Every few years we rediscover a new, healthier cooking oil. About 20 years ago, we abandoned vegetable for canola, and 10 years back we forsook canola for olive. Today many people tout coconut or avocado oil for their healthy cooking needs. Waiting in the wings? Malaysian palm fruit oil.
Red palm oil, as it's also called, is produced in several areas, including Malaysia, West Africa and Ecuador. It's derived from the fruit of the oil palm, not to be confused with palm kernel oil. Ancient Egyptians regarded the palm fruit oil as sacred healing oil. The dark red oil is about 50 percent saturated and 40 percent oleic acid, an unsaturated fat present in higher quantities in olive oil and believed to be partially responsible for its health benefits.
A tablespoon of red palm oil is about 130 calories, similar to other oils, but it's loaded with carotenes, like beta-carotene and lycopene.
These are the same antioxidants that give tomatoes and carrots their deep color. The tropical oil may have other benefits as well. "Malaysian palm fruit oil is a rich source of beta carotene (much more than carrots and tomatoes), vitamin E and may have benefits for patients with breast cancer, fatty liver disease, and more," says Dr. Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes."
What's the hubbub about?
Unlike other oils, Malaysian palm fruit oil doesn't lose its nutritional value when it's cooked in high heat. It can be cooked at a higher temperature than butter, corn oil or virgin olive oil. Plus, most oils only keep for four to six months after they're opened. (Olive oil can last for a year, if refrigerated.) Malaysian palm fruit oil can be stored at room temperature for 12 months without going rancid.
The oil is cholesterol-free and is touted as heart-healthy. Preliminary studies show that adding palm oil to your diet may help remove plaque build-up in arteries. What's more, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown that a natural form of vitamin E called alpha tocotrienol, which is the form found in in red palm fruit oil, can help reduce the effects of stroke by 50 percent.
And since the oil is helpful in fighting inflammation, the core of many diseases, palm oil may have health benefits in fighting illnesses like osteoporosis, asthma, cataracts, macular degeneration, arthritis and premature aging.
Adding high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory Malaysian red palm oil palm oil to your diet may even reduce cholesterol and keep your blood pressure in check, too.
One review published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, found Carotino and other red palm oils to be effective for treating vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. (Carotino is a specific blend of canola oil and red palm fruit oil.) Still, much more research is needed.
Raw, unrefined palm oil is a deep reddish color and may have a pungent taste of olives and saffron and smell flowery while the refined, processed version is colorless and tasteless. You should be able to find both versions in health food stores. The red-colored oil is the one with possible health benefits. Raw, unrefined oil retains its vitamins and antioxidants and may lend a zesty flavor to foods sautéed in it.
Buying sustainable oil
To reduce the environmental impact of deforestation by palm-oil producers, a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products. The group aims to reduce harm to wildlife habitats, especially orangutans and elephants, and improve conditions for migrant workers on palm oil plantations. RSPO has its critics, but others say the group is making headway toward the goal of making more sustainably harvested oils available to consumers.