- Palm oil comes from the fruits and seeds of palm trees.
- The palm tree is not related to gluten-containing grasses.
- Palm oil is naturally free from gluten, though modified palm oil may not be so.
- Palm oil is known to cause health issues and harm the environment.
This edible oil is used in a lot of products, from medicines to retail foods. Is palm oil gluten-free and safe for you if you have celiac disease or gluten allergy?
If you look at the list of ingredients of some of your favorite snacks and other food items, you’ll find the name palm oil quite often. Due to the widespread usage of palm oil in different industries, we consume it frequently.
Edible palm oil is naturally free from gluten and safe for you if required to avoid gluten-containing products. The same can’t be said about modified palm oil. You must look at the label to know more.
Is Palm Oil Gluten Free? Palm Oil Types and Facts
If you have been struggling with your gluten allergy or celiac disease, you probably know how much pain it is to keep away from every food item that has gluten in it.
Everything you put in your mouth needs to be checked for gluten content. Palm oil is a popular oil – but is it free from gluten?
There are two different types of palm oil:
- palm oil derived from the fruits and
- palm oil derived from the seeds of the palm tree.
Since this tree is not related to any gluten grains in any way, palm oil is naturally gluten-free, which makes it safe for your consumption if your only concern is celiac disease or gluten allergy.
At the time of shopping, your only hope is a list of naturally gluten-free products. The same is true for palm oil, as well. You may buy palm oil for your own use. Or, it may be present in a food item, snack, or even medicine.
Its presence will likely not harm you as it is naturally gluten-free.
If you want to use palm oil for cooking purposes, you can rest assured that it will not trigger allergic reactions.
If you are worried about the presence of trace gluten, you can consume a small amount of the oil and wait to observe if you develop any allergic reactions. Otherwise, the oil is safe for you.
However, when it comes to modified or fractionated palm oil, you will need to be careful as it may not always be free from gluten. So make sure to look at the food label to check for gluten content.
If a product contains modified palm oil, find out about its “gluten-free” status to know more.
Palm oil is used for cooking and frying purposes. It is also a common ingredient in salad dressings, energy bars, desserts, spreads, margarine, cheese sauce, and more.
It has a distinct flavor, making it a popular choice. Often, companies use modified palm oil in various industries.
Palm oil contains beta carotene, magnesium, essential fatty acids, fatty acids, and vitamins K and E, all of which are nutritional components.
However, it also contains saturated fats that can cause heart problems by boosting cholesterol and triglycerides. Though it is gluten-free, it is not entirely healthy.
A Little about Palm Oil
There are two types of palm oil. Regular palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the palm fruit. On the other hand, palm kernel oil is made from the seed, i.e., the fruit’s kernel.
It is a tropical oil that has earned a bad reputation. One of the reasons palm oil is losing its popularity is the host of health problems.
Palm oil is associated with cholesterol, heart issues, inflammation, insulin resistance, obesity, and other issues. Plus, the increase of palm plantations devastates rain forests and the animals living there.
Individual users, restaurants, and companies are continually trying to find alternatives to palm oil. There are many available in the market – those that aren’t as harmful to health or the environment as much as palm oil and its production do.
Currently, the country producing the highest amount of palm oil is Indonesia by contributing 21 million tons of oil every year.
Other countries that produce large amounts of palm oil are Malaysia, Kenya, Columbia, Benin, and Ghana. Palm oil is used in various items, including other cooking fats.
Benefits and Potential Health Risks of Palm Oil
Many studies have found some sound effects of palm oil on our health. On the contrary, a number of reports show the ill effects of this tropical oil.
One study associated the consumption of palm oil with the rise of dense LDL, a type of cholesterol that can cause heart disease, especially in women. Palm oil has saturated fat that increases triglycerides, along with LDL cholesterol, harming your heart.
Another study showed that if you consume palm oil that has been reheated repeatedly, it can lead to your arteries’ plaque deposits. This results from the drop in the antioxidant effects of the oil.
It can also cause low-grade inflammation. This may lead to several problems, including metabolic conditions like obesity and insulin resistance.
The microbes residing in our stomach can partially mediate these health problems. Interestingly, orangutans living on tropical trees don’t eat palm fruits.
The benefit of palm oil is that it does not contain trans-fats.
Trans-fats are commonly present in many of the other fat sources used in various cooking oils and fat sources, including hydrogenated oils. Trans fat is extremely harmful to our health. This is one of the reasons palm oil was so popular.
1 tablespoon of palm oil contains:
- 114 calories
- 7 gram saturated fat (50%)
- 5 gram monounsaturated fat (40%)
- 1.5 gram polyunsaturated fat (10%)
Its calories come from fats, with palmitic acid as the main saturated fat. It also contains oleic, linoleic, and stearic acids. It stays in a semi-solid state at room temperature.
Any oil that remains liquid at room temperature is a better option. Palm oil is also resistant to oxidation and has a long shelf life.
