Tropical Oils: Healthy? Sustainable?

by Mary on July 8, 2012


The Tropical Oils

Are tropical oils good for us and the planet? Saturated fats raise cholesterol levels, and decades ago fears about the saturated fat in tropical oils led to their replacement in processed foods by hydrogenated oils. That was a nutritional disaster. Now some alternative health groups consider tropical oils healthy while mainstream health organizations still call for us to minimize their use. Who’s right?

The tropical oils palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil are the only naturally saturated vegetable fats. All are from the fruits of palm trees, and all contain palmitic acid,  a dietary fat found in palms (and some other foods). The World Health Organization calls the evidence that palmitic acid consumption increases cardiovascular risk ‘convincing.’ That’s one notch above its assessment of the evidence that dietary cholesterol increases cardiovascular risk, which is only ‘probable.’

Yet there are nuances. The three tropical oils are chemically distinct from each other. The structure of tropical oils is not exactly the same as that of animal saturated fats and may have different effects in our bodies. All this has led to a re-evaluation of the health effects of tropical oils in recent years.

Palm Oil

red palm fruit

red palm fruit from the oil palm tree

Palm oil, pressed from the red fruit of the oil palm tree, has a saturated fat content of 48%, much lower than the other two tropical oils. Virgin, or red, palm oil gets its red color from a high concentration of beta-carotenes and lycopene. Those powerful antioxidants are lost when red palm oil is refined into the regular palm oil we find in processed foods, though Vitamin E is also in the oil and remains after refining.

Recent research on the health effects of palm oil in general is pretty scarce. It hasn’t been a big part of the US diet until recently so there hasn’t been much interest in studying it. A  2005 study from Costa Rica of over 2,000 survivors of a first heart attack randomly matched against controls found that people who cooked with palm oil were 30% more likely to have had a heart attack than those who cooked with soybean oil. A tiny US study showed that palm oil raised triglyerides and cholesterol as much as partially hydrogenated soybean oil, while groups consuming canola or regular soybean oil showed better blood lipid profiles by comparison.

None of this research was specifically on virgin red palm oil, and it would be interesting to know if the carotenoids and other nutrients in virgin palm oil make it healthier than processed palm oil.

Palm Kernel Oil

Palm kernel oil is pressed from the large seed at the center of the oil palm fruit. At 82% saturated fat it’s highly saturated. It can be further refined, or fractionated,  removing most of the remaining unsaturated oil. The resulting fractionated palm kernel oil is extremely solid, ideal for confectionary coatings. Yogurt raisins, marketed as healthy snacks, usually contain fractionated palm kernel oil. So do many energy bars and carob-based treats.

Modified Palm Oil

It’s possible to process tropical oils even more than fractionated palm kernel oil. As food makers have moved away from hydrogenated oils because of food labeling for trans fats, they’ve embraced a new process called intersterification to modify oils. Like hydrogenation, intersterification chemically changes the structure of the oil. Manufacturers use it for the same reason: to create oils with the desired degree of solidity and ‘mouthfeel.’ You’ll often see this on a label as ‘modified palm oil.’

It’s unclear what effect these intersterified oils might have on our health, but this quote by a Canadian food scientist should give you pause:  “In the end, you have molecules that aren’t really fat or oil molecules anymore. They’re something in between.”

Environmental Issues with Palm Oil

What about the planet? You’d think a field of oil palms would be a planet-friendly crop– trees are good for the atmosphere and oil palms produce for up to 25 years. And oil palm gives a much greater yield of oil per acre than temperate crops like rapeseed (for canola oil), soy, or sunflower, meaning less land is needed for production.

The problem comes when virgin rainforest is cleared to make way for oil palm production. This is a serious problem in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two main areas of palm oil production for the international market. With increasing world-wide demand for palm oil, this further threatens endangered species such as the orangutan.

Despite protest, Girl Scout cookies continue to use palm oil from undocumented and likely unsound sources. Some other companies like Ferrero (makers of Nutella) use palm oil from environmentally certified sources, but the certification process itself has problems that are still being solved.

Coconut Oil

Nature's Way Coconut Oil in jar

extra virgin coconut oil

Coconut oil, which is 86% saturated fat, comes in unrefined and refined versions. Unrefined, or extra virgin, coconut oil, has been promoted a lot recently for its possible, but unproven health benefits such as antiviral and anti-fungal properties. Coconut oil is about 65% medium chain triglycerides, which are easily metabolized and burned rapidly by the liver for energy. It makes an excellent natural moisturizer or massage oil.

Hydrogenated coconut oil, sometimes used for its higher melting point, has trans fats and therefore would be expected to have a especially negative effect on blood lipid profiles. Some older studies showing a negative effect of coconut oil on blood lipid profiles used hydrogenated coconut oil.

There’s uncertainty over whether the lauric acid in coconut oil has a negative effect on cardiovascular disease risk.  One small study shows coconut oil having a more beneficial effect on blood chemistry than butter, but a less beneficial effect than safflower oil.

An observational study from the Philippines found that coconut oil consumption was associated with a favorable blood lipid profile in pre-menopausal women. The discussion in that paper suggested coconut oil as a healthier alternative to butter and hydrogenated oils, positing that coconut oil only looked bad in other studies in comparison with polyunsaturated oils which are known to lower cholesterol.

Fine, but shouldn’t we lean toward using those polyunsaturated oils, or even better, monounsaturated oils like olive? I think so (topic for another post), though I’m happy using a small amount of virgin coconut oil when I want its flavor or as a butter alternative. I have not tried red palm oil, and try to avoid all of the processed tropical oils.

