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From margarine to lipstick: Like palm oil is everywhere

OF ALL VEGETABLE OILS, PALM is probably the most unlucky with a reputation. Surely you heard that the use of palm oil is almost the main cause of cardiovascular diseases, malignant tumors, as well as the basis of “toxins” in the body and a real “poison” for children. As usual, the horrors are exaggerated, although palm oil should not be the basis of the diet. We understand what kind of product it is.

Where did it come from
Palm oil is produced from the fruits of oil palm, which grows in regions with a humid tropical climate. The tree bears fruit four times a year, fruits the size of a plum are collected in a brush – in one there can be up to eight hundred pieces. They contain fatty oil – just the one that got the name palm. Thanks to such a large and frequent crop, palm oil can be extracted in huge quantities – in 2018, 73.5 million tons were obtained.

Trading in this oil began actively in the 19th century, it was connected with the industrial revolution in Europe: due to its cheapness and suitable consistency, the product was used for lubricants and for the production of candles. Gradually, the industry grew and penetrated into various aspects of life, including food production. Today’s top suppliers are Malaysia and Indonesia.

Why is it everywhere
In the 1960s, nutritionists declared animal fat the number one enemy. The food industry followed the trend and began to replace animal fats in semi-finished and finished products with margarine, which is made from liquid vegetable oils. With the development of science, it was found that the process during which liquid vegetable oils turn into solid oils also leads to negative health consequences – because trans fats are also formed.

Trans fats, a by-product of margarine production, contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and other vascular problems. In this regard, the World Health Organization for many years recommended the restriction of trans fats in the diet, and in 2018 proposed to completely exclude them from the human diet. As people become more informed, palm oil has replaced liquid vegetable oils in margarine and spreads – it is solid at room temperature, relatively cheap to produce and does not lead to the formation of trans fats. Thanks to good mixing with different fats, palm oil has become a popular ingredient in ready-made baked goods – in addition, it works as a natural preservative. Palm oil is even added to ice cream so that it does not melt so quickly.

Of course, it is not only found in food. Palm oil and its derivatives are used in the cosmetics industry – for the production of soaps, shampoos, creams, lipsticks and so on. This is due to the fact that it does not have its own taste and smell, and with the physical properties of the oil: for example, palm oil soap foams better, and lipstick is applied more evenly. An important role is played by the low cost of production, and the general tendency to use plant components in cosmetics, and the fashion for “all natural.” In addition to food and cosmetics, where 72% and 18% of all palm oil in the world, respectively, is now being used for fuel production and as an adhesive for wood-fiber boards.

Is it harmful to health
Palm oil differs in composition from olive or sunflower – primarily in that it contains more saturated fats. This is usually characteristic of animal fats – for this very reason, butter hardens at room temperature, and olive oil does not. Palm oil in its physical and chemical characteristics is similar to coconut – and this is due precisely to saturated fatty acids.

Fatty acids are long chains of carbon atoms, each of which can be chemically bonded to one or two hydrogen atoms. Saturated are fatty acids, where each carbon atom is connected to two hydrogen atoms, and unsaturated are those where at least one carbon atom is connected to only one hydrogen atom. The presence of unsaturated chemical bonds bends the hydrocarbon chain inside the fat molecule, increasing the distance between the molecules. The farther the molecules are from each other, the more liquid the substance is.

The human and animal body uses saturated fats to store energy and can produce them on their own. Unsaturated fats, primarily linoleic (one of omega-3-acids) and alpha-linoleic (omega-6) fatty acids are necessary for the diet – both are found in most vegetable oils. But palm and coconut oils contain less unsaturated fatty acids, and therefore they are less useful. The main saturated acid in palm oil is palmitic. Scientists have not yet come to a consensus about its effect on human health when taken with food, but in the composition of shampoo or cream, it certainly will not harm, according to the Expert Committee for the Assessment of Ingredients of Cosmetic Products.

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