In many parts of the world, palm oil is as popular, and considered as healthy, as olive oil. But in some industrialized countries, including the United States, there are people who still believe that consuming palm oil is harmful. 

How can there be such big differences of opinion about the same ingredient? As viewers of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s recent Science and Sustainability Engagement Series learned, palm oil is a casualty of a war on fat once funded by the sugar industry decades ago.  

The focus of this panel discussion was, “Shifting the negative perceptions of palm oil,” and panelist Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS, did not hold back. 

Fictions about fat 

Palm oil is 50 percent saturated fat, which is enough for some experts to caution against eating it. But Bowden, who has dedicated his career to studying the science and helping the American public understand the truths about nutrition, presented a much different perspective. 

He went through the top myths about dietary fats, one by one: 

  • Myth: Eating fat makes you fat: “It doesn’t,” said Bowden, who explained that saturated fat doesn’t raise the fat-storing hormone, insulin.  
  • Myth: Saturated fat clogs your arteries. “Not true!” stressed Bowden, explaining that study after study could not find an association between saturated fat and heart disease deaths.  
  • Myth: It’s healthy to substitute vegetable oils for saturated fat. “Vegetable oils,” countered Bowden, “are some of the most pro-inflammatory things in the American diet.” 
  • Myth: Good fat vs. bad fat is all about unsaturated vs. saturated fat. “There’s a ton of research that shows this is not the case. There are unsaturated fats that are toxic waste dumps and there are saturated fats such as (those found in) Malaysian palm oil that are actually very good for us,” Bowden clarified.  
  • Myth: Saturated fat raises cholesterol, which causes heart disease. Bowden went into great detail about why this is wrong, explaining that he co-wrote a book on this topic, “The  Great Cholesterol Myth,” with evidence supported by 212 scientific references. ‘My book explains how we got it wrong … and why we became terrified of fat.”  

If all this is true, why don’t doctors change their minds about saturated fats? 

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Bowden quoted author and activist Upton Sinclair who said, “It is difficult to get a man to change his mind about something when his job depends on not understanding it.” 

He explained that saturated fats were vilified back in the 1950s after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a heavy smoker, suffered a massive heart attack. At the time, very little was known about the causes of heart disease. The cardiology profession was still in relative infancy. Bowden pointed out that study after study has now shown that inflammation is the underlying cause of many serious health conditions including heart disease. “And the two most pro-inflammatory items in the American diet are sugar and vegetable oils,” Bowden stated. 

Was the low-fat diet phenomenon an attempt to divert the public’s attention away from something else? “The big war on fat turned out to be largely funded by the sugar industry, This has been well documented by papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and other prestigious journals,” he confirmed. 

Who currently benefits from the bad publicity about palm oil? 

Bowden reasoned that palm oil has an unfair advantage. “It has huge production yields. It can be produced sustainably. It is non-GMO. It has no trans fats and it is relatively inexpensive.” 

He added, “Palm oil also doesn’t contribute to inflammation. It is a neutral oil with many health advantages including beneficial tocotrienols that are good for the brain.” 

He pointed out that while there are dietary supplements made from palm oil-derived nutrients, “no one is selling supplements with nutrients derived from corn oil or safflower oil.”

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