Now for the not-so-good news. Palm oil is especially rich in palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid that’s been linked to increased risk of heart disease7 in some studies. However, results have been mixed and controversial on the oil’s impact on health8 and heart health specifically.9 One review published in Frontiers in Physiology10 in 2017 suggests that it’s not palmitic acid itself that’s problematic, but the ratio of palmitic acid to polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) like omega-3s that you consume.
For the record, less than 10% of Americans get enough omega-3s, and according to Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, mbg’s director of scientific affairs, “We have a national omega-3 gap that needs to be addressed asap,” she previously told mbg.
And as we already mentioned, the World Journal of Cardiology has taken a pretty firm stance that there’s no benefit to replacing palm oil with unsaturated fats as long as you’re eating a nutritionally balanced diet otherwise (AKA enough omega-3s and other important nutrients).
All that said, the biggest downside of palm oil actually goes beyond your health. Many old-growth forests are cleared away for palm oil plantations, most notably in Southeast Asia. As palm oil growers race to expand their land area to keep up with palm demand, they cut down trees, destroying wildlife habitats and harming a valuable carbon storage sink. Palm oil sourcing is a threat to the survival of orangutans, and it also threatens Sumatran elephants, rhinos, tigers, and the livelihoods of local community members.
It is possible to find sustainable palm oil, but you have to be extra diligent since cheaper versions of the oil are often found in packaged foods and personal care products. If you do purchase palm oil, make sure it’s RSPO-certified deforestation-free palm.