A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why is palm oil bad for you?

February 10, 1989

Dear Cecil:

I thought cholesterol came from animal fat. How can palm oil be as bad for us as I keep reading?

Cecil replies:

Cholesterol as such is found only in animal products. But saturated fats, which (some feel) can produce high blood cholesterol levels in humans, can be found in many things, notably "tropical" oils such as palm and coconut.

Nontropical oils, such as corn, soy, and safflower, are high in polyunsaturated fats, which reduce blood cholesterol. Why are tropical oils different? Because they come from more forgiving climates. Vegetable oils are a major component of plant cell membranes. But they've got to stay liquid to work, and saturated fats congeal when cold. To avoid this, plants in northern climates have to produce unsaturated fats, which don't congeal. That takes extra energy. Tropical plants, though, can get by with the saturated stuff, which is easier to make.

One caution: discouraging the use of tropical oils may be potentially controversial. The following amazing letter to the editor appeared recently in a health journal:

"Have you thought about what happens to the Third World countries who rely heavily on tropical oil exports as a means of livelihood? The Philippines, for example, is beginning to suffer because of the sudden reduction in the U.S. market for their oil products. And where will these tropical oils go now that the United States is not consuming them? To other lesser developed countries, where the lifespan is actually going down now. Is there a difference in the value of a middle class American life and the life of a poor Indonesian agricultural worker?"

In other words (as I understand it), Americans have an obligation to eat tropical oils to support third-world economies and keep the stuff out of the hands of poor people. I've heard of liberal guilt, but this is ridiculous.

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