Since palm oil is rich in vitamin A, it is a good addition to a diet of those suffering from vitamin A deficiency. It can prevent vitamin A deficiency in children and pregnant women.
However, before making major dietary changes or consuming it by mouth as a medicine, don’t forget to consult the doctor.
You will also find many alternative medicine suggestions claiming palm oil’s effectiveness in various diseases like malaria, Alzheimer’s, cyanide poisoning, or even cancer.
Don’t blindly believe such ambitious claims and use palm oil to supplement your diet. You may end up with heart problems.
Palm oil may also lead to blood clotting. So, if you are already taking medicines that slow down blood clotting, consuming palm oil, especially as a medicine, can decrease such a medication’s effectiveness. Aspirin, ibuprofen, heparin, etc., are some of the most common medicines of this kind.
Impact of Palm Oil on the Environment
There are several controversies around palm oil, and they are not just about its adverse impacts on our health.
Palm oil has repeatedly hit the headlines because of its increased production and impact on the environment, forests, and wildlife in regions like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
In the past decade or so, there has been a massive rise in palm oil demand. To meet this demand, palm oil production has increased, too, by expanding the palm tree plantations.
Unfortunately, these plantations replace tropical forests and peatlands in the humid regions.
Recent reports have shown that 45% of the land occupied by palm tree plantations in Southeast Asia used to be forested land back in the 90s. This includes over half of the Indonesian and Malaysian plantations.
This deforestation is likely to cause global warming and reduce greenhouse gases.
This will affect the absorption of carbon dioxide.
Besides causing these devastating effects on Nature, cutting down forests destroys native landscapes in these regions. It also brings a massive change to the ecosystem, threatening the diverse wildlife inhabiting the forests in these regions.
Animals in these forests are getting uprooted from their homes. One of the creatures facing the worst of conditions because of deforestation is the Bornean orangutan, an endangered species closing in on its extinction.
That’s not all. Controversies around palm oil production revolve around more than the environment and wildlife. Recent reports show how palm oil corporations violate human rights.
Palm oil cooperations take over the lands of farmers without permission. They also offer low wages and unsafe working conditions. As a result of this, workers have to live with poor quality of life.
So palm oil production does not just have an indirect impact on human beings by harming the environment. It leaves a direct effect on people living in the regions where the plants are grown and the workers in the industry.
How to Identify Palm Oil in Products
If you want to avoid palm oil, you will need to look at the list of ingredients used in making the product.
It is not always going to be easy to recognize it. That’s because palm oil is often hidden behind other names and acronyms, and you may not be able to recognize its presence easily.
Names of palm oil (or ingredients derived from palm oil) include:
- PKO or Palm Kernel Oil
- PKs or Palm Kernel Stearin
- PKOo or Palm Kernel Olein
- OPKO or Organic Palm Kernel Oil
- FPKO or Fractionated Palm Oil
- PHPKO or Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil
Besides, there are other terms that you need to be careful about, such as:
- SDS/NaDS (Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate)
- Sodium Laureth Sulphate
- Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylate
- Stearic Acid
- Glyceryl Stearate
- Elaeis Guineensis
- Hydrated Palm Glycerides
- Aceite de Palma
- Elaeis Melanococca
- Main Ja
- Huile de Palme (Palmier à Huile, Huile de Palmiste, Huile de Palme Rouge, Huile de Palme Brute, etc.)
- Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
Look for these words on the label of the products that you buy to know if it contains palm oil or not.
Changes in the Palm Oil Production Scene
You have already learned that palm oil production can be harmful to the environment, wildlife, and even people in the Southeast Asian regions.
Thankfully, sustainable and ethical methods are being adopted to maintain palm oil’s high production without causing negative effects.
One of the steps to do this is by expanding palm tree plantations only in non-forested areas. In fact, planting palm trees can significantly benefit low carbon stock areas by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
An organization called RSPO is dedicated to wholesome palm oil production. RSPO ensures that growing palm trees is eco-friendly, sustainable, and sensitive to people’s needs.
It has set specific standards and guidelines for palm tree plantations that corporations need to follow.
The standards for palm tree fields set by RSPO are:
- Forests and regions housing a delicate ecosystem or endangered species cannot be cleared.
- Areas with traditional communities cannot be used for palm oil plantations.
- The usage of fire and pesticides must be reduced.
- Workers in the industry must get fair treatment according to labor rights standards.
- Local communities must be consulted before developing new plantations.
Other than Asian countries, Africa and Brazil are also popular regions for palm oil plantations.
Environmental activists and groups continue to hold palm oil responsible for deforestation, a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and the danger caused to local species and people in these areas.
But the RSPO’s standards are designed to combat these problems and protect the environment, forests, endangered species, and people.
Some high profile organizations are also trying their best to help the cause. These companies are now dedicated to the usage of mindfully sourced palm oil only.
