Label Decoder: Palm Oil

You may have spied "palm oil" on an ingredient label or stumbled across the name in a food news story. Here's the scoop on this new oil that's replacing the trans fats in your packaged junk foods.
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Close up of an half eaten cookie with crumb

You may have spied "palm oil" on an ingredient label or stumbled across the name in a food news story. Here's the scoop on this new oil that's replacing the trans fats in your packaged junk foods.

Palm vs. Palm Kernel

These days, you'll find these oils in commercial baked goods (e.g. cakes and cookies), snack foods and some brands of peanut butter. As companies have jumped on the anti-trans fat bandwagon, they've started replacing their products' trans fat (i.e. the partially hydrogenated oils) with different types of palm oil.

Both palm and palm kernel oil come from palm plants (often called “oil palms”) and are categorized as “tropical oils” along with coconut oil. These tropical oils are unique because they have a high percentage of saturated fat, which is unusual for oils that come from plants. More common sources of saturated fat are butter, meat, whole milk and cheese and cream. Too much saturated fat in your diet can increase cholesterol, clog arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.

These two types of oils come from different parts of the palm plant. Palm oil, which is sometimes called “palm fruit oil,” comes from the fruit; palm kernel oil comes from the seed (a.k.a. the kernel).

Is It Better For You?

Palm oil (from the fruit) contains 50% saturated fat and palm kernel oil is 82% -- this means plain palm oil is the better choice (of the two). Some believe palm oil has the added benefit of the antioxidants (mostly beta-carotene) that are extracted from the fruit. Researchers are currently trying to determine if the saturated fats in tropical oils affect our cholesterol levels differently. Until we have conclusive findings, you're better off sticking to heart-healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats such as the ones found in olive oil and nuts. These unsaturated fats actually help lower cholesterol.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 7% or less of total daily calories – if you follow a 2,000 calorie diet, that works out to about 15.5 grams per day. So no matter what kind of saturated fat you choose, your intake should be limited. I don’t know about you but I’d rather eat some cheese and take advantage of the protein and calcium instead of getting an equal amount of saturated from from palm oil in cheesy snack crackers (no protein or calcium there)!

Bottom Line: We should consume all sources of saturated fat in moderation for optimum heart health. These days, most of the foods that contain palm oil (that is, those cakes and snacks) don’t rank very high in the nutrient department. Check ingredient lists on your favorite foods so you know where the saturated fat is coming from.

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