Dietitian Helen Bond takes a look at whether palm oil can increase your cholesterol levels, and if you need to avoid it.
Q Palm oil appears as an ingredient in so many foods – from peanut butter to fruit juices – and I’ve read it’s often listed as vegetable fat or oil. Am I right in thinking palm oil is a saturated fat? I take cholesterol-lowering medication, but it’s not much use if I keep topping up my cholesterol with hidden palm oil!
Ronel Mair, via email
A You’re right – palm oil, like coconut oil, is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats. Health experts advise us to limit our intake of saturated fat – not least, to keep cholesterol in check. And yes, palm oil is used in many bestselling products, including peanut butter, chocolate spread, confectionery and baked goods, because it’s inexpensive and highly versatile. In many places, there’s no mandatory labelling for palm oil, so manufacturers can hide it under the blanket of vegetable oil or fat.
In truth, the jury’s out on exactly how harmful it is. A scientific review by the British Nutrition Foundation reported that short-term research studies are conflicting. For example, palm oil contains significant amounts of the saturated fatty acid palmitic acid, which is known to have adverse effects on blood cholesterol. But oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, is also present and this has positive effects on risk factors for heart disease.
The bottom line is that, with most of us eating about 20 per cent more than the recommended daily maximum amount of saturated fats (20g a day for women, 30g for men), it’s wise to cut your intake.
As it’s not always possible to identify palm oil on nutrition labels, choose products that specify alternative vegetable oils, such as 100 per cent sunflower oil, corn oil or canola oil. Look for natural peanut butters, for instance, that are made from 100 per cent pure peanuts. And, where possible, cook from scratch so you know exactly what’s in your food.