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Debunking myths on palm oil

Countless readers of The Hindu BusinessLine are once again being misled to believe that palm oil is detrimental to heart health. The publication ran an article by Balram Bhargava and Prabhkaran Dorairaj claiming, “Both past research and new evidence point to the ill effects on populations.” This statement is not just grossly inaccurate. It does an extreme disservice to the Indian population now experiencing an apparent uptick in cardiovascular disease.

Hundreds of studies have been conducted around the world on the health benefits of palm oil and its natural nutrients. One currently making headlines is an ambitious, recently published 12-month study, involving 577 healthy individuals, that debunked most of the palm oil-related heart health myths perpetuated in this Hindu BusinessLine article. As one of the study’s co-authors, I must address the details in a few paragraphs that follow.

Let’s address and explore the article’s faulty foundation: First, it is of paramount importance to let readers know that scientists ended the saturated fat fallacy years ago!

Hindu BusinessLine: “The saturated fat content (in palm oil) is harmful to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health.”

Fact: Back in the 1960s, a researcher named Ancel Keys was heralded for establishing an epidemiological or statistical connection between dietary fats, serum cholesterol, and atherosclerotic and vascular disease. Bottom line: Keys’ data was ultimately demonstrated to be absolutely wrong; his data was not representative, ignoring the important data at the time of the study that the cases of Denmark, France and Norway (countries where the diet is rich in fat, but occurrence of heart disease is low) and Chile (where diet is low in fat yet occurrence of heart disease is high) created evidence-based doubt in Keys’ conclusions.

The medical and public health world began to believe that saturated fat consumption in fact, did not contribute to heart disease.

Fifty years later, an accumulating mass of rigorously designed and conducted studies of hundreds of thousands of subjects not only confirm that saturated fat intake is not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or cardiovascular disease but that some saturated fats are actually anti-atherogenic, i.e. protect against vascular disease. It is especially intriguing and important that palm oil that contains a balance of 50% saturated fatty acids, 40% monounsaturated fatty acids and 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids, is actually anti-atherogenic i.e. protects against pathologic cardiovascular disease.

Second, let us look at the exciting biochemical facts. The major saturated fatty acid in palm oil, palmitic acid, has been shown to be neutral in its cholesterolemic effect, particularly in situations where the LDL receptors have not been down-regulated by dietary means or through a genetic defect/inborn error of metabolism. Palm oil contains negligible amounts (less than 1.5%) of the hypercholesterolemic saturated fatty acids, namely lauric acid and mysteric acid. It has moderately rich amounts of the hypocholesterolaemic, monounsaturated oleic acid (18:1, omega-9) and adequate amounts of linoleic acid (18:2, omega 6). It contains minor components such as the vitamin E tocotrienols which are not only powerful antioxidants but are also natural inhibitors of cholesterol synthesis. Feeding experiments in various animal species and humans also do not support the outdated conclusion that palm oil is atherogenic.

On the contrary, palm oil consumption reduces blood cholesterol in comparison with the traditional sources of saturated fats such as coconut oil, dairy and animal fats. In addition, palm oil consumption is associated with increasing HDL levels and reduction of platelet clumping.

Palm oil consumed as a dietary fat as part of a healthy balanced diet certainly does not add incremental risk for cardiovascular disease. Little or no additional benefit will be obtained by replacing it with other oils rich in mono or polyunsaturated fatty acids. Longitudinal population-based studies such as the just published Malaysian study are needed to fully characterise the impact of the consumption of dietary constituents and patterns which utilize palm oil compared to other accepted “heart healthy” oils like olive oil on the future risk of heart disease using lipid profiles as intermediate biomarkers of risk.

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