Did you know that we eat an oil almost every day that increases the risk of cancer and heart disease? It is palm oil, which is commonly found in processed foods. As long as you are not eating whole food, you’re likely eating palm oil.
Palm Oil Is Omnipresent in Processed Foods
Palm oil is extracted from palm pulp or palm kernels and has a wide range of uses. It is mainly found in processed foods.
Our reliance on palm oil is increasing year by year. According to statistics released in January 2022 by Statista, which is an online statistical data portal, the global palm oil consumption from 2021 to 2022 is 73,866,000 metric tons, reaching a record high. The United States is in a similar situation, with domestic palm oil consumption of 1,602,000 metric tons in 2021, just 1,000 metric tons less than 2020.
Almost all processed foods that people eat every day contain palm oil, including snack crackers, bread, cakes, pizza, breakfast cereals, peanut butter and other spreads, dried fruit, instant noodles, fried foods, chocolate, ice cream, etc.
Hsiao-Wei Chen, a nutritionist with a doctorate in food science, said that palm oil is actually ubiquitous in processed foods, and that emulsifiers and stabilizers may also contain palm oil.
As palm oil contains a large amount of saturated fat (40 percent to 50 percent of total fat), it has a higher stability, which allows food to be better preserved. Also due to its high saturated fat content, palm oil is suitable for frying food and can even withstand multiple high-temperature frying. Of course, palm oil is also cheaper than other oils.
These factors are the reasons why palm oil is widely used in processed foods. In fact, even baby formula contains palm oil. When manufacturing milk powder, animal fats must be extracted, as animal oil contains contaminants such as environmental hormones and antibiotics. Therefore, it is strictly stipulated that infant milk powder cannot contain animal fats. After the animal fats are extracted, vegetable fats and oils such as soybean salad oil, olive oil, or palm oil are added. And palm oil can play a role in stabilizing milk powder.
Palm Oil Poses 2 Major Health Threats: Cancer and Heart Disease
However, palm oil has two major hidden concerns: increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Palm oil consumption increases risk of cancer and cancer cell metastasis, because the refining process of palm oil produces carcinogens.
The Research Center for Environmental Trace Toxic Substances (RCETTS), which is a research center of Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), was commissioned by Taiwan’s National Science and Technology Council to conduct research on 280 pieces of commercially available food. In 2021, the research results were published, which stated that palm oil contains the most 3-monochloro-1,2-propanodiol (3-MCPD) and glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE)—products of vegetable oils in the refining process which are suspected to cause cancer.
Vegetable oil needs to go through high-temperature deodorization and decolorization steps, during which 3-MCPD and GE are produced. They will be converted into free-state 3-MCPD and GE following ingestion.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified GE as a Group 2A carcinogen, which is highly carcinogenic to humans, and 3-MCPD as a Group 2B carcinogen, which is suspected to be a carcinogen to humans.
The research team listed six categories of high-risk foods: oils and fats, infant food, baked and processed whole grains and cereals, dried beans and nuts, confectionery, biscuits, and compound foods (hamburgers, dumplings, pies, instant noodles, and chicken nuggets, etc.).
Ching-Chang Lee, distinguished professor, vice president of NCKU, and director of RCETTS, said that the test found that the two substances—3-MCPD and GE—were most abundant in oils and fats, among which palm oil contains the highest amount. The second place is confectionery and biscuits, and the third is compound food. The ingredients of the latter two also contain palm oil.
At the same time, after analyzing the exposure, it was found that exposure of all the ethnic groups, regardless of gender or age, exceeded the standard amount. The only exception was that the exposure amount of people over 65 years old was within the acceptable range. Lee said that the highest exposure is 0 to 3 years old, followed by 3 to 6 years old, and the lowest is women over 65 years old.
In addition, dietary palmitic acid (PA) may cause metastasis.
Saturated fat in palm oil mostly exists in the form of dietary palmitic acid (PA). However, PA may cause cancer metastasis, and the metastasis or spread of cancer is the main cause of death in cancer patients.
A study published in Nature in 2021 shows that PA in palm oil boosts the metastasis in oral carcinomas and melanoma in mice. The researchers noted that fatty acids in other oils, such as olive oil and flaxseed, did not exhibit such a hazard.
Frying Generates Free Radicals
The oil used to fry food must be able to withstand high temperatures, such as palm oil, which has more saturated fat. In fact, palm oil is most commonly used to fry food.
