Dr. Oz is a powerful guy. A mention of one of his miracles sends people scampering to stores to empty shelves of the latest wonder. And that wonder is red palm oil. According to the simple laws of economics, supply will try to meet demand. In this case it means increased production of red palm oil, extracted from the fruit of the palm tree that grows in Indonesia and Malaysia. Cultivation of the palm tree has been increasing quite aside from Oz’s antics because of greater demand by the food and cosmetics industries. Animal rights groups point out that this demand is leading to destruction of large stretches of the jungle, home to many wild creatures including the orangutan. They claim that when the jungle is cleared every living creature is either captured or killed and adult orangutans are often shot on sight. Oz’s exhortations urging people to use palm oil, they say contributes further to the peril of the orangutans. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that the health claims about red palm oil do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
As is always the case with Oz’s miracles, there is always a seed of truth. But that seed then gets fertilized with lots of verbal manure until it grows into a tree that bears fruit dripping with unsubstantiated hype. For example, one study did show a reduction in the severity of cholesterol-induced atherosclerosis in rabbits fed high doses of red palm oil. This has little relevance to humans, but magicians who pull rabbits out of hats may consider adding red palm oil to the diet of their little assistant. The red colour of the oil comes from beta-carotene, the same substance that contributes to the hue of carrots and many other fruits and vegetables. It is the body’s precursor for vitamin A, which makes it an important nutrient. Unfortunately in many areas of the developing world there is a shortage of both beta carotene and vitamin A in the diet leading to a high incidence of blindness, skin problems and even death. In such cases red palm oil would be useful but of course there are numerous other ways to introduce beta-carotene into the diet including “golden rice” that has been genetically modified to provide the nutrient.
Aside from remedying a vitamin A deficiency, there is not much evidence for increased intake of beta carotene outside of that contained in a balanced diet. There are suggestions that higher blood levels of beta carotene reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women, but the beta-carotene levels may just be a marker for a better diet. In one widely quoted study, beta carotene in smokers actually increased the risk of lung cancer. Beta carotene is no panacea. The greatest benefit of red palm oil seems to be to those selling the oil.