What is Palm Oil and is it Toxic For Us?

Jun 05, 2024
By Liana Werner-Gray
Palm oil is oil that is made from the palm plant. Yes the tree that looks like a palm tree. They produce palm fruit which then can make palm oil. And it can make two distinct types of cooking oils.
Palm oil is a widely used plant-based oil, owes its popularity to its versatility. Originally native to Africa, palm oil trees were introduced to South-East Asia over a century ago. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), palm oil features in nearly 50% of packaged products in supermarkets and is also utilized in animal feed worldwide. It's a common ingredient in various packaged and processed foods typical of the Western diet, such as donuts, instant noodle soups, chocolate, pizza, peanut butter, ice cream, condiment spreads like Nutella, potato chips, and other popular snacks.
There are two types of palm oil and this is where people get confused. Palm oil is made by squeezing the juice of the fleshy fruit, whereas palm kernel oil is made by crushing the kernel at the center of the fruit borne by the oil palm tree.
Is palm oil a seed oil? The answer is no, palm oil isn’t a seed oil, but palm kernel oil is a seed oil. 
It is important to know the difference as food products may contain one or the other or both.
The other difference to know is if the palm oil is animal cruelty free or not. Some palm farming is causing deforestation of engendered species including the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. There also remains some exploitation of workers and child labor. These are serious issues that make the whole palm oil sector a gray area. It’s important to know that some palm oil comes from this terrible farming practices whereas others come from ethical farming practices. A lot of brands will publicize this on their website. Most new brands that are organic and non-gmo use the “good” palm oil. Brands like Bhu Foods and Nutiva will include on their website: “The Hain/Spectrum Palm Oil we (Bhu Foods) use is certified RSPO from Columbia not Southeast Asia, so it is not endangering orangutans. Here is a link to the RSPO site and Nutiva: We source our red palm oil from small organic and fair trade certified family farms in Ecuador to ensure no habitat is harmed. Through a partnership with Natural Habitats, we support local environmental and community efforts with Palm Done Right.” 
Palm oil done right is a beautiful and natural product that can contribute to an excellent  healthy product and support local farmers. Palm oil done wrong can be toxic to our health and to the environment. It’s a shame that some human beings engage in this level of toxicity but this is the sad reality of our world and some farming practices are just absolutely destroying our health and the earth. We see this in the wheat, corn, beet, potato, dairy and meat farming. It’s the same thing, there is wheat (bread, gluten) that is amazing and clean, and then there is wheat that is from genetically modified seeds and contamined with glyphosate from the herbicide and pesticide which is known to cause cancer. We don’t have to avoid all wheat and gluten because there are good quality versions but it’s up to us to know the difference and how to read labels. 
Aside from the deforestation issue is whether or not palm oil adheres to nutrition standards beneficial for our health. Experts at Harvard Health suggest palm oil is a healthier alternative to trans fats. Palm oil, which is 50% saturated, has a more favorable fatty acid composition than coconut oil, which is more than 85% saturated! fats. The honor of unhealthiest fat previously went to trans fat, which is now banned. Most trans fat is artificially created through hydrogenation. Food manufacturers and restaurants have needed to find alternatives and one of them is palm oil. It's less saturated than butter and contains no trans fat. Palm oil is clearly better than high–trans fat shortenings and probably a better choice than butter. But Dr Celeste Robb-Nicholson (MD) says vegetable oils that are naturally liquid at room temperature such as olive oil and canola oil should still be your first choice. However olive oil can be a challenge to add to snacks such as cookie dough because of the flavor profile, it would just be overbearing, which is where a good quality palm oil will come in handy. 
In conclusion, if I see a product with organic palm oil, or palm oil that is certified sustainable, or non-hydrogenated palm oil I will eat it. It’s natural and complies with my values of a natural lifestyle. If it’s the right type of palm oil it’s proven to have no negeative health effects on our health or the environment. Do you research when you see palm oil listed on the ingredient list and find out if it’s toxic or natural.