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Palm oil in the food supply: Setting the record straight

In her July 25 online National Public Radio article updating readers on the replacements to trans fats in processed foods, writer Allison Aubrey inadvertently shares a great deal of misinformation about palm fruit oil, and products that contain palm fruit oil.

Food producers, especially those who market baked goods such as pre-packaged cookies and cakes, need oil that does not break down at high temperatures, and that is shelf stable for long periods of time. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are unstable in that regard, so liquid oils do not work well.

For years, trans-fats were used for this purpose until the public became aware of their health hazards. Several food producers have now switched to fully hardened (hydrogenated) soybean oil, ‘fully saturated’ with hydrogen to stabilize the molecules. Fully hydrogenated soybean oil has the consistency of candle wax – which is not handled normally and fully absorbed by the body, even if stable on the shelf. It is legally fat but it is not natural or normal.” To overcome these limitations, such fats undergo an additional process called interesterification that allows the incorporation of normal soybean or liquid oils to achieve the final consistency and product characteristics.

The more health-conscious food producers are using palm oil, which is naturally relatively solid at room temperature, yet contains sufficient polyunsaturates and monounsaturates to melt naturally into a liquid form when consumed. It simply doesn’t need to be hydrogenated to work well in most processed food applications.

Let’s look at some of the specific claims made in this article

Claim: “There are environmental concerns about how palm oil is produced.

Reality: This sweeping claim lumps all palm oil suppliers into one category. The Malaysian Palm Oil industry is the largest producer of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), and is responsible for more than 50 percent of total CSPO production. It remains at the forefront of environmental conversation.

In the 1990s, the Malaysian government halted the conversion of new forest land for agriculture, including palm oil. The government is committed to preserving half of Malaysia’s total land area as forest. To meet increased demand for palm oil, colonial rubber and cocoa plantations have been converted to oil palm plantations. In addition, extensive R&D to improve yields in plantations without the need for new land under cultivation is already in progress. Noteworthy advances include two recent publications in Nature, a highly respected peer-reviewed science journal that explains the mapping of the palm genome towards achieving these objectives.

Claim: “In one study, people who were put on a diet rich in palm oil for about five weeks saw their LDL cholesterol (that’s considered the bad cholesterol) rise.”

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Reality: The study cited by Ms. Aubrey was extremely small, involving just 15 volunteers. Nor does it indicate whether the palm oil used in the study was palm kernel oil or palm fruit oil. That’s a big distinction.

Malaysian palm fruit oil is a cholesterol-free vegetable oil. It contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids than coconut oil, and thus it is better at lowering your LDL cholesterol. By contrast, palm kernel oil (like coconut oil) comes from the fruit’s seeds and contains 85 percent saturated fatty acids and only two percent polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Numerous studies provide evidence that palm fruit oil is actually heart-healthy. Palm fruit oil has been compared with olive and canola oils for its effects on blood lipids in humans. Published in peer-reviewed journals these studies show that there is actually no difference in LDL responses in people who consumed palm fruit oil compared to olive and canola oil. A little-known secret is the fact that palm fruit oil when blended with canola and soybean oils results in the American Heart Association’s AHA Step-1 fat blend composition. These and associated positive outcomes from palm fruit oil are extensively documented in the scientific research.

Earlier this year, Dr. Oz performed a great demonstration showing just how red palm oil may help keep veins and arteries clearer.

Claim: “(Palm oil) contains about as much saturated fat as butter.” She goes on to warn readers about eating foods containing palm oil.

Reality: With the right balance, saturated fatty acids maintain your HDL (good cholesterol) while polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease your LDL (bad cholesterol). Palm oil contains approximately 44% palmitic acid (saturated), 5% stearic acid (saturated), 39% oleic acid (monounsaturated), and 10% linoleic acid (polyunsaturated). Butter on the other hand is almost 78 percent saturated.

Researchers are only on the cusp of understanding how fatty acids work independently and in conjunction with other nutrients to impact our health.

Bottom line: The body of research is pointing in the opposite direction of Ms. Aubrey’s report. While until recently, palmitic acid was thought to be associated with raising cholesterol levels that line of thinking is changing. A review of all of the related scientific literature on the subject was recently published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. The researchers concluded that the evidence of palmitic acid promoting heart disease was scanty and not convincing. In fact, experts predict that replacing trans fats with palmitic acid (which is also found in chocolate) may actually help to reduce cardiovascular risk factors.

 

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