Palm oil is a very common product. It appears in thousands of food products and is sold and used all around the world without issue. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding palm oil. Some people, possibly with a vested commercial interest in seeing palm oil fail (perhaps because they would benefit financially from companies selling other products rivalling palm oil) appear to enjoy promoting transparently false and scaremongering narratives about palm oil.
A recent example of this swept through India. A large number of WhatsApp users received a message declaring to be an exposé on various health issues with palm oil. It said it was written by Dr Tejas Patel, a respected cardiologist, and it warned that consumers should avoid palm oil because it is “more dangerous than alcohol and tobacco”. It went on to list a number of ways it alleges palm oil damages human health.
There are many problems with the narrative promoted in the viral WhatsApp message. Firstly, it was not written by Dr Patel. In fact, in a Facebook video, Dr Patel denounced the video, its contents and its unknown authors. He declared publicly that he had no knowledge of where the message came from and he even approached the cyber crime police to report the incident, since the message had used his name without consent.
The alleged authorship of Dr Patel is not the only thing the authors of this WhatsApp message lied about. In fact, the message contained a litany of false statements about palm oil. It is a clear attempt to stoke fear about palm oil and warn consumers away from using it. It states, for example, that India is the largest importer of palm oil in the world. This is unsurprising, since palm oil is used in so many consumer products and India has the largest population of any country in the world.
The claims made in the message about the health risks of consuming palm oil have no scientific basis whatsoever. There are several false claims which are easy to disprove with even preliminary research. The message discusses palmitic acid, for example, alleging that since palm oil contains palmitic acid, consumers should stay away. This mirrors a narrative perpetrated elsewhere in the world, such as in the UK’s Guardian and Mirror newspapers, which have claimed in the past that palmitic acid has links to cancer.
It is true that palm oil contains palmitic acid, but scientists have not found that this is a cause for concern. Palmitic acid is the most common saturated fatty acid found in nature and is therefore also found in various palm oil-free foods like some meat and dairy products. It occurs naturally in plenty of plants and animals. In fact, it naturally makes up around a quarter of the total fatty acid found in the human body. This means if a person does not consume palmitic acid through the food they eat, the body will naturally generate it anyway.
Clearly, palmitic acid does not cause cancer, whatever palm oil’s detractors may want you to believe. There is another weak argument that eating too much of it can cause obesity, but using this as a stick with which to beat palm oil is nonsensical. Obesity is caused by an overall insufficiently balanced diet and inactive lifestyle, not by a single ingredient like palm oil.
There is no evidence to suggest eating palm oil specifically contributes to obesity. In fact, since palm oil does not undergo the same hydrogenation process as some other vegetable oils and therefore does not contain harmful trans fats (other than very small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats) consuming palm oil is unlikely to have any measurable effect on the harmful trans fat content of your diet.
In reality, looking deeper into palm oil gives us lots of reasons to be optimistic about its health benefits. It contains vitamins A and E, for example, which do wonders for the human body. The narratives promoted in the viral WhatsApp message are false and have no scientific basis whatsoever and have no connection to Dr Tejas Patel. There is no reason for concern.