Red palm oil, or Elaeis guineensis, is far from a new discovery in alternative therapy. This ancient botanical, generally agreed to have existed since the earth’s inception, began as a consumer product in West Africa. Although red palm oil sounds like a luxurious suntan lotion, its utility is far more important.

Red palm oil, so named for its deep red-orange hue, is high in beta-carotene. It is rich in other antioxidants as well, especially those that assist in healthy metabolism of serum lipids. Carotenoids, phytosterols, vitamin E, and vitamin A are particularly abundant in red palm oil.1


Background


Elaeis guineenis, or the oil palm tree, has been cultivated in more than 20 countries, all of them tropical with warm, moist environments.1 Statistics on worldwide production of vegetable oils for human consumption show palm oil recently surpassed soybean oil as the most widely produced.2

Although there has been some concern regarding the saturated fat content of red palm oil, multiple clinical trials have failed to support that concern. There appears to be a near balance of saturated fatty acids to unsaturated, and an equally high level of potent antioxidants.3 In combination, these are credited with numerous health benefits for patients who use this nutrient. 



Science


Any discussion of a consumable fat-based product prompts consideration of atherogenic risk. Consequently, given the fatty-acid content of red palm oil, further attention needs to be paid to this possible complication.

Biochemical studies of the specific compounds found in red palm oil highlight the abundance of antioxidants known as carotenoids and vitamin E (both tocopherol and tocotrienoid).4 Laboratory research has shown that daily intake of a tocopherol- and tocotrienol-enriched palm oil not only promotes a reduction in LDL, but also regulates the expression of thromboxane, platelet aggregatory chemicals, and glucose in the human system.4

In another study, hypertensive rats showed significant reductions in both systolic and diastolic BP readings while being fed a red palm oil supplement.5 This was attributed to the oleic fatty acid in the oil, which promotes vasodilatation and restricts vasoconstriction. 


 

Among the predominant antioxidants found in red palm oil, toco­trienol is one of eight naturally occurring isomers in the vitamin E family. This lipid-soluble vitamin possesses other unique protective actions in brain tissue. Brain tissue membranes are particularly rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

Tocotrienol penetrates and stabilizes these PUFA membranes, theoretically preventing the advance of disease. Researchers have theorized that a number of neurodegenerative conditions in the human brain are associated with disturbed PUFA metabolism of tocotrienol.6

One of the most intensely studied benefits of red palm oil is protection against cancer. Cancer cells have the ability to grow uninhibited, live longer than normal cells and resist outside attack. The tocotrienol in red palm oil has been shown not only to protect normal cells from the signals that disrupt routine metabolism and growth, but actually to sabotage the cancer cell so as to promote early cell death.7

In addition, red palm oil is possibly the world’s most widely available source of vitamin A. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 190 million school-aged children and 19 million pregnant women suffer from vitamin A deficiencies in the underdeveloped nations of Africa and southeast Asia.

Red palm oil is considered the richest, most readily available source of provitamin A, yielding 15 times more beta-carotene than carrots.8 Red palm oil beta-carotene is also more bioavailable, as it is already in oil form, thus the red palm oil readily penetrates lipophilic membranes. 



Safety, interactions


Red palm oil is generally safe for consumption. There is some concern over the damage that may occur if the oil is consumed in an oxidized state.9 Its health benefits come from the antioxidants, which can be destroyed if the oil is poorly or improperly processed.

Allergic reactions are always a possibility, but there is rare mention of this in the literature. Highly antioxidant supplements also potentiate the anticoagulant effect of warfarin so caution is urged in concomitant use. 



Dose, supply, cost


To determine appropriate dosage, consideration of the patient’s other medications is warranted. In addition to red palm oil’s availability as cooking oil, it can be purchased in capsule form for approximately $12 for a one-month supply.



Summary 


When used as a part of one’s daily fat intake, red palm oil may help prevent various illnesses. Combined with its availability, ease of use and antioxidant concentration, it is a definite asset in the world of health foods and supplements.

Sherril Sego, FNP-C, DNP, is a staff clinician at the VA Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where she practices adult medicine and women’s health. She also teaches at the nursing schools of the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas.

References


  1. Obahiagbon, FI. A review: Aspects of the african oil palm (Elaeis guineensis jacq.) and the implications of its bioactives in human health. Am J Biochem Mol Biol. 2012;3:106-119.

  2. Mukherjee S, Mitra A. Health effects of palm oil. J Hum Ecol. 2009;26:197-203.

  3. Oguntibeju O, Esterhuyse A, Truter E. Red palm oil: Nutritional, physiological and therapeutic roles in 
improving human wellbeing and quality of life. Br J Biomed Sci. 2009;66:216-222.

  4. Song BL, DeBose-Boyd RA. Insig-dependent 
ubiquitination and degradation of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase stimulated by delta-and gamma-tocotrienols. J Biol Chem. 2006;281:25054-25061. Available at www.jbc.org/content/281/35/25054.long.

  5. Boon CM, Ng MH, Choo YM, Mok SL. Super, red palm, and palm oleins improve the blood pressure, heart size, aortic media thickness and lipid profile in spontaneously hypertensive rats. PLOS One. 2013;8:e55908. Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3569425/.

  6. Sen CK, Rink C, Khanna S. Palm oil-derived natural 
vitamin E alpha-tocotrienol in brain health and disease. 
J Am Coll Nutr. 2010;29:314S-323S. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2082349.

  7. Shah SJ, Sylvester PW. Tocotrienol-induced cytotoxicity is unrelated to mitochondrial stress apoptotic signaling in neoplastic mammary epithelial cells. Biochem Cell Biol. 2005;83:86-95.

  8. Rice AL, Burns JB. Moving from efficacy to effectiveness: Red palm oil’s role in preventing vitamin A deficiency. 
J Am Coll Nutr. 2010;29:302S-313S. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20823490.

  9. Edem DO. Palm oil: Biochemical, physiological, nutritional, hematological and toxicological aspects: A review. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2002;57:319-341.


All electronic documents accessed May 1, 2013.