In recent years, the demand for palm oil has increased sharply as it is one of the cheapest vegetable oils available in the global market. India is the biggest consumer and importer of palm oil.

Though palm oil originated, historically, from Western Africa, the major sources of palm oil production and sale are Malaysia and Indonesia. These two countries currently produce more than 80 per cent of the world’s palm oil supply.

Recent reports that India might ban palm oil or further raise taxes on imports from Malaysia have brought a vital issue back in the spotlight — the role of palm oil in the increasing incidence of heart disease. If such steps are taken by the government, it would be timely and critically necessary because there is growing concern on the ill effects of palm oil on the health of populations —based both on past research and new evidence.

Boosting ‘bad’ cholesterol

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. Imported into India, it is used in various forms — consumed directly as ‘palm oil’ after refining, used in the production of vanaspati, for blending with other vegetable oils and as kernel oil for industrial purposes. Its fatty acid breakdown is 50 per cent saturated fatty acids, 40 per cent monounsaturated fatty acids and 10 per cent polyunsaturated fatty acids. The saturated fat content is harmful to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health. A Stanford University study suggested that increased palm oil consumption could exacerbate mortality from ischemic heart disease (IHD) and stroke, particularly in developing countries such as India, where it represents a major nutritional source of saturated fat.

The high saturated fat content of palm oil boosts “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are known to be risk factors for heart disease.

The study has found that in developing countries, for every additional kg of palm oil consumed per capita annually, IHD mortality rates increased by 68 deaths per 1,00,000, whereas, in similar settings, stroke mortality rates increased by 19 deaths per 1,00,000. Another study from Malaysia further validates these claims: Consuming palm oil that has been repeatedly reheated may cause plaque deposits in the arteries due to a decrease in the oil's antioxidant activity and formation of trans fats (a highly toxic form of fatty acid). Palm oil that had been reheated 10 times led to large arterial plaques and other signs of heart disease over a six-month study period.

While these studies demonstrate the ill effects of palm oil, further proof comes from a large population based study in Mauritius. In 1987, the Government of Mauritius changed the composition of the commonly used cooking oil from being mostly palm oil (high in saturated fatty acids) to being wholly soyabean oil (high in unsaturated fatty acids). This resulted in a significant decline in the bad cholesterol level in the Mauritian population.

Palm oil consumption is extremely harmful not only to our cardiovascular health but for the environment as well. To keep up with incredibly high demand for cheaply produced oil, acres of rainforest are being cut down across South-East Asia — leading to a loss of habitat for endangered species, to climate pollution and human rights violations.

These concerns over palm oil consumption are significant enough to demand relevant policies aimed at reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease and environmental damage. A recent study has estimated that a 20 per cent tax on palm oil purchases is expected to avert close to 3,63,000 deaths from heart attack and stroke, over a period of 10 years

The emergence of the cardiovascular disease (CVD) epidemic in India has been a great challenge to our health systems, and our economy. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that India will lose close to $4.6 trillion by 2030 if the CVD epidemic is not contained — which needs a concerted effort by multiple stakeholders that extends beyond health.

In this regard, non-personal policy interventions to facilitate healthy behaviours have been successfully demonstrated in high-income countries. One such effort is the reduction in intake of trans and saturated fats. Given that palm oil is an important source of bad fats, measures to discourage its use would be a step in the right direction.

Bhargava, a Cardiologist, is Secretary, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR);

Dorairaj, a Cardiologist, is Vice-President (Research and Policy) and Director, Centre for Control of Chronic Conditions, Public Health Foundation of India