What is palm oil?

Palm oil:

  • is now the most commonly used fat in the food industry;

  • is the highest ranking vegetable oil in terms of the amount produced in the world;

  • is the most commonly used fat for breakfast products, snacks, etc.;

  • is a fat that is also commonly used in the non-food world of cosmetics.

Palm oil is contained in many industrial baked products and in accordance with European regulations it must now be declared in the list of ingredients shown on the label, but this oil is not very popular with consumers!


Is palm oil carcinogenic?

Whether palm oil is carcinogenic or not has been a hot topic of discussion lately. It has been associated with negative effects due to its high content of saturated fatty acids, which are associated with cardiovascular risks. However, the discussion is not only about its nutritional profile, but also about the sustainability of its cultivation. In the past, margarine was often used in baked products in place of butter, which is more expensive, rich in cholesterol and rich in saturated fatty acids. This was then replaced with palm oil because it is free from cholesterol, is of vegetable origin and is free from trans fatty acids (which are found in margarine).

What are saturated fats?

Saturated fats have a structure composed of a linear chain formed by single bonds, that is to say free from double bonds, which gives the fat greater stability. On a practical level, this results in fat with a high melting point, greater resistance to heat and greater resistance to oxidation. The chemical structure of saturated fats therefore differs from that of unsaturated fats, which are composed of chains of carbon atoms linked together with a double bond, meaning unsaturated fats have a lower melting point compared to saturated fats and therefore lower heat resistance. Saturated fats are usually found in food of animal origin (in milk for example) but also in vegetables (palm oil for example, amongst others).

What are trans fats?

Trans fats are chemically produced by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. This process, known as hydrogenation, transforms unsaturated fats (with one or more double bond and therefore in liquid form) into other types of fats known as trans fats, by breaking the double bond and adding hydrogen atoms. This results in a product that:

  • is more solid and dense, transforming a liquid fat into a solid, spreadable fat;

  • has greater stability at high temperatures;

  • has a longer shelf life.

Examples of the most common foods containing hydrogenated fats are margarine - although versions free from hydrogenated fats do exist, even if they do contain refined vegetable oils - ice creams, industrial baked products, biscuits, breadsticks, taralli, snacks, fast food products, chocolate, etc.


Trans acids, alongside saturated fats, lead to an increase in LDL cholesterol and therefore increased risk of cardiovascular disease. However, unlike saturated fats, hydrogenated fats contained in margarine also lower the good HDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease even further. Overall, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends that the intake of saturated fats and trans fats should be kept as low as possible.

Why does the food industry not use other vegetable oils that are “healthier” than palm oil?

Palm oil owes its technological characteristics to the fatty acid composition of its triglycerides, which enables it to remain solid at room temperature. This characteristic has a positive effect on the technological properties that can be obtained. Indeed, palm oil has a good density, which means it can be used in place of partially hydrogenated seed oils, which contain the notorious trans fatty acids. It has good resistance to rancidity, increasing the product’s shelf life. It is also a flavourless oil, which allows the fragrance of other ingredients to shine through and above all does not conflict with added flavourings. There are limits to its immediate replacement in industrial processes, such as:

  • high cost of potential replacements;

  • problems connected with altering the flavour, consistency, friability and appearance of the product;

  • other oils oxidise quickly and produce off-flavours.


Palm oil is not the only source of saturated fat in our diets

Saturated fats are responsible for about 80% of the problems in our organism. A diet rich in saturated fats is not healthy! In fact, to prevent problems such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases, the recommended daily intake of saturated fatty acids is 10% of our total calorie requirements. The most common oils and fats and their saturated fat content:

FATS Amount of saturated fatty acids
Nutmeg oil 90 g
Coconut oil 86.5 g
Cocoa butter 59.7 g
Butter 51.368 g
Palm oil 49.3 g
Low fat butter, with added salt 34.321 g
Margarine, animal and vegetable fats 26.904 g
Cod liver oil 22.608 g
Peanut oil 16.9 g
Soybean oil 15.65 g
Margarine 15.189 g
Corn oil 14.96 g
Mixed seed oil 14.367 g
Olive oil 13.808 g
Sunflower seed oil 10.1 g



Foods in which saturated fatty acids are commonly found

Saturated fats are commonly found in a number of foods of animal origin, such as meat and milk, but also foods of vegetable origin. For example, meat contains about 15g of saturated fatty acids, depending on whether the cut of meat is fatty or lean. Cured meats such as pancetta or salami contain a high amount of saturated fats, about 30g as shown in the table. Chocolate, including dark chocolate, contains about 20g, whilst cheeses, especially those containing a higher amount of fat, contain between 10 and 20g.

FOOD PRODUCT Amount of saturated fatty acids FOOD PRODUCT Amount of saturated fatty acids
1 Pancetta from pork, fatty 31.991 g 18 Provolone 17.078 g
2 Hazelnut and cocoa spread 28.423 g 19 Whole milk mozzarella 13.152 g
3 Lamb, fatty meat, cooked 27.02 g 20 Crunchy peanut butter bar 12.959 g
4 Pork cheek 25.26 g 21 Fresh caciotta 12.79 g
5 Dietetic chocolate 21.91 g 22 Lamb cutlets, roasted 12.77 g
6 Goat’s milk caciotta 20.639 g 23 Egg, powdered 12.727 g
7 White chocolate 19.412 g 24 Lamb cutlets, cooked 12.7 g
8 Cheese spread 19.292 g 25 Pork mortadella 12.45 g
9 Roquefort cheese 19.263 g 26 Butter croissant 11.659 g
10 Fontina 19.196 g 27 Mayonnaise 10.784 g
11 Gruyere 18.913 g 28 Mayonnaise, low cholesterol 10.784 g
12 Swiss cheese 17.779 g 29 Roast beef florentine, top quality meat, medium fat 10.02 g
13 Parmesan cheese 17.53 g 30 T-bone beef steak, cooked 7.56 g
14 Dry pork sausage 17.433 g 31 Beef brisket, braised 7.53 g
15 Grated parmesan 17.301 g 32 Mackerel, salt cured 7.148 g
16 Egg, dried yolk 17.154 g 33 Parma ham 6.62 g
17 Pecorino 17.115 g 34 Roast chicken 5.82 g

A moderate and well-balanced fat intake can be good for our health.

In the right proportions, all types of fat are essential for the body to function correctly. They are an important source and reserve of energy, supporting structural and metabolic functions, but they can also be harmful when consumed in excessive amounts, especially saturated fats and trans fats. Fats should account for 20-25% of our total calorie intake and saturated fats should only account for a small part, so we need to learn to eat correctly. Knowledge of fats and the fat content in our food is therefore important for a healthy diet. Clinical studies claim that the effects on health depend on the general balance between saturated and unsaturated fats in the diet. If this balance is right, it seems that polyunsaturated fatty acids can counterbalance the negative effect of saturated fats. However, experts believe that the real problem is the “build-up effect”. Occasional consumption of products containing palm oil is not harmful, whilst daily consumption, maybe even a few times a day, could put the health of our heart and arteries at risk.

Issues related to the sustainability of palm oil!

Palm oil is grown exclusively in humid tropical areas and is now mostly produced in two countries: Indonesia and Malaysia. These two countries provide 87% of the world’s supply. Palm oil can yield as much as ten times as much per acre of land compared to crops such as soya, rapeseed and sunflowers. Thanks to palm oil’s exceptionally high yield, it accounts for 39% of the world’s production of vegetable oil. The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certificate is a quality mark certifying that the palm oil was produced without harming the environment or society, guaranteeing traceability throughout the distribution channel. RSPO is an international initiative involving various parties, aimed at certifying and promoting sustainable practices in the palm oil industry. Oil palm cultivation generally produces a high and stable revenue. It is possible to create a rural middle class that can last for generations. So far, very few tropical raw materials have been able to do that. From an environmental and social point of view, it is more important to concentrate on the sustainable production of palm oil. Replacement with other vegetable oils or animal fats would require the use of more acres of land, which would be counter-productive for the environment. The consequences of prohibiting the use of this ingredient would therefore have a negative impact on the world food supply.




It does not raise LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, it does not lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels and it’s acid is poorly absorbed. A smear campaign is underway.

by Caterina and Giorgio Calabrese
Technologist and medical nutritionist

Palm oil is currently the highest-ranking vegetable oil in the world in terms of consumption, including dietary consumption, and its use is finally being declared on labels. Differences between the various types of vegetable oils relate to their fatty acid composition: most contain mainly mono and polyunsaturated fats, but also saturated fats.

The fatty acid composition of seed oils varies not just from one species to another, but also depends on the weather conditions and the type of ground. Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the Elaeis guineensis palm, and is distinguished by the presence of long-chain saturated fats, in particular palmitic acid, the same contained in butter and breast milk.

If this fat were to come under attack for environmental reasons, the writer would provide full support for the defence of nature. However, claims made by the French Minister, Ségolène Royal, about Italian products are incomprehensible, because closer examination would have revealed that palm oil is also used in many French products and those of many other countries.

Our main food industry has responded by confirming that it uses virgin and sustainable palm oil, which is also certified on an ethical level. A smear campaign is being conducted against palm oil that moves the central issue from health to the environment.

There is no doubt that respect for the environment is something we must all work to achieve, but nutritional judgements must take into account established scientific and chemical-nutritional evidence. Palm oil does not raise LDL cholesterol levels, nor does it lower HDL cholesterol levels and it does not increase the risk of atheromas. In its virgin (unrefined), solid and red state (red palm oil) it is even considered to be protective, because in addition to the action of its antioxidant carotenoids and tocotrienols, its palmitic acid is poorly absorbed and is balanced by an abundance of protective, monounsaturated oleic acid (the same found in olive oil), which is fully absorbed before the former.

Remember that 30% of our daily intake of nutrients should consist of fat and 10% of that should be made up of saturated fats. Of course, anything in excess should always be avoided.