The Palm Oil You Want to Eat

Ruddy 'dendê' is a far cry from the grease found in so many processed foods.
(Photo: Flickr)
Oct 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

The sustainability issues swirling around palm oil are big news these days, and deservedly so; last week’s column will bring you up to cruising speed on the topic. But when it comes to human health—aside from recent reports of abysmal conditions for migrant workers—there is also a push-me-pull-you debate over how bad (or good) the stuff is for you. Is it healthy like olive oil? Or packed with saturated fats?

First off, the red palm oil (aka dendê) you see in West African markets, health food stores, and some supermarkets, like industrial palm oil, is derived from the fibrous mesocarp of the fruit of the African oil palm. (Mesocarp? Quick—check out last week’s anatomy-of-a-palm lesson. Then come right back.) But red palm oil is less processed—either refined at lower temperatures or not heated at all during processing—so it retains its great abundance of carotenoids, including alpha carotene and beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A and which give the oil its beautiful orange-red color. Red palm oil is also rich in tocopherols, the most potent natural source of vitamin E.

Like any tropical oil, it also contains a hefty amount of saturated fats. “Fully half of palm oil is composed of saturated fats, as is 86 percent of the oil from the kernel of that palm fruit and 92 percent of coconut oil,” Nina Teicholz writes in The Big Fat Surprise. Those numbers were scary to a public that had long been assured of saturated fat’s dangers, she adds, and starting in the late 1980s, food companies responded by replacing the palm oil in processed foods with—you guessed it—trans fats, mostly in the form of partially hydrogenated soybean oil. A leaflet distributed by the American Soybean Council boasted the title “What You Don’t Know About Tropical Fats Can Kill You!” and an image of a lighted fuse attached to the top of a coconut.

But a number of scientists, including those at the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia, beg to differ. “Palm oil had been shown in early clinical trials to act like other vegetable oils in lowering total blood cholesterol,” according to the Institute. “Researchers had discovered in 1981, for instance, that heart disease was almost unknown among groups of Polynesian atoll dwellers who derived an enormous portion of their calories from coconuts and nearly two thirds of daily calories from coconut oil,” it continues. “In Malaysia and the Philippines, too, where people ate large amounts of both palm and coconut oils, heart disease rates were lower than in Western nations.”

Odds are, those folks weren’t ingesting those oils along with the sugar and God knows what else in heavily processed junk food, and had other lifestyle factors that contributed to the results. Establishing cause and effect when it comes to a single ingredient is notoriously difficult, and Teicholz’s chapters on the tropical oils war, trans fats, and how the food police identifies a dietary villain, data be damned—then gins up the populace and, inevitably, governmental regulators—make for fascinating, if troubling, reading. For example, a year after Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett published an opinion piece stating that trans fats were causing an astonishing 30,000 American deaths a year from heart disease, two large observational studies conducted in Europe showed no relationship between trans fats and rates of heart attacks or sudden cardiac death.

“Far more than the public realizes, Willett was out on a limb with his data,” Teicholz wrote. “His number was based in the ability of trans fats to raise LDL-cholesterol while marginally lowering HDL-cholesterol, but his paper did not go into the calculations in any detail. And Willett’s support among his fellow scientists, it turns out, is rather slim.”

The flaws could be more readily overlooked, according to Samuel Shapiro, director of the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University, “if trans fats had a giant impact, causing a thirty-fold increase in risk, for instance, which is the magnitude of the difference seen between heavy smokers and nonsmokers with regard to their risk for lung cancer.” But the effect of trans fats in Willett’s study was small, not even a twofold increase in risk.

In addition to using newly developed industrial fats (a topic for another day), some American food manufacturers are quietly returning palm oil to products—a change the FDA’s trans fat ban looms over—causing several platitudes to come to mind, including “Be careful what you wish for” and “What goes around, comes around.”

And I’m returning red palm oil, albeit a sustainably sourced one, to my pantry shelf. I was first introduced to the stuff by Jessica B. Harris, the authority on the food and foodways of the African diaspora, and was captivated by dendê’s deep orange shimmer and sensual, nutty richness. “In places like northeastern Brazil or Nigeria, for instance, where you have a diet very low in animal fat, dendê is an important thing,” Harris said in a phone conversation. “It’s a part of the traditional diet.”

In the African-influenced cuisine of the Brazilian state of Bahia, there’s a whole subgenre of dendê cooking, she went on to explain. It can be used as the cooking fat, as in the iconic acarajé, or black-eyed-pea fritters (its high smoke point makes it ideal for deep frying), or as a flavoring or finishing ingredient in Bahian dishes such as the chicken stew called xinxim de galinha or the shrimp stew moqueca de camarão. You can also use it in a vinaigrette or swirl it into all sorts of dishes as a condiment, as you would olive oil.

The companies that produce all the red palm oil from Malaysia (Carotino is one brand) are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as using sustainable harvesting methods and paying legal workers a minimum wage. Another brand that’s readily available is Nutiva; according to the company website, its red palm oil is sustainably produced on small organic family farms in Ecuador and certified organic, non-GMO, and Fair Trade.