This post was originally published on January 29, 2018 and updated on January 13, 2020.

Many of us have spent our entire lives believing that saturated fats are vessel-clogging villains to be entirely avoided. Doctors recommended staying away from saturated fats. Food manufacturers filled the grocery stores with low-fat/no-fat foods. However, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines have indicated that all this vilification of saturated fats is no longer supported by the clinical evidence.

The emerging evidence regarding the consumption of saturated fat and heart health is confusing and controversial. Many studies over the past decade indicate saturated fat and even cholesterol consumption, when in moderation, may not be adverse to our health.

“Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats,” concluded researchers in a review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Instead of saturated fats and cholesterol, many leading nutrition and health experts are now looking at inflammation as a prime mover as a contributing factor of heart disease.

Here’s what you need to know about saturated fats and why better-for-you palm oil is gaining in popularity:

  • Replacing trans fats with some saturated fats is heart smart. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) from its list of ingredients generally recognized as safe. The preponderance of clinical and epidemiological evidence suggest these industrial trans fatty acids, also known as artificial trans fats, are strongly associated with an increased risk of poor heart health. As a result, the agency has required these fatty acids be removed from the American food supply. “Removing PHOs from processed foods could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year,” states the FDA website. To replace this form of fat, many food manufacturers have turned to Malaysian certified sustainable palm oil because it’s naturally trans-fat free, is not known to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and functions like trans fat in various foods, such as desserts .
  • Eating a balanced fat may reduce inflammation. With a 50/50 balance of saturated to unsaturated fats, palm oil contains fewer inflammatory omega 6s than most other plant oils, such as canola, soybean and corn. At the same time, these other vegetable oils contain more omega 3 fatty acids, including linolenic acid.
  • Replacing saturated fats with carbs, a hallmark of low-fat diets, may not be as healthy as once thought. “There’s strong evidence that this doesn’t necessarily lower the risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Roger Clemens, DrPH, CFS, CNS, FIFT, FASN, FIAFST who served on the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. “Replacing saturated fats with some carbohydrates may reduce total and LDL-C cholesterol, but they may significantly increase triglycerides and reduce the good cholesterol, HDL-C,” he cautions.
  • Promising data, yet to be published, indicates that palm oil may support health HDL (good) cholesterol levels. When healthy adults ate a week’s worth of typical Malaysian meals, prepared with one of three different fats to give them varying saturated fat content and different ratios of saturated-to-polyunsaturated fatty acids, palm oil yielded promising results. HDL levels were raised by 7.6 percent in those who ate meals prepared with palm oil, while HDL levels appeared depressed in those who ate meals prepared with a cocoa butter and corn oil blend. “What this means to you and me, is that we shouldn’t be afraid of all saturated fats. However, we should understand that some may be healthier for the body than others,” comments researcher Kalyana Sundram, PhD, who helped to design and conduct the study.
  • Red palm oil (RPO) contains good-for-you nutrients. RPO contains carotenoids, tocotrienols, tocopherols, sterols, phospholipids, squalene and coenzyme Q10. Various forms of tocotrienols have been shown to protect against and minimize stroke-related brain damage. “There are also clinical studies being conducted on how palm carotenoids affect cancer, skin health, cell-to-cell signaling and immune enhancement,” explains Peter Pressman, MD, MS, FACN. He adds, “Red palm oil is specially processed to retain its carotene and tocotrienol content, which makes it is an unique and potentially healthful alternative to other vegetable despite its saturated fat content. Most of Malaysia’s palm oil is also increasingly being certified sustainable,  so you know it’s not associated with deforestation within that country.”
  • Palm oil may be safer to cook at high temperatures than other plant oils. “Other vegetable oils, when cooked at a high temperature, have lower heat-stability due to their elevated polyunsaturated fatty acid content. This means that more free radicals are formed in the cooking process, which may contribute to oxidative stress,” says Pressman. Palm oil’s smoke point, the temperature at which it starts to burn and smoke, is in excess of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, much higher than other better-for-you oils. Olive oil begins to degrade at 380 degrees Fahrenheit and coconut oil at 347 degrees Fahrenheit.
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