Red palm oil is being hailed as a superfood thanks to its cholesterol-lowering and brain-boosting properties. This tropical oil is rich in carotenoids and antioxidants that provide many health benefits.

However, there have been several concerns about the effect that a steady increase in the production of red palm oil has on the environment.

Read on to find out more about red palm oil, its health benefits and the effect this oil has on the environment.

What is red palm oil?

Red palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm trees.  The primary source of this oil is Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa.

Elais oleifera is another palm tree that is found in South America. This palm is rarely grown commercially. However, a hybrid of these two trees is sometimes used in palm production.

Palm oil growth has expanded to Malaysia and Indonesia in recent years. These two counties produce more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil supply (1).

Palm oil has a high smoke point and heat stability, which makes it a popular choice for cooking fried and sautéed dishes. It is semi-solid at room temperature, and it’s melting point is 95°F, which is much higher than the melting point of coconut oil, which is 75°F.

Unrefined palm oil has a red hue and a strong flavor as it is high in antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene and tocotrienols. Processed palm oil is white and has a neutral taste. The refining process also strips the oil of its beneficial antioxidants.

Re palm oil contains 50 % saturated fats, 40 % monounsaturated and 10% polyunsaturated fats. As a fat-rich oil, it enhances the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, and E.

History of palm oil

The oil palm is native to West Africa, where it was used as a staple crop as far back as 5,000 years. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of people being buried in casks of palm oil in Egyptian tombs. It was also one of the earliest traded commodities.

The use of palm oil in the international market grew during the British Industrial Revolution. This oil was used to make candles and industrial lubricants. 

The nutrient-rich red palm oil was used during long sea-faring voyages. As a result of the increased demand, Europeans began investing in palm oil production, first in West Africa and then in Southeast Asia.

The first commercial palm plantation in Malaysia was founded in 1917 in Tennamaran Estate in Selangor.  Indonesia and Malaysia account for the majority of the world’s palm oil production today.

These countries have faced significant deforestation due to palm oil. According to a 2016 review, 45% of the land used for palm oil production in Southeast Asia was a forest in 1990.

In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was formed to emphasize sustainability and responsible production of palm oil, to reduce the impact on the environment, wildlife, and the community.

Health benefits of red palm oil

1. Boosts brain health

Red palm oil is rich in tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E that has strong antioxidant properties that support brain health. The tocotrienols are known to protect the polyunsaturated fats in the brain, slow dementia, enhance cognition, reduce the risk of stroke and prevent the growth of brain lesions.

A 2017 study from Japan studied the effects of tocotrienol-rich fraction, a mixture of vitamin E analogs from palm oil. The researchers found that tocotrienols improve cognitive function in mice (2).

During a 2014 study from Malaysia, 121 people with brain lesions took 200 mg of mixed tocotrienols or a placebo twice a day for two years. The results showed that the group that took tocotrienols remained stable, while the group that received placebo showed an increase in lesions (3).

2. Lowers cholesterol levels

Several studies have shown the red palm oil can reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol and increase the levels of HDL cholesterol.

According to a systematic review that included 51 studies, the levels of LDL cholesterol were lower in people that consumed palm oil-rich diets as compared to those who consumed foods rich in trans fats or lauric and myristic acid (4).

Research published in The Journal of Nutrition studied the effect of palm oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, and lard on serum lipids. The results showed that the volunteers that consumed palm oil in their diets for six consecutive weeks had a 13.1 % decrease in LDL cholesterol and a 6.7% decrease in triglyceride levels (5).

Another study from 2016 examined the effects of hybrid palm oil on human plasma lipid patterns. The study concluded that hybrid pal oil has the same impact on plasma lipids as extra virgin olive oil. So, you can consider it as the tropical equivalent of olive oil (6).

3. Improves heart health

Palm oil helps improve heart health by slowing down the progression of heart disease.  A 1995 research studied the effects of tocotrienols in palm oil in patients with heart disease.

 During this 18-month study, seven of the 25 people treated with palm oil showed improvement, and 16 remained stable. In the placebo group, none showed improvement, and the condition of 10 people got worse  (7).

This study shows that antioxidants like tocotrienols present in red palm oil can influence the course of heard diseases like carotid atherosclerosis.

4. Lowers oxidative stress

Stress, pollution, poor diet and pesticides can lead to build-up free radicals in the body. These free radicals are linked to aging and many other diseases. Antioxidants can prevent the damage caused by free radicals.

Red palm oil is rich in antioxidants that can lower oxidative stress and inflammation caused by free radicals.

A study from Malaysia investigated the antioxidant effects of administering catechins-rich oil palm leaves extract in mice with diabetes. The extracts attenuated renal dysfunction and fibrosis in just four weeks (8).

5. Improves vitamin A status

Red palm oil gets its reddish color from beta-carotene and lycopene. The carotene levels of palm oil are 15 times higher than carrots and 300 times higher than tomatoes, which is why it is considered one of the best sources of alpha and beta-carotene.

Both these carotenes are converted to vitamin A in the body.

A deficiency in vitamin A can cause dry eyes, infection and even blindness, which is why palm oil is recommended as a supplement in people who are at risk of vitamin A deficiency.

In 2017 a meta-analysis was conducted to investigate the ability of red palm oil in alleviating vitamin A deficiency. The meta-analysis concluded that red palm oil is effective in preventing and reducing vitamin E deficiency (9).

Maternal vitamin A status is vital for fetal growth and maturation. According to a 2003 study from India, supplementation with red palm oil can significantly improve the maternal and neonatal status and reduce the prevalence of maternal anemia (10).

6. Improves skin and hair

The unique composition and rich content of nutrients make red palm oil the ideal skin and hair care product.

Its moisturizing properties help keep the skin soft and supple. It also provides relief to itchy skin and dry cuticles.

The rich vitamin E content of red palm oil helps to reduce the signs of aging like wrinkles and fine lines. It improves blood circulation which helps in the formation of healthy skin layers.

According to a study published I the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, taking vitamin E supplements for four months can improve atopic dermatitis (11).

The rich vitamin A and E content of palm oil also nourish the scalp and hair roots, which keeps the hair healthy. Red palm oil also contains tocotrienol, which prevents hair loss.

According to a study from Malaysia, taking tocotrienol supplements for eight months increased the number of hair by 34.5 percent (12).

Side effects of palm oil

Though palm oil can lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health, some studies have shown that it can have the opposite effect. According to some studies, palm oil can increase plasma cholesterol levels and the risk of atherosclerosis (13, 14).

According to an animal-based study consuming palm oil that has been repeatedly reheated can cause plaque deposits in the arteries (15).

Most of the palm oil available these days is highly processed. Processing depletes all the nutrients that provide health benefits.

While it is safe for use in small amounts during the last three months of pregnancy, women who are breastfeeding should avoid using this oil.

Commercial production of palm oil has also hurt the environment.

Final thoughts

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm trees.  The primary source of this oil is Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa. Unrefined palm oil has a red hue and a strong flavor as it is high in antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene and tocotrienols.

Red palm oil helps to lower cholesterol levels, improve heart health, boost brain health, lower oxidative stress, prevent vitamin A deficiency and enhance skin and hair.

Red palm oil helps to lower cholesterol levels, improve heart health, boost brain health, lower oxidative stress, enhance skin and hair, etc.