Chen said that unstable oil produces more free radicals during the frying process. Palm oil, which has higher stability, can withstand more frying, but it will still produce free radicals during the frying process. If you ingest too many free radicals, the body will be attacked by free radicals, which is easily carcinogenic.
In addition, during the repeated frying process, palm oil produces 3-MCPD and GE.
Palm Oil Increases Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Saturated fats are associated with cardiovascular disease risk. As with animal fats, the intake of saturated fat from palm oil significantly increases bad cholesterol (LDL).
In addition, the repeated heating of palm oil to cook food can easily lead to atherosclerosis that causes cardiovascular disease.
In one study, researchers fed healthy mice a diet made with fresh palm oil and food made with palm oil heated five times and 10 times.
It was found that the blood vessels of the group fed with repeatedly heated palm oil exhibited atherosclerotic changes. In particular, the rats that consumed palm oil heated 10 times had a significant increase in aortic intima thickness and large atherosclerotic plaques.
Another study analyzed country-level data from 1980 to 1997 and found that increased palm oil consumption was significantly associated with higher mortality from ischemic heart disease (coronary heart disease) in people aged 50 and older in developing countries. The ischemic heart disease is mainly related to atherosclerosis.
The study showed that for each additional kilogram of palm oil consumption per person in developing countries, ischemic heart disease mortality increased by 68 per 100,000 people. Even the inclusion of other sources of saturated fat, including beef, pork, chicken, coconut oil, cheese, and butter, did not significantly alter the high association between palm oil and ischemic heart disease mortality.
2 Ways to Avoid Risks of Palm Oil
In the literature on palm oil, there are many arguments in favor of the consumption of palm oil, including that it contains nutrients such as vitamin E, carotene, and phenolic substances, but most of these studies come from Malaysia, one of the major palm oil producing countries.
Lee said that the quality of an oil product should be viewed from all aspects. In addition to the oil itself, there is also the process of refining, cooking, and use. He said that the research on 3-MCPD and GE is to hope that the producers of palm oil will change the refining process to reduce the amount of carcinogens and the risk of consumption. At the same time, the government also has a responsibility to continue to regulate standards and assist the producers to improve. Regardless, it is still recommended to buy less food labeled with palm oil.
As palm oil exists commonly in food, Chen shares two simple ways to avoid the risks of palm oil consumption.
First, look at the ingredients on the nutrition label before purchasing. Food packaging that says “Rainforest Alliance Certified” usually means the food doesn’t contain palm oil. Also, organic stores are more likely to have food products labeled as palm oil-free.
Second, eat less processed foods. Consume mainly whole food, especially more fruits and vegetables. The fiber and antioxidant nutrients in fruits and vegetables have a protective effect on the body and can reduce the harm of bad cholesterol and free radicals.
The watching, interacting, and participation of any kind with anything on this page does not constitute or initiate a doctor-patient relationship with Dr. Farrah™. None of the statements here have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The products of Dr. Farrah™ are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information being provided should only be considered for education and entertainment purposes only. If you feel that anything you see or hear may be of value to you on this page or on any other medium of any kind associated with, showing, or quoting anything relating to Dr. Farrah™ in any way at any time, you are encouraged to and agree to consult with a licensed healthcare professional in your area to discuss it. If you feel that you’re having a healthcare emergency, seek medical attention immediately. The views expressed here are simply either the views and opinions of Dr. Farrah™ or others appearing and are protected under the first amendment.
Dr. Farrah™ is a highly experienced Licensed Medical Doctor certified in evidence-based clinical nutrition, not some enthusiast, formulator, or medium promoting the wild and unrestrained use of nutrition products for health issues without clinical experience and scientific evidence of therapeutic benefit. Dr. Farrah™ has personally and keenly studied everything she recommends, and more importantly, she’s closely observed the reactions and results in a clinical setting countless times over the course of her career involving the treatment of over 150,000 patients.
Dr. Farrah™ promotes evidence-based natural approaches to health, which means integrating her individual scientific and clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise, I refer to the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice.
Dr. Farrah™ does not make any representation or warranties with respect to the accuracy, applicability, fitness, or completeness of any multimedia content provided. Dr. Farrah™ does not warrant the performance, effectiveness, or applicability of any sites listed, linked, or referenced to, in, or by any multimedia content.
To be clear, the multimedia content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen in any website, video, image, or media of any kind. Dr. Farrah™ hereby disclaims any and all liability to any party for any direct, indirect, implied, punitive, special, incidental, or other consequential damages arising directly or indirectly from any use of the content, which is provided as is, and without warranties.