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Unpopular opinion: Saturated fats in palm oil are not all bad

Posted: May 02, 2023 2 minute read Dr. Paul Wassell 0 Likes

Despite its widespread use in numerous food products, palm oil critics often brand it as the baddie of the food industry due to its high saturated fat content. However, the truth about palm oil is more nuanced than the rumours suggest.

Lately, I have been intrigued by a theory that can be applied to any fat or oil. Dr. Gisle Langslet’s, “Dairy fat and cardiovascular disease: good or bad? A lipidologist’s view suggests that the composition of our diet may be a more significant determinant of health than individual nutrient components.

In other words, it is not just how much or how little of a particular nutrient we eat that affects our health. Instead, the health properties of a food item are shaped by the combination of nutrients, how these nutrients interact, and the food’s physical structure. For example, our bodies take in calcium better when there is vitamin D. At the same time, calcium-rich foods can impede iron absorption.

This idea is backed by a research paper published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, which explored the link between dairy fat consumption and heart attack risk. The study showed that the risk of cardiovascular disease varied depending on the structure of the food containing the dairy fat. For example, while dairy milk and butter consumption were linked to increased risk, cheese was connected to decreased risk.

Like dairy milk fat, palm oil has around 50 percent saturated fat. Similarly, its form and nutrient composition all impact nutrient digestion, absorption, and metabolism. These factors affect the overall nutritional and health properties of the food.

Furthermore, recent research has challenged the notion that all saturated fats are bad for health.[1] [2] Saturated fats can be broken down into different types of saturated fatty acids; each type having varying effects on the body. For example, lauric acid found in coconut oil (and palm kernel oil) has been shown to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Meanwhile stearic acid found in cocoa butter has been shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.

types-of-saturated-fatty-acids Click image to zoom in

It is essential to consider the whole food matrix when making dietary choices. While it is important to be mindful of our consumption of saturated fats, blanket statements about saturated fat are no longer valid. Palm oil has its pros and cons, but when it is part of a balanced diet, it can provide a variety of health benefits.

Taking a nuanced approach to understanding the impact of fats and oils on health is key. If you are interested in teaming up with us to innovate products that utilise palm oil in a balanced and positive way, explore our R&D capabilities here.

1 Twenefour, D. and Shields, E. (2020), Saturated fats and the management of diabetes: the debates, controversies and consensus. Pract Diab, 37: 115-120.
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