Does the consumption of palm oil pose a health concern?

Concerns have been raised about the consumption of palm oil related to the levels of saturated fatty acids in palm oil. Saturated fatty acids have been criticized because of their impact on cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The relationship between nutrients and health however, is largely dependent on the total diet and lifestyle of a person. Blood cholesterol is impacted by the intake of fats, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, fiber and alcohol.In addition, blood cholesterol is affected by non-dietary risk factors such as physical activity, mental stress, obesity and smoking.In fact, these lifestyle factors may have greater impact on blood cholesterol and cardiovascular risk than moderate saturated fat intake.

What are saturated and unsaturated fatty acids?

A fatty acid is referred to as ‘unsaturated’ when there is one or more double bonds which give flexibility to the hydrocarbon chain. Saturated fatty acids do not have these flexible bonds. The term saturated fatty acid is often written in shorthand as SAFA. Similarly mono-unsaturated fatty acid, which has only one unsaturated bond, is written as MUFA. When a fatty acid has more than one unsaturated bond, it is called a poly-unsaturated fatty acid, this is abbreviated as PUFA. The more saturated the fatty acid, the less flexible are the bonds, making the fat more solid at room temperature.

Where do saturated fatty acids come from?

The saturated fatty acids that circulate in our blood and that are stored in the adipose tissue our body, come from two different sources. Part comes from our diet and part is synthesised by the body itself from nutrients other than fat, namely carbohydrates and alcohol. The fats and oils that we consume with our diet are of animal or plant origin.

Are saturated fatty acids as dangerous for health as trans fats?

No. Saturated fatty acids, which are also produced by the body, are required for rather essential functions. Trans fatty acids are not made by the body and interfere with many enzyme functions in the body. Trans fats have been proven to be unhealthy as they raise LDL- and reduce HDL-cholesterol levels and increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease and possibly stroke.

What is the consumption limit for saturated fatty acids?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) proposed in its Scientific Opinion (EFSA 2010)  that the saturated fatty acid intake should be as low as possible. In addition, international food authorities (FAO) recommend that the consumption of saturated fatty acids should not exceed 10 per cent of the overall energy intake. National dietary expert panel recommendations of most EU member states (Germany, Netherlands, Nordic nations) are in line with the FAO recommendation.

When we consume food made with palm oil, do we exceed the recommended dietary intake of saturated fatty acids?

Palm oil fits perfectly in a balanced and healthy diet. The body needs oils and fats every day. According to international and European food authorities fat should represent about 20 to 35 per cent of our daily energy intake. Fat is an important source of energy, it contains and facilitates the absorption of vitamins (A, D, E and K).

What quantities of saturated fatty acids are present in palm oil and how is this level compared to other fats and oils?

Palm oil has almost equal amounts of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Palm oil does not contain the highest levels of saturated fatty acids. Coconut oil, butter, palm kernel oil and cocoa butter have higher proportions of saturated fatty acids than palm oil.

Does the consumption of palm oil increases the cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular diseases?

Palm oil fits perfectly in a balanced and healthy diet. Concerns have been raised linking the consumption of palm oil with cholesterol and cardiovascular disease because of the high levels of saturated fatty acids in palm oil. However, the intake of saturated fatty acids is only one among many risk factors that impact cholesterol levels. Other risk factors include lifestyle factors such as physical activity, mental stress, obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption. These effects combined have a greater impact on the cholesterol level than moderate saturated fatty acid intake.

The relationship between nutrition and health must be considered in the context of the whole diet and the lifestyle of the person, and not only in terms of individual ingredients.