Throughout Africa, and all over the world, palm oil is extremely popular. The oil comes from palm nuts, is then refined to remove the deep red color and distinctive taste, and sold to virtually every market on Earth. In the United States, you can find it in just about every store in prepackaged baked good, and it is often used to make the “crème filling “ in products like Twinkies or Oreos.
In places where palm trees actually grow—and of course we are not talking about coconut palms, but palm nut palms—you can also find unrefined palm oil, or "red oil," as it is called here and elsewhere. Red oil has a strong, musky flavor, much stronger, for instance, than olive oil. It is used frequently and liberally in most Liberian dishes.
For the first two and a half years of our time here, we used red oil sparingly, in part because we only liked it in certain dishes. We preferred purchasing “vegetable oil” from the city stores. We’d buy vegetable oil in five gallon containers and go through them surprisingly fast.
After a while we learned two things that caused a change in our eating behavior. The first was our Monday-Friday cook, Vera used between a cup and a cup and two cups of oil in every dish she cooked for us. The second tidbit was that the copious amounts of oil we were consuming was not merely vegetable oil, it was in fact refined palm oil. This caused us to conduct some research, and the results surprised us.
While there remains some controversy around palm oil, both the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association have suggested it is a fairly unhealthy oil as oils go and ought to be avoided when possible. The problem is its saturated fat content. Saturated fats are associated with heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, and when it comes to saturated fats, palm oil and red oil are leaders of the pack. Note the following chart from a nutrition and diet book. The red line indicated Saturated Fat, the gray section indicates more healthy Monounsaturated Fat, and the yellow and green sections healthy Omega 6 and Omega 3 oils, respectively. There is a key at the top of the chart. Note the "palm oil" column.
And if you really want to go crazy, consider "palm Kernel oil" This comes from inside the palm nut. This is what palm kernel oil would look like on that chart.
Incredibly, palm oil-- red or refined--contains more saturated fat (51%) than lard. Palm kernel oil contains even more- 82%- more in fact than pure beef fat or butter.
In this age of claims and counter claims regarding foods, we know we do not know everything regarding palm oil. But we think we know it is ok if we follow the advice of the WHO and the AHA and avoid it. Soybean and other oils are available in Liberia, but they are very expensive (One liter costs around $10.00) . Yet this has additional advantages, as we use even less now because of the costs. We wonder, however, about our Liberian friends. The average life span is 48. We do not know a lot of old Liberians. How much of this is due to a lifetime of consuming red oil? Yet really, what choice do my Liberia neighbors have? What does a calorie-deprived people do when the choice is an affordable, calorie and flavor rich oil, or no oils at all because of some unforseen danger called "saturated fat?" So while it is easy for us to pass on palm oil, it is really impossible-- unthinkable-- for our friends.
Palm bunches, freshly cut from the tree.