Pakistanis in general love to eat, and the ultimate celebration for any occasion calls for - scrumptious food! It is a common perception that the richer the dish, the tastier it must be. Our elders have been talking about the health and nutritional benefits of consuming aslee ghee (real ghee) as part of their daily diets since time immemorial but what they miss out on mentioning is the intake quantity. Back in old times, the day’s work used to be physically intense and strenuous which turned the excess dietary fat into energy. But times have changed. Today, as physical activities have reduced in our lives comparatively, the overall requirement of fatty foods has also reduced.
For the last few decades, scientific research has been strongly influencing the food we consume. Aslee ghee, for reasons unknown, has been projected as an item that leads to bad health and obesity. It has been largely replaced by a variety of vegetable oils like palm oil, sunflower, soybean, mustard, olive oil etc. and there too, exists a similar confusion about which oil is healthier. Constant bombardment via paid advertisements by different brands just added on to the confusion. And till date, we are still overwhelmed by the difficult decision-making dilemma while shopping for edible oil- “which is the healthiest oil?”
Today, let’s talk about palm oil, the most ubiquitous vegetable oil, which is widely consumed and imported in huge quantities for various purposes in Pakistan. To understand the benefits and other aspects of palm oil, we consulted Ms Hafsa Aamir, Lecturer, Food Science & Technology, Jinnah University for Women, who shares interesting facts about the oil:
What is palm oil, why has there been so much controversy regarding its intake?
Palm oil, like sunflower and olive oil, is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit grown on the African oil palm tree. Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. It is an important crop for the GDP of emerging economies and there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihood Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers of palm oil globally with over 85% of the global supply.
Palm oil has been one of the most debated of all the edible oils - for both health and environmental reasons but over the past several decades, it has become one of the most produced and consumed oils in the world. Found in 50 percent of our household items, including food and non-food items, the demand for this oil has only gone up because of its versatile properties - it’s semi-solid at room temperature, resistant to oxidation making it a good preservative, and has high smoke point making it perfect for high-heat cooking.
Why was palm oil considered a not so healthy option, and is it really one? Has any research been conducted on Palm oil?
While the health benefits and risks of fats have been highlighted by various studies done by nutritionists, cardiologists, and health practitioners, the magic word they suggest is – “moderation”, be it ghee, butter, vegetable oil or any other food item.
Palm oil has been linked to several health benefits, including protecting brain functioning and reducing heart disease risk factors. While Palm oil has a saturated fat content, a study conducted in 2015 found that, when consumed as part of a balanced diet, Palm oil does not have any risk for cardiovascular disease. The research specifically states that:
“It is known that saturated fat adversely affects lipid profile and raised serum total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol is associated with cardiovascular risk. However, not all saturated fats have this adverse effect. Palmitic acid the main saturated fat in palm oil has a similar effect on lipid profile as the monounsaturated fat oleic acid that is currently recommended. In addition, palm oil also contains oleic and linoleic acids and vitamin E tocotrienols that are powerful antioxidants and inhibit cholesterol synthesis as well. Therefore, in conclusion, it is the opinion of the authors that palm oil consumed as a dietary fat as part of a healthy balanced diet does not have an incremental risk for cardiovascular disease. Little or no additional benefit will be obtained by replacing it with other oils rich in mono or polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
A study on Pakistani adults showed that those given palm oil rich diets performed better than sunflower oil. Palm oil increased HDL-cholesterol and Apo A-1 levels. Hydrogenated cottonseed oil behaved the worst by raising serum triglycerides and lipoprotein levels. (Farooq et al.,1996)
What according to you are the benefits of palm oil, are there any hazards or protocols one should look out for?
The myths that palm oil consumption leads to raised blood cholesterol levels and is therefore atherogenic have no scientific foundation. Examination of the chemical and fatty acid composition of palm oil or its liquid fraction should convince most nutritionists that the oil has little cholesterol-raising potential. The rationale for these is: it is considered cholesterol-free, its major saturated fatty acid, palmitic acid (16:0) has recently been shown to be neutral in its cholesterolaemic effect, particularly in situations where the IDL receptors have not been downregulated by dietary means or through a genetic effect. Palm oil contains negligible amounts (less than 1.5%) of the hypercholesterolemic saturated fatty acids, namely lauric acid (12:0) and myristic acid (14:0).
Red palm oil is a rich source of vitamin A, and used for preventing cancer, brain disease, aging; and treating malaria, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cyanide poisoning. It increases the body metabolism and is conducive in weight loss. There is evidence that adding red palm oil to the diet of pregnant women and children in developing countries can reduce the risk of developing vitamin A deficiency.
Red palm oil also contains ample quantities of saturated and unsaturated fats, beta-carotene, and tocotrienols (a form of Vit E), an antioxidant that provides protection to the cells and that can reduce the risk. Vitamin E is crucial for keeping the immune system healthy and for helping cells communicate. Studies show that getting enough vitamin E in the diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and age-related macular degeneration.
In our quest to save money, we tend to reuse the oil used for frying. Repeated heating can not only destroy the nutrients present in all oils but will also alter the levels of tocotrienols present in palm oil, which are beneficial for health. Such practices should be discouraged.
The best possible way is to use fresh palm oil for cooking purposes. Palm oil possesses excellent cooking properties and is used in the production of Vanaspati. It is more heat stable than other vegetable oils and adds a superior taste, texture, and quality to foods and baked goods. Industrially, palm oil is also one of the main ingredients for manufacturing cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste, waxes, lubricants, and ink. The oil is often found in products such as shampoo, bread, detergent, snacks and chocolate bars and other processed foods.
In developing countries, vegetable oils are fast replacing animal fats because of the higher costs and health concerns. In the absence of any concrete evidence that shows that palm oil is bad, it is reassuring to know that the consumption of palm oil as a source of dietary fat does not pose any additional risks for coronary artery disease when consumed as part of a moderate healthy diet.
— The writer is a