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There are three things any careful reader should take note of in the Times of India’s recent article, “Palm oil, India’s most consumed oil, can cause heart disease”.
First, the article has no by-line. That means the anonymous author can say whatever he or she wants to say without being called out on the carpet of Twitter for recycling outdated and unsubstantiated ideas. After all, who would you call out? We don’t even know who wrote this. That should be the first red flag.
Two, check the scientific references at the bottom of the piece, where they are usually found.
Wait, you can’t find them? That’s because there aren’t any. Red flag number two: a clue that the author did no research and simply repurposed old ideas found on the internet. (As someone who works in the blogosphere as a writer and editor, I can tell you that this happens all the time.)
Three, the article has a scary headline, which is hardly an accident. One of the most regularly consumed oils in India “can” cause heart disease! That headline was carefully crafted to produce eyeballs and clicks, and I’m sure it succeeded in that regard. But it certainly didn’t succeed in correctly reporting facts, a matter which would seem to be of little importance to the anonymous blogger anyway.
Speaking of facts, let’s start by fact-checking the lowest-hanging fruit, a statement that would immediately make any nutritionist roll their eyes. “Olive oil is better than palm because it has more oleic acid” is just silly, a statement that could only be made by someone who has no idea how complexly fats and oils are structured, both chemically and physically, and how all this impacts health and nutrition outcomes.
Oleic acid is indeed a wonderful monounsaturated fatty acid and is among the top five most commonly occurring fatty acids in most natural foods. Olive oil contains a lot of it, in addition to some saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. It also happens that the liquid palm oil or palm olein used extensively as a cooking oil throughout most of India is also hgh in the same oleic acid content. Olive has about 70% whereas palm oil (olein) has about 45%.
Researchers have been intrigued by this fact and the consideration that olive oil which is a major fat constituent of the Mediterranean diet is often marketed as the gold standard among oils and fats. So a number of clinical dietary trials (9, to date), directly comparing olive oil and palm olein were conducted. In all these human studies the plasma cholesterol levels used as an indicator of heart disease risk was identical, whether people in the studies consumed olive oil or palm olein. Conclusions have been drawn from these studies that olive oil and palm olein can have similar health benefits in terms of plasma cholesterol modulation.
In India, another commonly consumed edible oil with high oleic acid content is mustard seed oil which is part of the brassica (rapeseed) oil varieties. Mustard seed oil is even more revered in India and studies comparing mustard seed oil with palm olein have again demonstrated similar nutritional benefits for these oils.
All edible oils—olive, palm, soybean, sunflower, mustard (rapeseed) —are mixes of three classes of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Sure, palm oil has saturated fatty acids, but so does olive oil, which everyone considers the poster-child for healthy oil. (Olive oil is actually 14% saturated fat, delivering 2 grams per tablespoon serving!)(1) Many of the fats we think of as “saturated” (like beef) actually have more monounsaturated fat than they do saturated!
And as we’ve been learning over the past decades, all three classifications of fatty acids—including saturated fatty acids—are necessary to make a healthy human.
But the presence of oleic acid is hardly the “standard” by which you judge oils. Fish oil has minimal oleic acid and it’s one of the healthiest edible oils on the planet.
In addition, palm oil has tocotrienols and carotenoids, both of which are absent from olive oil. That doesn’t make olive oil “less good”—it just underlines the fact that all healthy oils (olive, palm, fish, avocado, almond) are just different, with different profiles and different benefits.
The anonymous author calls on “experts” to support a weak and inchoate position, as in her statement, “if we go by experts”. Well, of course we’re going to listen to experts. But which experts? Writing in what journals? I’m an expert—I have a PhD in nutrition, am board certified in nutrition by the American College of Nutrition, and have authored 15 books on health— and I think the writer doesn’t know what their talking about. Here’s why.
The entire argument made against palm oil in this piece stems from three basic assumptions:
- Palm oil contains saturated fat.
Saturated fat clogs your arteries, raising your cholesterol, and….And speaking of saturated fat, at least four major published studies over the last decade have found that those who eat saturated fat do not have any increased risk for heart disease. None. The causal connection between saturated fat and heart disease just isn’t there, even though we thought it was for decades. Those studies—including one from the BMJ (British Medical Journal) aptly named “Saturated Fat Does Not Clog The Arteries” — are from prestigious journals like the Annals of Internal Medicine and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and are listed in the references below. (2,3,4,5)
- Cholesterol gives you heart disease. The association between cholesterol and heart disease is highly complex. For starters, cholesterol is a necessity in your body for optimum metabolic functions. In healthy individuals cholesterol is well modulated and regulated in our body. But many individuals, especially as a result of aging, and those with genetic predispositions to some health conditions, can developed impaired cholesterol regulation which ultimately requires medical advice and dietary regulation. A balanced diet including the balanced fats, their balanced fatty acids and right proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrates in your daily foods is something to keep watch. When these are addressed there is no reason to avoid palm oil or indeed any other oil or fat.
As far as the supposed raising of cholesterol, well, that may not matter that much either. Cholesterol is turning out to have been wildly over-rated as a predictor of heart disease. Studies–—including one published in the prestigious American Heart Journal—- found that over half of patients admitted to hospitals for coronary artery disease have perfectly normal “LDL cholesterol” readings meaning, as far as predicting heart disease goes, you might as well just toss a coin. (6,7,8)
The writer notes that “According to the World Economic Forum, 50 percent of people who die at a young age are suffering from diabetes and heart disease” . True, and scary, but what in the world does that have to do with palm oil? Wheat is also in processed food—as are canola and soybean oil—and no one’s blaming them for diabetes and heart disease, although you can make a strong case that those ingredients are significantly involved in both heart disease and diabetes. Grains and vegetable oils contribute mightily to the deadly trio of insulin resistance, high blood sugar and inflammation—and all of them are demonstrably connected to metabolic disease. Palm oil is not.
Finally, the writer is concerned that palm is becoming one of the most popular oils in India, which she worries will mean an epidemic of heart disease. Well, palm is already the most popular oil in Malaysia, which would make Malaysia an ideal population to study if you wanted to determine the true effect of palm oil on heart disease.
Dr. Kalyana Sundram and his associates did that exact study, and published it in one of the most prestigious journals in the world—Nature (9). They divided their population into four “diet pattern” quadrants: Low-fat/ low-carb (LFLC), low-fat high-carb (LFHC), high-fat low-carb (HFLC), high-fat high-carb (HFHC). It was a sophisticated study that included the latest modern markers for heart disease like inflammation and particle size. Remember that 80% of the fat in the Malaysian diet comes from palm oil, and that was true for all four quadrants.
As it turned out it wasn’t the groups that consumed the most fat who had the highest risk markers for heart disease. It was the groups that consumed the most carbs!
Cholesterol and fat—particularly saturated fat—have been wrongly demonized long enough. Let’s stop recycling these old disproven myths and start concentrating on the real culprits in metabolic disease: inflammation, oxidative damage, and insulin resistance!
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, also known as “The Nutrition Myth Buster” ™ is a nationally known board-certified nutritionist and expert on diet and weight loss. He is the best-selling author of 15 books including The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, Living Low Carb (now in its fourth edition), and is the co-author, with cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, of the controversial best-seller, “The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Your Cholesterol Won’t Prevent Heart Disease and the Statin-Free Plan that Will”. His latest book, Smart Fat: Eat More Fat, Lose More Weight, Get Healthy Now!– written with PBS star Steven Masley, MD— was published by Harper Collins in January 2016.