Science Based Evidence Supports a Favourable Health Outcome for Palm Oil

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Consumers including housewives making dietary decisions, remain highly confused particularly about the nutritional value of oils and fats in their food choices. This is much concerning, yet the confusion persists and often forces the well-meaning housewife into an incorrect dietary decision. A glaring example of such misleading information is the blog post by Marie Dannie entitled “Adverse Effects of Palm Oil”, and uploaded on the website: livestrong.com

Understandably the author, like many others assumes palm oil is an easy pick and whatever adverse information spoken around it will likely be taken as the gospel truth. What a great disservice this does to all consumers. It also affects millions of small farmers and their families in many tropical oil palm growing countries who are dependent on this crop for their daily livelihood.

So let us put facts right around this much desired oil/fat that has become a mainstay in many of our daily lives.

Palm oil characteristics – the facts
Dannie illustrated her article with a coconut palm and not an oil palm tree! Very common misinformation that we witness repeatedly.

She describes palm oil as rich-tasting but palm oil is always delivered to its end user as a bland oil with no taste of its own. This allows the oil to be successfully incorporated in many foods and formulations without compromising the natural flavours of the other food ingredients.

Is Palm Oil safe?
Edible oils and fats safety and standards for human nutrition are overseen by Codex Alimentarius, a WHO-FAO affiliated organization.  Palm oil meets all Codex standards and carries a Safe for Human Consumption tag. These are further endorsed and adopted by individual national food authorities’ including the USFDA and EU’s EFSA.

Caloric Value of Palm Oil
Without exception, all oils and fats are caloric dense. Per gram of any fat is equated to 9 calories and palm oil has the same caloric density as all other oils and fats.

Palm Oil Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) Risk
Dannie tries unsuccessfully to elucidate palm oil’s overall nutritional properties. She clearly misses understanding the latest science not only on palm oil but on fats and fatty acids in particular.

Agreed that palm is more saturated than other seed oils. It however has less saturates than butter and coconut oil and most animal fats. Often palm is considered a naturally balanced fat with the monounsaturated oleic acid (like those found in olive oil) accounting for 40% and polyunsaturates 11% of its composition.

So how do we score the nutritional properties of this oil in terms of blood cholesterol effects? To start, current updated scientific consensus is that saturated fatty acids (SFA) are not a risk factor for CHD risk in the population. You can safely consume all fats except those with trans fatty acids (TFA). Simply adhere to recommended levels of fat intake (25-32% of fat calories).

Examples of the Evidence:

Renata Micha and Dariush Mozaffarin from Tufts University, Lipids 2010, 45(10):893-905) state that reducing SFA consumption alone will not be beneficial. The overall diet makeup must be taken into account since many other food based risk factors for CHD are known to occur within our daily diet. Thus reducing palm oil alone as advocated by Dannie will not bring benefits.


The British Medical Journal (BMJ, 2015; 351 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h3978), also opinions that saturated fat consumption is not associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes or death. Rather, watch out for industrial trans fats (TFA) in foods which is associated with a greater risk for CHD. This systemic review contradicts what many people, including doctors and nutritionists, may have told you about saturated fats, palm oil included, and heart disease.

These type of data have also been matched by a number of meta-analytical data of clinical trials that speak similarly of the No-effect on CHD risk from saturated fats. So how does the evidence on palm oil relate to this current understanding and outcomes?

On call to scientists are at least 32 peer reviewed human clinical studies that evaluated palm oil for its effects on blood cholesterol levels – total, LDL, HDL and its ratios. 

An authoritative meta-analysis by the Italian team led by Fattore at al. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, AJCN, doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.081190, 2014) concluded palm oil consumption at recommended levels of fat intake had no detrimental effect on CHD risk in the population.

Palm oil and Weight Gain, Obesity

Dannie has also misinterpreted the evidence associating palmitic acid, the major SFA in palm oil with weight gain and obesity. We dare say that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this statement. Palmitic acid occurs naturally in all foods that have a lipid or fat content. Our body fat makeup also reflects the distribution of palmitic acid throughout various key organs since it serves specific and complicated metabolic functions, which are essential for our health.

But remember, overconsumption of any fats in general will likely manifest into various health complications including the onset of insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity.

Prof. Walter Willett from the Harvard Medical School, whom Dannie quotes, is a strong proponent for the complete removal of TFA from the human food supply. He has never advocated for complete dietary elimination of SFA and there should be no confusion that SFA have a metabolic role unlike TFA.

Populations Exposed to Continuous Consumption of Palm Oil

To address effects of long term exposure to a palm oil enriched diet, we refer you to a population study in Malaysia where palm oil regularly accounts for nearly 70% of the total daily fat intake. People in the study were recorded to have consumed palm oil continuously for at least 15 years.  Scientific Reports 2019; doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49911-6.
Careful examination of this populations’ diet and clinical investigation of their blood and urinary biomarkers for known CHD and other disease risk markers were undertaken. No adverse increment of any associated risk factors due to palm oil consumption were identifiable. For CHD risk assessment, advanced lipoprotein particle-cholesterol biomarkers were measured. Again no adverse impact on the CHD-risk lipoprotein biomarkers was evident.

The study concluded that regular and long term palm oil consumption did not put this population at increased risk and especially since their overall fat caloric consumption was well within (25-28%) the recommended intake threshold.

Conclusion
By arming ourselves with the true facts surrounding palm oil allows us a far greater appreciation of its functionalities and health benefits. Overall it is a safe and nutritious edible oil that is fit for consumption by people from all walks of life.

(Dr. Kalyana Sundram, PhD. is an expert with 40 years of experience over a large spectrum of oils and fats and particularly in palm oil related research and professional activities)