Palm oil, how bad is it?

Mulino bianco cookies senza oilo di palma
Mulino Bianco cookies, made without palm oil

A little more than a year has gone by since my family and I visited my husband’s side of the family in Italy. We usually stay for a month or longer when visiting. Prior to Christmas of 2017, exactly four years had passed since our previous visit. On our most recent trip, while out shopping for food, I immediately noticed something different about prepackaged pantry Items. The majority of prepackaged products had “Senza olio di Palma” (without palm oil,) written on them. When you see packaging with a disclaimer, it usually means there had been bad press about the omitted ingredient.

So, I then asked my Nigerian friend what that was all about. After all, she does live there. I figured maybe she had a bit more insight. But she couldn’t give me a definitive answer. She mentioned it makes you fat. I then began to think, well, all oils contain some type of fat. And this is a plant oil that solidifies at room temperature, such as coconut oil. So, what makes palm oil so bad and coconut oil the holy grail of oils. Once we returned to the USA, I began researching to find out which palm oil they were referring to. As well as the reason why so many Italian companies had removed it from their products.

My experience using palm oil dates back to early womanhood and being exposed to African cuisine. There was no way, that palm oil could be bad. Initially, I approached my research with hesitation. My fear was, if I found out something bad, that would mean I’d have to remove it from my cabinet. The robust flavor it provides, along with its bright color would then be missed from a few of the dishes I usually cook in my home.

What is palm oil

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the African oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis. This particular species of palm tree originates in West Africa, and can be found from Liberia to Angola. It can also be found in the tropical rainforest belt, from West Africa to Central Africa.

There are two distinct types of oil derived from the fruit. One is Palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the kernel within the fruit. The other is derived from the red colored fleshy mesocarp of the fruit. The main focus of this article is the mesocarp palm oil.

African Oil palm trees thrive in a warm and moist climate and are therefore readily grown in the tropics. Plantations can be found in Central and South America, parts of Asia, as well as Western Africa.

Fruit of the Palm

A bunch of oil palm fruit berries harvested, shows mesocarp and kernel.
Image by tristantan on Pixabay . Ripe Palm fruit berries harvested. The orange area is the mesocarp, the white area is the Kernel.

African Oil palm trees bear small plumped oval-shaped berries, with a hard outer shell, and a reddish-orange pulp beneath. The reddish-orange mesocarp, or pulp, gives evidence of its beta carotene content. Due to its beta carotene and Vitamin E content, berries from the oil palm tree tend to have an anti-oxidative effect. Underneath the mesocarp, lies the Kernel. The pulp contains approximately 35% oil.

A Natural vegetable oil, but what’s so bad about this vegetable oil?

Mesocarp palm oil is high in saturated fats. However, by percentage, it has less saturated fat than coconut oil; which has become the touted holy grail of oils over the past few years. We can tell if an oil contains saturated fats by how solid it is at room temperature. The mesocarp palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature (as is coconut oil). Whereas unsaturated vegetable fats present completely liquid at room temperature. Vegetable oils such as Sunflower, Canola, Grapeseed, Avocado, etc are completely liquid at room temperature.

Saturation indicates there are many hydrogen molecules attached to the carbon chain, containing only single bonds between the carbons. Whereas unsaturated fats contain double bonds between carbon atoms. As a result, they have fewer hydrogens in their hydrocarbon makeup. Due to this, saturated fats have a high smoke point and therefore are more stable when frying. This makes them in some instances more desirable to use.

Palm oil is made up of approximately 50% saturated fats.
It could negatively impact heart health, and cholesterol if used in excess However, in moderation it could be beneficial. These saturated fats include Palmitic(43.5%), from which its name is derived, stearic(4.3%), and myristic(1.0%) fatty acids. It also contains oleic monounsaturated fat(36.6%) and linoleic polyunsaturated fatty acid(9.1%).

Industries using Palm oil most often

Palm oil is the most commonly used oil throughout the world. The food industry often uses this oil, as it is edible vegetable oil. Refined versions are available on the market as well. This also makes it more easily utilized in the beauty industry. Many African and Asian recipes include the unrefined version, which imparts a distinct flavor, as well as a bit of color to the dish.