If you’re into food that’s not just free from gluten but also eco-friendly, look for the RSPO trademark. This trademark is used on products like margarine, chocolate, or energy bar containing palm oil that has been sourced from sustainable sources.
So you can trust RSPO-certified companies and products.
How is Palm Oil Used?
As you must have understood by now, palm oil is a hugely popular fat base used in various industries. It is a popular ingredient in ready-to-eat foods that you commonly see on the shelves of local stores.
In fact, according to WWF:
Around 50% of the packaged foods around the world contain palm oil.
It is in your pizza dough, coconut oil, doughnuts, and chocolates. Interestingly, palm oil is also used in non-food products like soaps, cosmetics, and toothpaste.
In some parts of the world, it is used as a biofuel and animal feed. It is quite versatile due to its properties and a savory flavor, similar to veggies.
You will be surprised to know that palm oil is also used in other edible fats like nut butters and margarine.
As a stabilizer, it prevents the fat bits from separating. It is also found in cereals, baked products like bread and cookies, chocolate, diet bars, coffee creamer, chocolate spreads, and more.
In some tropical countries, it is the staple for cooking food, especially spicy dishes and curries.
Since it has a high smoke point and stays stable at high temperatures, it is often used for frying and sauteing food. It helps fried items achieve a delicious crispy, crunchy texture that we all love!
Alternatives to Palm Oil?
Let’s face it: palm oil is ubiquitous, and it is difficult to avoid the oil altogether. We can’t really expect a sea change around the world.
It would mean a complete change in the recipe of many products, besides finding new sources to obtain a different oil. It will also affect such companies logistically.
There are other things to consider. As a crop, palm oil is highly efficient. This means that in a specific area of land, the quantity of oil produced from palm trees is much higher than any equivalent crop.
In other words, to match the amount of palm oil production with any other oil, we’d need more land.
According to WWF:
Palm oil contributes to 35% of the world’s oil usage and uses 10% of land.
If we were to switch to alternative oil options like coconut or soybean oil, we would need 4-10 times more land area! You can understand that this can cause more destruction of forests and hurt the wildlife.
There’s more. Palm oil is an essential contributor to the GDP of the countries where it is found. These are emerging economies, and millions of farmers depend on palm oil production for their livelihood.
So, boycotting palm oil altogether may not be a practical solution to all the problems.
However, if you want to shift to alternatives to palm oil, you can try the following:
a) Sunflower Oil – Organic, cold-pressed sunflower oil that’s produced following NOP/NPOP standards is an eco-friendly alternative.
b) Coconut Oil – Unrefined, cold-pressed coconut oil is obtained using traditional methods that are not harmful to the environment.
c) Black Seed Oil – Organically grown black seeds can be used to extract oil that is a healthy choice for the planet.
If you’re looking at the health factors of the oils, you can try the following:
- Olive Oil
- Canola Oil
- Peanut Oil
- Grapeseed Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Sesame Oil
- Corn Oil
- Walnut Oil
- Soybean Oil
- Avocado Oil
- Vegetable Oil
- Rice Bran Oil
All of these oils, along with sunflower oil, coconut oil, and black seed oil, are naturally gluten free.
Most cooking oils are free from gluten because of the source from which they are extracted. However, you need to remember that cross-contamination is always an issue in such oils.
Buying Gluten Free Cooking Oil
While buying cooking oils, always look at the labels.
While a “gluten free” label is solid proof that the product is safe for you, it’s not necessary that other cooking oils that do not contain this label contain gluten for sure. It only means that the product, ingredients, and facilities are not tested.
You need to look for certain red flags at the time of buying the right cooking oil.
If the oil contains additives, flavoring agents, or preservatives, and the label does not mention their components, it may indicate the presence of gluten unless mentioned otherwise. You should be careful about them.
Many brands mention it if there is a chance of gluten being present in their products. Check out the list of allergens for that.
Brands also mention if their products are made in the same facilities where gluten-rich ingredients are handled. Consider this a fair warning against cross-contamination.
The truth is, it may not always be possible to find oil brands, including palm oil brands, that are tested and certified as gluten free. Most of these oils are naturally gluten free, which is why manufacturers don’t always get them tested.
Try consuming the oil in small amounts to test it.
Usually, even if the oil contains trace gluten, it will not cause allergic reactions unless your condition is severe.
Testing the oil in small amounts will help you figure out if it is the right match for you. Also, be careful about the use of oil in the kitchen where there’s a high possibility of cross-contamination.
Whether you want to buy a bottle of palm oil for frying food and dressing salads or choose a snack that contains this oil, you’ll likely not fall ill, as it is naturally gluten free.
But there’s always a chance of cross-contamination. Additives may be a source of gluten in palm oil. So read the label properly.
Despite its many benefits, it is harmful to the health, environment, wildlife, and people.
But a complete shift to other cooking oils may not be feasible either. You can make use of other gluten free cooking oils at home while choosing brands that demand sustainable production of palm oil.