For a long time, palm oil has been unfairly ‘bastardised’ as the evil force in West African diets! I cannot over-stress enough the simple fact that eating too much of any fat can cause damage to our health. I am not advocating palm oil as an elixir of life! However, I am in favour of sharing knowledge for better understanding. I’ve decided to do a bit of an exposé on palm oil and I apologise in advance because it will span over two articles, this being part one. Think of it as an extended sermon; besides, it’s another good reason to tune in again next month, right?
Palm oil remains the topic of much discussion, controversy, and even possible confusion. Many, particularly Africans are seeking an understanding of the key health messages around palm oil. So, let’s get stuck in by firstly laying down some basics:
Palm oil is extracted from the palm fruit – which grows on palm trees in the tropics in bunches. Ripe palm fruit are a deep lush reddish orangey colour.
On the inside of the fleshy palm fruit is the palm kernel or the ‘nut.’The palm fruit produces two different types of palm oil:
Palm kernel oil – is extracted from the kernel or the ‘nut’ of the palm fruit. This is the inner most part of the fruit which looks white with a brownish hard outer.
Palm fruit oil (aka red oil) is derived from the fleshy orange part of the fruit. The oil is traditionally a deep red-orange colour, when unrefined.
Inside the palm fruit
This picture captures the different parts of the palm fruit and where the oil extract stems from:
Though both types of palm oil come from the palm fruit, there are fundamental differences in appearance, nutritional and chemical properties.
Differences between palm kernel and red palm oil:
Palm kernel oil is about 80% saturated fat. Palm fruit oil is about 50% saturated fat, 37% monounsaturated fat, 9% polyunsaturated fat. In terms of heart health, lower saturated fat is better for our health, as high levels can increase LDL cholesterol which is also known as bad cholesterol. Oils higher in monounsaturated fats are deemed healthier.
Red Palm oil also contains high amounts of vitamins, antioxidants (which protect our body cells from damage) and phytonutrients (which help us stay healthy). The red colour of palmfruit oil actually comes from carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene – the same nutrients that give tomatoes and carrots and other fruits and vegetables their rich red and orange colours.
Carotenes are valuable nutrients and powerful antioxidants as well. They are also important because the body can convert them into Vitamin A, which is an essential nutrient. Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness, weakened bones, lower immunity and adversely affect learning ability and mental function.
Palm kernel oil is lighter in colour. In many cases the kernel oil is further refined, and it is known as ‘white palm oil’ or ‘fractionated’ palm oil. It is used for frying in chip shops and used in baked products such as pastry and biscuits.
The profile of fat in palm fruit indicates a more beneficial lowering effect on LDL cholesterol. This along with the powerful antioxidant (protective) properties of the red oil – makes it a pretty potent food source when it comes to health.
Dr. Albert Egbuehi (2006) of the Department of Biochemistry, College of Medicine University of Lagos said: “Red palm oil is the richest dietary source of provitamin A carotenes (beta-carotene and alpha-carotene). It has 15 times more provitamin A carotenes than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes. This has made it a valued resource in the treatment of Vitamin A deficiency.”
Red palm oil has a unique taste and forms the basis of many traditional stews and soups, especially in Western Africa. These soups are often unforgettably delicious and are enjoyed as part of our rich African heritage. However, it is important to note that the health benefits of red palm oil are dramatically less when the oil is overheated or ‘bleached’, or when it is reused severally.
- Unrefined red palm oil does have health benefits
- Palm kernel oil is higher in harmful saturated fat.
- As part of a healthy diet, red palm oil can be enjoyed in moderation.
- Overheating or reusing palm oil can have negative effects on our health.
Remember, eating too much of any fat can lead to being overweight or obese.
Watch out for part 2 in our next issue…