What we know about dietary fats and our health is evolving rapidly. The roles of saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats once seemed crystal clear. But as attendees of the recent Michigan Dietetic Association’s Annual Conference discovered, there is no such thing as good and bad fats. Rather, the ratios of fatty acids are emerging as important factors in the fight against such chronic diseases as heart disease, diabetes and perhaps even cancer. Much of what we’re learning is based on research conducted using Malaysian Palm Fruit Oil, the subject of more than four decades of research.
During his conference presentation, Palm Oil: A Preferred Healthy Dietary Choice, Kalyana Sundram, PhD caused quite a stir. The Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Director, Science and Environment for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council reviewed a growing body of research and explained several key findings.
“I think the dietitians were fascinated to hear the new perspectives. Some well-held precepts were turned on their heads,” comments Tonia Reinhard, director of the Dietetics Program, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Wayne State University who attended the presentation.
Important findings revealed during the seminar and roundtable discussion
Decades ago, researchers were unaware of key differences between palm fruit oil and palm kernel oil. Reference materials, for example, did not distinguish between their unique fatty acid compositions. Now that more is understood, we’re discovering many potentially significant health benefits related to palm fruit oil.
• One in 10 food products around the world now contain palm products as part of the formulation.
• Palm fruit oil is unique in that it contains almost equal amounts of unsaturated fats and saturated fats, (mainly palmitic and smaller amounts of stearic acids). As a result of its balanced composition, palm fruit oil has almost no impact on cholesterol as long as total dietary fat and saturated fat intake is in line with the levels recommended by health agencies such as the American Heart Association.
• Palm fruit oil contains 1000 ppm of carotene, which are potent antioxidants: 30 percent alpha carotene, 60 percent beta carotene, 1 percent lyocopene and 9 percent others. Red palm oil, which is rich in pro-vitamin A carotene, has been used successfully to overcome night blindness.
• Palm fruit oil contains 500 ppm of vitamin E: 70 percent tocotrienols and 30 percent tocopherols.
“The light bulb went on for many attendees,” says Reinhard. “Some still lumped palm fruit oil together with other tropical oils. So they were fascinated by this concept that these fatty acids should be looked at individually and in connection with other fatty acids and nutrients in diet to see their true effect on health conditions.”
What changes should you recommend to your clients?
Dr. Pramod Khosla, associate professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Wayne State University confirms that things are getting more complicated for dietitians. “Gone from good old days when you changed one thing and anticipated an improvement in the total lipid profile. If you are not affecting the lipid ratio (ratio of good and bad cholesterol), what’s the point? For example, we once advised patients to just decrease their intake of saturated fat. Now we’re learning that it’s not that straightforward. What are they replacing it with? Depending on that answer, they could be seeing benefits or they could be making conditions worse.”
New findings are adding layers of complexity. “First we focused on total cholesterol. Then it was the HDL/LDL ratio. Now we’re looking at platelets and viscosity. Half of the heart attacks happen in people with seemingly normal cholesterol, so these advances are crucial,” says Reinhard.
For dietitians, Dr. Khosla concludes that the key is to remain open minded, keep your eyes on the literature and watch for new studies. “Science is dynamic not static. There’s always something new coming down the pike. We can’t dismiss guidelines and recommendations, but we should realize that they are in a constant state of evolution. Your advice might be negated a year after you give it.”
Robin Miller is a health and nutrition editor with more than 30 years of industry experience. She researches and writes about the nutritional benefits of palm fruit oil, with the goal of giving readers factual, science-based information that will be useful in their daily lives.