According to the WWF, Many pre-packaged foods and products contain refined palm oil. Such products include:
  • Cookies (Helps provide creamy and moist taste)
  • Cakes (Helps make moist cakes, and inexpensive)
  • Chocolate (Helps create the smooth and shiny texture, and makes it a bit more resistant to melting at room temperature)
  • Ice cream (provides creamy smooth consistency)
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Margarine (Solid at room temp and trans-fat free)
  • Bread (Inexpensive, solid at room temp, and easy to bake with)
  • products that produce suds, like bar soap, detergent, and shampoo (Due to its ability to remove oil, and moisturize)
  • Lipstick -(helps formula maintain it’s color better, and resist melting at high temps)
  • Prepared pizza dough- ( Enhances texture and stops it from sticking together. Used in both fresh and frozen dough)
  • Instant noodles -(Approx 20% of the weight provided in a pack of instant noodles comes from Palm oil. Used to precook product)

You’d probably be surprised to find out it’s also lurking in some of your favorite nut butter, such as:

  • Peanut butter
  • Almond butter
  • Cashew butter, etc.
  • Cookie butter

The new American Favorite Nutella also contains palm oil.
Consistency is why it’s in nut butter and Nutella. This particular oil helps provide the creamy texture. It allows the paste created from the nuts and oil to remain creamy, and maintain their consistency at room temperature. Without the oil and nut paste separating. The biofuel industry also uses palm oil in its production process.

Processing palm oil

Golden Refined palm oil
Image by gefrorene_wand from Pixabay

Ripened berries undergo a milling process which produces the palm oil from the mesocarp. Refined and unrefined versions of the oil are available. The refining process requires crude oil to undergo a bleaching and deodorization process. This removes the color and flavor from the oil. Bentonite clay removes the red color. Filtration is then performed, and the oil is left with a golden hue. The oil is then heated to remove any odor. The resulting end product is referred to as RBD (Refined, bleached and deodorized) palm oil. Along with removing the color and flavor, this process takes away any health benefits of using it as well. Leaving you with only an economical, or cost-effective highly saturated fat. And we all know how awful that can be for your heart.

Unrefined Mesocarp palm oil actually has great benefits. As mentioned earlier it contains many good nutrients. Which include carotenoids such as alpha and beta carotene, as well as lycopene. Vitamin E, phenolic acids, and flavonoids which serve as antioxidants. It also contains sterols.

So what’s the big deal?

Deforestation and sustainability is a huge concern. In order to have large plantations of oil palm trees, many acres of rainforest land must be cleared. Displacing wildlife and in some cases small villages of people. The palm oil production industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Throughout the years, deforestation has had a profound negative effect on many endangered species. The Orangutang is one of the species, which are at risk of becoming extinct. Partially due to displacement, and partly due to hunting.

The environment being harmed is another concern. As plantations expand they prepare the land for planting by burning. Burning the land creates air pollution due to the gases emitted during the process. Carbon dioxide is emitted and acts as a contributing factor to climate change. Another concern is harm to marine life. One would think that mass processing of palm oil would be ok since it’s confined to a mill. However, the reality is something different. Processing such large quantities results in a massive amount of effluent waste. This waste ends up in waterways. As a result, it Pollutes fresh water and affects biodiversity. There have been many complaints of this effluent washing up on beaches in the UK. They wash up on shores as globs of solid palm oil, that have been contaminated with bacteria. This can be life-threatening to dogs, children and marine life.

What can we do?

Awareness is the most important step. Having more knowledge on the ingredients our products contain can help bring about a change. The round table for sustainable palm oil(RSPO) is one entity that supports the production of sustainable palm oil. Many companies that produce the oil or companies that use this oil in their products will have RSPO certified printed on their label. It’s one way to ensure the oil we are using is produced in a responsible and environmentally friendly manner.

There are many different names that palm oil or its derivatives might fall under. If you are a label reader as I am, many might be familiar to you. According to WWF these names include: ” Vegetable fat, Vegetable oil, Palm fruit oil, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Kernel, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid; Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate; Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrogenated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.”


Initially, I stepped into this research with a desire to learn why Palm oil has been omitted from so many Italian processed foods. I found a lot more than I was searching for. In the coming months, I’ll share more of what I’ve learned in a different article. While most of us are aware of the dangers of Saturated fats, palm oil in moderate amounts can be of no danger to us. However, the bigger concern is with having sustainable methods of growth and production. As well as the damage that production methods pose to the environment.

If you found this article helpful, please feel free to share!

Do you cook with palm oil or its derivatives? What are some of your favorite products containing this oil or its derivatives? Leave comments below.


R/ Golden Agri Resources, G. A. (2016, July 16). Palm oil refining process – Golden Agri-Resources. Retrieved from

Wilkinson, G. (2019, March 26). Cornwall Live News. Retrieved from

WWF. (2019). Palm Oil | Industries | WWF. Retrieved from

About Meke Montuori 7 Articles
Meke is a former Respiratory therapist and sleep technologist, with a background in Chemistry. S he currently works as a Health and medical writer, while living In South Carolina with her husband, two children, and two dogs.


  1. Hi Meke, thanks for sharing your research on palm oil to your audience. Like you mentioned, it is really important for consumers to learn that palm oil itself is not bad (in fact it has many health benefits), and that production methods are the ones that need work on. We’d like to invite you to take a look at our blog, to learn more about our journey towards sustainably produced palm oil.

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