The production of palm oil can cause many negative environmental impacts which in turn are harmful to human health. The consumption of palm oil can also have significant health impacts, as palm oil is high in saturated fats, though it has various health benefits if consumed in moderation.

Pollution

  • Water pollution due to extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides on plantations can affect the quality of drinking water.
  • Uncontrolled burning for plantation expansion can have widespread health and socio-economic impacts. There were an exceptionally high number of fires in Indonesia in 2015, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting haze had dramatic effects on local populations and even reached as far as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
  • At times during the 2015 haze crisis, pollution levels in areas where fires were burning were recorded at over 2000 on the Pollutant Standards Index – far above the 300 which is considered ‘hazardous’. There were over 500,000 reported cases of respiratory illnesses in 2015 and 19 people died in Indonesia alone.
The haze in Singapore, June 2013 © Wolcott

The haze in Singapore, June 2013 © Wolcott

Nutrition

  • There is a lot of conflicting information available on the health properties of palm oil but it is important to distinguish between palm oil and palm kernel oil.
  • Palm oil and palm kernel oil have very different health properties. Palm oil comes from the palm fruit, while palm kernel oil is extracted from the palm kernel (seed).
  • Palm kernel oil contains a lot more saturated fat compared to palm ‘fruit’ oil. Saturated fats are believed to raise cholesterol levels in the blood increasing the risk of heart disease.
  • Unrefined palm oil (often called red palm oil) contains 50% saturated, 40% monounsaturated and 10% polyunsaturated fats, as well as a variety of nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin E and antioxidants such as carotenoids, working to reduce cholesterol among other health benefits. It is often used to treat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
  • Palm kernel oil contains around 80% saturated and 20% monounsaturated fats, and only a small amount of polyunsaturated fats.
  • When palm oil goes through the manufacturing process it becomes oxidised, reducing some of its health benefits. Frying the oil at high temperatures can also lead to the loss of some of its health properties. However, it is still a healthier alternative to other hydrogenated vegetable oils which are high in trans-fats and often found in manufactured food products; trans-fats are much more damaging to your health than saturated fats.
  • While palm oil is considered one of the healthier vegetable oils, it should still be consumed in moderation.

BBC radio 4 image

Listen to BBC Radio 4’s broadcast ‘Why is palm oil in everything?’ discussing the health impacts of palm oil.

For any questions related to the health impacts of palm oil production visit the FAQs page.