There are two things that you can be certain of when it comes to palm oil: 1) business is booming and 2) orangutans hate palm oil (if they could speak to us, I’m confident that’s what they would say). We can now add another certainty to that: palm oil causes low-grade inflammation that is linked to insulin resistance, obesity and other metabolic diseases that are partially mediated by our resident gut microbes.
Palm oil is touted as a panacea for everything ranging from a route out of poverty for small-scale farmers, a sustainable biofuel, and for its powerful nutritional virtues. However, palm oil plantations are linked to unsustainable deforestation throughout the world – that aside from the obvious biosphere issues – is reducing livable habitat for orangutans to the point that some are calling it genocide.
Consumer demand – or maybe that should be manufacturer demand – for palm oil has resulted in palm oil in one of every two packaged products in the super market! You can find it in baked goods, cereals, crisps, sweets, margarine and popular soaps and cosmetics – to name a few. Often listed under a dizzying number of names, like palmate and Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, it’s not always easy to spot. Red palm oil has become very popular among the more affluent, both for its taste, cool red color, and superior antioxidant load. The Red palm oil is derived from the fleshy part of the fruit – hence its red color – while the clear stuff comes from the whitish kernel in the center. Or you can refine Red palm oil down to a clear version (but in the process, you lose some of the goodness).
I have discussed elsewhere (here and here) the potential impact of a high-fat diet and changes in your gut microbial ecosystem that can (does) lead to low-grade inflammation that furthers leads to insulin resistance, obesity and other issues. In short, high-fat intake shifts the gut microbiota and increases the translocation of lipopolysaccharides (LPS) or endotoxins from your gut into your blood, which then triggers inflammation – and then the cascade of problems start.
These “high-fat-increases-endotoxin-load-in-serum” studies used varying amounts and types of fat – with no particular emphasis on the type of fat being used. These researchers also, due to the nature of the research and the questions being asked, used what some might consider unrealistic levels of fat in the mouse or human diet being tested. Levels you would not see in a free-living human population. This research reality is simply a function of the researchers exploring cause and effect and in order to do so, need to “dial it up” a bit to get any meaningful shifts in the data. In either case, the outcomes are still informative.
Researchers in France decided to address both of these issues in a recent study among mice fed proportional and realistic levels of fat and tested oils with differing fatty acid composition (albeit in mice). The fats/oils tested included milk fat, palm oil, rapeseed (canola) oil, or sunflower oil.
Regardless of which fat the mice received, fat content as a percentage of diet was maintained at 22.4% (or, 38% of the energy of the diet). Mice were randomly divided into five groups (8 mice per group), and fed one of the five diets (one was a control – i.e., normal mice chow not spiked with fat). Fast forwarding a bit, the researchers found that depending on which oil the mice received, it could change the levels of endotoxins in serum (impaired gut) and increase markers of inflammation (not so good).
Turns out, that compared to a high-fat diet formulated with either milk fat, rapeseed oil, or sunflower oil, one that includes palm oil resulted in higher inflammation in “plasma and adipose tissue” as measured by a number of markers. Interestingly, rapeseed oil resulted in much lower inflammation. (Would encourage folks that are interested in the subject to read the detailed study themselves, and related).
In this study, researchers used refined non-hydrogenated palm oil, not oil from the kernel. That is, Red palm oil without the red. If you are concerned about low-grade inflammation, then you might want to think twice about forking out the extra money for the fancy palm oil and might want to check the ingredient labels a little closer as well. Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Maybe the differences between the inflammation triggered by one fatty acid over the other is insignificant. Maybe they should have used more mice, or heated the oil. Maybe mouse studies don’t matter. More studies are needed.
In either case, thinking twice about Palm oil might please the orangutans.