Palm oil is now ubiquitous. Arguably the world’s most versatile oil, it is used as a preservative in a variety of foods and has a host of other applications in shampoos, cosmetics and even biofuels. Its prevalence is explained in part by the higher oil content of the palm fruit compared to other oil crops.
As the oil’s consumption has become more widespread in India, so has the debate over its health implications. The discussion centres on its high saturated fat content but includes conflicting information and, quite frequently, interest-driven claims. Here we weigh up some of these concerns and the conversations around them.
Booming demand for palm oil in India
India is the world’s second-largest consumer of palm oil, with consumption having soared during the 2000s to reach around 9 million tonnes each year. Palm oil now accounts for about 40% of India’s edible oil consumption.
The nation is almost entirely dependent on imports to meet this demand, becoming the world’s largest importer. Incomings grew from below 500,000 tonnes in 1994 to a peak of 10 million tonnes in 2018. Most of this arrives in crude form to be refined domestically, while about 30% comes already refined.
Palm oil was not much used in Indian cooking until its import was liberalised near the turn of the century. “As India opened up in the 1990s, it was attractive to import cheap palm oil to meet our needs, especially as a lack of investment in the local oilseed sector had led to its decline,” explains Bhavani Shankar, a professorial research fellow in food and health at the University of Sheffield. “The major exporters, Indonesia and Malaysia, were also strongly promoting their palm oil to new markets like India.”
In 2021, the Indian government launched the National Mission on Edible Oils to promote domestic oil palm cultivation, focusing on the northeast region and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The goal was to reduce dependence on edible oil imports significantly.
Dr R Hemalatha, director of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Nutrition (ICMR-NIN), explains that oil palm’s superior productivity makes its oil the cheapest around. “Accordingly, our country is also promoting the acreage for palm plantations to enhance vegetable oil production and reduce imports.”
When palm oil’s health and environmental implications are taken into account, there is a compelling argument for having a range of oils in the food system.
Because of its low price, palm oil is popular for household cooking among India’s poorer citizens. As of 2019, about 10.2% of India’s population lived in extreme poverty on less than US$1.90 per person each day. At 30 to 100 Indian rupees (US$0.40–$1.30), branded palm oil in India is cheaper per litre than other edible oils.
“One 15 kg tin of palm oil costs 2,550 rupees [US$32], whereas the same quantity of sunflower oil costs about 2,990 [US$38] and soybean costs around 2,700 [US$34],” says Sagar Nandagudi, CEO of Nandagudi Oils and Agro Industries, a company based in Karnataka that refines and sells palm oil to wholesalers.
Professor Shankar says other oils may not ever be as cheap, but when palm oil’s health and environmental implications are taken into account, there is a compelling argument for having a range of oils in the food system.
“Such diversification is also good for resilience against shocks,” Shankar adds. “We are seeing the fallout of the Ukraine war resulting in soaring sunflower oil, and consequently, palm oil prices, which are suddenly making it much less affordable. If we have a diversity of oils thriving in the system, the shock to a particular oil is cushioned.”
Dietary debates: Palm oil, red palm oil and vitamin A
In India, palm oil has often been touted as the cure-all food for vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A can help maintain vision, strengthen the immune system and support bone health. Deficiency in it is common in developing countries and among preschool children in India. In its severe form, it can lead to stunted growth and blindness.
Carotenoids are pigments that gives plants, fruits and vegetables bright colouring. One such, beta-carotene, the body can convert into vitamin A. In its unprocessed form, crude palm oil derived from the flesh of the fruit contains 500–700 parts per million of carotenes. But carotenoids are removed from palm oil during the conventional refining process.
Red palm oil, by contrast, is a less heavily processed version that retains 70% to 90% of the beta-carotene content. Palm oil refiners say it is not marketable, as the red colour may be less appealing to consumers, given its association with food additives.
It has “not taken off for commercial sale” explains Manorama Kanuri, a professor at the Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University.
Unlike India, Malaysia has two major brands that produce red palm oil. They are Carotino, a mix of red palm oil and canola, and Harvist, which is 100% red palm oil, according to Rachel Tan Choon Hui, a professor in applied sciences at UCSI University Kuala Lumpur. She authored a recent review on improved refining processes for palm oil and supports the notion that red palm oil is a better option to counter vitamin A deficiency. She echoes references to red palm oil’s “mild” processing and its retention of carotenoids.
BV Mehta, executive director of the Solvent Extractors Association (SEA) of India, an organisation that represents the edible oil industry, expands on why the market remains small. “There is a lack of awareness among consumers about the beta-carotene content in red palm oil and its other health advantages,” Mehta explains. “For example, everyone knows about the health benefits of olive oil in India, and people are willing to pay for it. It’s about three things: awareness, affordability and marketing. That’s the only difference.”
Palm oil, cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases
A range of conflicting information has spread, both in India and beyond, on the implications of palm oil consumption for cardiovascular health, much of it providing few citations or authoritative sources. By some accounts, palm oil can cause heart disease; by others, it reverses heart disease. Many report that palm oil consumption increases cholesterol levels, while others say it does not. Such fervent debate is not likely to be settled swiftly, but a closer look at what palm oil consists of can be instructive.
Kanuri says that some fatty acids contained in palm oil, such as oleic acid and linoleic acid “are not harmful and protect from developing cardiovascular diseases”. But, she says, palm oil offers no benefit over and above other commonly used vegetable oils in preventing cardiovascular disease.
Dr Hemalatha echoes this, but says palm oil is no better than other types of vegetable oils regarding cholesterol. She mentions a 2019 analysis of several trials, conducted between 1975 and 2018, which showed that palm oil consumption did not alter cholesterol levels much more than other vegetable oils.
However, according to a 2015 American Society for Nutrition study, despite the presence of potentially beneficial acids, palm oil’s high saturated fat content means that, overall, its consumption can contribute to a higher cholesterol level, and thus raise the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The society advises reductions in palm oil use in favour of other oils lower in saturated fats.
A 2016 study conducted by the Institute of Home Economics at the University of Delhi and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, compared the saturated fat content of various edible oils, demonstrating the higher presence in palm oil of long-chain saturated fatty acids; these acids, such as palmitic acid and stearic acid, are known to contribute more to cardiovascular inflammation and fat storage than other saturated fats.
The study’s authors recommend moving away from dependence on palm oil towards a mixture of edible oils in the diet, and even blending oils in cooking. Most experts consulted echoed this conclusion, with many underlining the importance of increasing the diversity of oils consumed. “Since complete dependence on a single vegetable oil may not provide the optimal balance of all the fatty acids, ICMR-NIN recommends consuming a variety of vegetable oils, including palm oil,” Hemalatha said.
Vitally, experts say, all oils should be consumed as part of a balanced, healthy diet and lifestyle.