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Palm oil and India’s heart health woes

Palm oil is consistently making the news both for its environmental impact and its deleterious effects on human health. Despite such grave headlines, palm oil is still widely consumed across the globe, with deforestation in Indonesia listing it as a key driving factor.

palm oil
A palm oil plantation.

India is one of the culprits of this deforestation. India is currently the world’s number one consumer of palm oil, as well as the country that exports the largest volume of the oil. Consumption has increased sharply since the beginning of the century, increasing from three million tonnes in 2001 to almost ten million tonnes last year. The oil is used for both human consumption and industrial purposes, though it is in its use as an oil in food products that is currently under scrutiny.

The fatty acid breakdown of palm oil is fifty percent saturated fatty acids, forty percent monounsaturated fatty acids and ten percent polyunsaturated fatty acids. This high saturated fat component marks it as one of the most unhealthy, if not the most unhealthy, cooking oils. 

The concerning increase in palm oil consumption in India comes against the backdrop of increased intake of unhealthy diets, with food and drink sold in India being among the unhealthiest in the world. Indeed, the surge in the use of prepackaged food in India is also seeing palm oil added to diets without people even realising. Many food brands are now adding the oil as a cheap alternative to butters or other oils that may be healthier due to lower levels of saturated fat. This is allowing for high levels of saturated fat in one’s diet — whether the consumer is aware or not.

The high saturated fat content of palm oil boosts “bad” low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are known to be risk factors for heart disease. One study has found that in developing countries, for every additional kilogram of palm oil consumed per capita annually, ischemic heart disease mortality rates increased by 68 deaths per 100,000. In the context of India being the world’s biggest consumer of palm oil, this could translate to a considerable death toll.

Forty percent of the world’s heart failures occur in India. In 2016, heart disease alone accounted for 28.1 percent of all deaths in the country. It is clear through these figures alone that India has a severe burden of heart conditions. Though palm oil will not account for all of these, it may be playing a role in the ever-increasing burden of such conditions, particularly as the consumption increases in the country.

As seen in many European nations, India could benefit considerably from legislation limiting the use of palm oil in commercial food products. This singular step could go a long way in improving the heart health of the nation — in the process, potentially saving many lives.

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