive, canola, and avocado oil — are well established: replacing saturated with unsaturated fats can reduce risk of heart disease by 19 percent. Medical guidelines generally advise getting less than 30 percent of diet from healthy fats, and less than 10 percent from saturated fats, palm and coconut oils included.
Is there such a thing as a healthy saturated fat? Palm and coconut oils may fit that description. When consumed in moderation along with a diet high in fruits and vegetables, fiber, and whole grains, the nutritionists from the University Of Ghana propose, it’s possible both oils have negligible negative effect on health and even some benefits, particularly given how beneficial a plant-based diet is overall.
Until we know more, limit their use and make sure to use unsaturated plant-based oils as well, aiming to keep total fat consumption to less than 30 percent of your diet. And always include plenty of fruits and veggies.
Remember, too, that these oils must be unprocessed and unhydrogenated to retain beneficial qualities — meaning those grocery store cookies made with refined palm oil are not a good choice. You’ll also want to check products are responsibly sourced. Palm oil, in particular, is in high demand among food manufacturers, causing deforestation and pollution and threatening orangutan habitats worldwide.
September 28, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN