From a food perspective, the short answer to “Is Palm Oil Vegan?”is yes. However, the longer, more in-depth answer is less cut and dry.
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I’ve loved the look and flavor of red palm oil for a long time.
Later, I found it surprisingly easy to cook with, but very uncommon in American grocery stores. Around this time I also started seeing a lot of bad press about palm oil as detrimental to the environment and some endangered species.
Fast forward a few years, and I was glad to see an exhibit at the Natural Products Expo. Red palm oil was being promoted as a sustainable healthy cooking oil.
I also started seeing groceries that were labeled “palm oil free.”
(Around this time, I also started seeing more grocery items known as “free products.” These food items are “free from” specific ingredients that large groups of consumers avoid. Examples include gluten free, dairy free and nut free.)
On one hand, I was excited to see this delicious product and hopeful that it would become a more common grocery store item. On the other hand, I wanted to really learn more about it.
So, here is more information on palm oil, red palm oil, and whether it fits into a vegan diet.
What is Palm Oil?
The oil palm tree (Elaeis Guineensis) is native to Africa and widely grown on palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia (1).
This tree (which are also known as oil palm trees) is the source of palm oil — the most extensively used vegetable oil worldwide (2).
Where exactly does the palm oil come from you ask? The oil is produced by pressing the orange pulp of the oil palm tree fruit which is about the size of a large olive (2).
Other names for palm oil that may sound familiar are red palm oil, crude palm oil, palm fruit oil, and palm kernel oil.
The name “Red palm oil” reflects the main characteristic of the crude form, a vibrant red-orange color coming from the carotenes it contains(4).
“The intense red color and unique taste makes crude red palm oil unfavorable in other regions of the world, prompting the development of palm oil processing techniques, particularly in Malaysia, to produce nearly colorless refined oil” (5).
Palm fruits contain a solitary seed, also known as a kernel.
Palm kernel oil is derived from the kernel (2). Therefore, the oil palm tree produces two types of oil, red palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Palm oil makes an excellent cooking oil because of its high smoke point (6) and versatility in food items and cooking (3).
Products That Contain Palm Oil
The favorable long-chain fatty acids of palm oil provide an easy way to create substances needed for manufacturing cleaning products and personal care items (6). Of total world production, 5% of palm oil is used for biofuels, 24% for cosmetics, and 71% by the food industry (7).
Foods With Palm Oil
Palm oil is mainly used to replace hydrogenated fats and animal fats in food products (3).
Over the years, this was done in order to avoid trans fats when we became enlightened about the harm they cause. Food products like fast foods, breads, cookies, chocolates, margarine, and ice cream are commonly made with palm kernel oil (1).
The residue from palm kernel oil extraction is used to make feed for cattle (1).
Palm Oil Nutrition
Crude palm oil is a very rich source of Vitamin E and pro-Vitamin A (8).
Palm oil goes through various refinement pathways, some preserving the integrity of the oil’s richness in nutrients. These nutrients include coenzyme q-10, Vitamin E, phytonutrients like carotene, phytosterols and squalene (9). This oil is incredibly rich in nutrition!
Most plant oils are proportionately lower in saturated fat when compared with animal fats.
Conversely, coconut oil and palm kernel oil are plant oils that are high in saturated fats (10).
Palm oil has a unique composition of 50% saturated fatty acids and 50% unsaturated fatty acids (8).
Saturated fat has been a vilified nutrient over the years in its researched role of increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Despite its higher saturated fat content, red palm oil has been studied and regarded for its potential heart health benefits (11).
Red Palm Oil Benefits
- Treats Vitamin A deficiency (11).
- Reduces the risk of atherosclerosis (12).
- Lessens oxidative stress (12).
- Lowers blood pressure (12).
- Increases HDL cholesterol and decreases LDL cholesterol (13).
The Palm Oil Problem
Over the years, the demands for palm oil have grown exponentially due to its favorable high yield, inexpensive cost, and versatility in its use in food and other products.
This demand has increased the need for more land to produce palm oil.
“Because the oil palm’s range is limited to the humid tropics, much of this expansion has come at the expense of species-rich and carbon-rich tropical forests, ” (14).
Palm oil production has caused a significant drop in some animal populations. This environmental issue has not made palm oil or palm oil producers very popular with the vegan community. As a result, some palm oil products are not viewed as cruelty free products.
Is There A Sustainable Palm Oil?
There is promise for palm oil as a sustainable crop. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an organized group of palm oil investors, traders, growers, and others. RSPO has created certification standards to help produce palm oil in sustainable ways (3).
Organizations and individuals may choose to become an RSPO member in order to promote and learn best practices related to the production of palm oil.
Some brands that have palm oil products on the market promote sustainability such as Nutiva’s Organic Red Palm Oil.
What is the Vegan diet definition?
From a nutrition perspective, a vegan diet is plant based and excludes all foods that come from animals. This includes meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, gelatin and honey.
Some vegans choose not to use animal products such as leather and lanolin (which comes from sheep).
So, from a dietary perspective, palm oil is definitely vegan as well as vegetarian because it comes from a tree and not from an animal.
But for some, a vegan diet is more than simply avoiding the animal-based foods and animal products, it is also a way of life.
According to the Vegan Society, veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” (15).
From an ethical standpoint, some vegans may still avoid palm oil due to deforestation issues. However, there are efforts being made to mitigate these practices.
Can Palm Oil Fit into Personalized Diets?
Is Palm Oil Keto?
Palm oil is keto-approved (16).
Is Palm Oil Paleo?
Yes, palm oil is paleo-approved (17).
Is Palm Oil for People with Food Sensitivity/Food Allergies?
Palm oil is an option for individuals with food sensitivities and/or food allergies since vegan butters are often soy-based.
For people with a soy allergy or soy sensitivity, products made with palm oil can be a suitable choice.
Red palm oil may also be an attractive choice for people who have multiple food sensitivities (or multiple food allergies).
This is especially true if there are limited choices for cooking oils.
Red palm oil can add variety and needed nutrients to the diet. Red palm oil can also provide a new flavor experience.
Palm oil is gluten free, dairy free, nut free and soy free.
For more help with meal planning for people with food sensitivities and food allergies, be sure to check out our post: Simple Meal Planning For Food Allergies.
Palm oil is a vegan product that can be purchased from sources that do not contribute to deforestation and harm to animals like orangutans.
Also, palm oil is versatile in cooking and has a high smoke point which makes it superior over oils that degrade and produce carcinogenic byproducts when heated to high temperatures.
Lastly, palm oil can be included in many individualized diets and is a great choice for those who may have a soy allergy and need an alternative option for a dietary fat.
Refined palm oil and minimally processed red palm oil are available in some grocery stores, specialty stores and online.
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