For further reading:

Reuters: Tropical Oils Don’t Boost Some Heart Markers

Palm Oil: A Better Choice for Home and Commercial Use

Palm Oil and Coronary Heart Disease: The Long Explanation

comment on WHO Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Disease report (pertaining to palm oil).

Coconut Oil: Menace or Miracle

photo credit: <a href=””>Lon&Queta</a> via <a href=””>photo pin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivy July 9, 2012 at 5:11 am

Great information for those already using these oils. I don’t have to worry about this because I live in the country which produces the best olive oil in the world and I am not exaggerating. Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean countries buy Greek olive oil and mix it with their olive oil to improve their quality.
Ivy recently posted..Greek Fava and Bulgur Pie or Fava Fritters and Lemon Minted YoghurtMy Profile


mary July 9, 2012 at 5:19 am

Ivy, I know you are right. And why would you use anything else, with such excellent and super-healthy olive oil where you are? Until recently the US had no standard for extra virgin olive oil, unlike the rest of the world. Now the US has created its own standard instead of using the standard everyone else uses, probably for some obscure political reason. I don’t know how that’s working, but previously, there was a whole lot of fraud. A lot of supposedly extra virgin imported olive oil was not actually extra virgin at all, it was much lower quality. I’m sure you do not have those problems, and if you did, people would notice, they know what quality olive oil is supposed to be like.


Lizie July 9, 2012 at 6:09 am

This looks really interesting.. I am sure a lot of people can benefit from the post you have shared here.. Anyway, I hope I can read more of you here..


mary July 10, 2012 at 1:01 am

I post recipes more often than posts about nutrition, but I try to get to them when I can. I have topics in mind: a series on soy, vegetable oils, whether the paleo diet makes sense and more. These type of posts take longer– this one went through about five drafts– so it’s nice for me to hear that you liked it. If you want to stay connected, you can subscribe by email with the little green envelope button up in the right corner. Or Facebook like the blog. Thanks for commenting, I appreciated hearing from you!


Kate July 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Thanks, Mary, for this great article on tropical oils. I agree palm oils are problematic environmentally for large scale production, and poor choices for eating. I have seen some folks, looking at their diet histories, just accept the coconut oil myths to the extent they add it in their smoothies, like a palatable way to get more! The only reason I can see for accepting the extra saturated fat from coconut oil has to do with heated oils for cooking, stir fries and such. I wonder if you found any information on poly- and mono- unsaturated fats becoming trans-fats in the cooking process (safflower, canola, olive, etc). Since trans-fats are clearly so bad in terms of heart health, a saturated fat like coconut might theoretically be better. This is something I have wondered, but have not had time yet to research myself.


mary July 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Hi Kate, I use extra-virgin olive oil for sautéing and I have been unsure about that for the reasons you mention, and seen chatter that extra virgin olive oil should not be used for cooking. On the other hand I’ve also seen one study that olive oil held at 350 degrees for an extended period of time did not show signs of breakdown. And heard that vegetable oils used below their smoke point– above 350 even for extra virgin olive oil– are fine. So yes, that’s a great topic to research more and write about, and I hope I can get to that. I try to sauté at a low temperature and if I accidentally smoke the oil (rare these days) I throw it away and start over. There are other culinary reasons to use a saturated fat besides sautéing, for example in baked goods where some products like crusts don’t have the same texture (crumb) without it. Not that we all need a lot of baked goods. And sometimes it’s the taste of coconut oil or butter that’s wanted.


Heba July 11, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Hi Mary, just read your post – very interesting. I haven’t used palm oil yet, but I’m curious as to how it tastes. I do use unrefined coconut oil very liberally though, and after increasing the amount of saturated fats (from coconut and pastured healthy animals) in my diet, I have lost weight effortlessly and have maintained a good weight for a while. I’ve also cut out all gluten, most grains, and refined carbs and sugars. Eating more high-quality fat keeps me full much longer and I don’t constantly feel tired as I used to when I was eating oatmeal every morning. Anyway, thanks for sharing the info about tropical oils. I highly recommend Mark’s posts on the topic too if you haven’t seen them already:
Heba recently posted..Tips for Blueberry Picking & A Recipe for Raw Peach Tart with Blueberry Coconut-Ginger Cream (GF, DF, Paleo)My Profile


mary July 17, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Hi Heba, I’m glad you are having success with your dietary changes, and I too am curious how red palm oil might taste. Let me know what you think if you try it. I have read Mark’s Daily Apple, and I understand why it’s so popular– he’s a good writer and includes a lot of source references. But I can’t go with him in his unconcern about animal saturated fat in the diet. Even the writers behind the idea of Paleo, like Cordain, and before him, Eaton, Shostak, and Konner, advise limiting animal saturated fat in the diet. Wild game is very lean and these writers theorize that our ancestors did not get much saturated fat. If you think about it, a lot of the meat that our ancestors ate was not large hoofed animals but much less glamorous meats like insects, grubs, and very small game. And even the hunter gatherer cultures which do get a lot of meat, which some of them do, also got a tremendous amount of exercise, quite different from almost anyone except endurance athletes today. So their cardiovascular risk factors were quite different than ours. Topic for a few more posts, if I ever get to them! Paleo includes so many dietary changes, some of which, like omitting refined carbs and sugars as you mentioned, are so hugely positive and are a great improvement over the standard American diet, I’m glad that overall it’s been helpful to you.


Rachel Hughes July 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Natural products are much way better. Most likely there won’t have side effects. More cheaper and healthier.

The tropical oils palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil are the only naturally saturated vegetable fats. – See more at:


Fit After Fifty November 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm

This reminds me of the clever trick of calling a rather nasty oil “vegetable oil” to give it a more healthy-looking profile. I’m all for the flavor of coconut oil but I think I’ll stick to good ole’ olive oil for the time being. Great article Mary!


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