Researchers have found that palm oil does not promote heart disease. Instead, it protects against it, writes Tan Bee Hong
ACCORDING to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, two studies show that olive oil and palm olein have similar effects on plasma cholesterol in humans.
It said: “Olive oil is touted as the gold standard among all edible oils today, a reputation gained primarily from its association with a lower incidence of heart disease among the Mediterranean population who have traditionally consumed olive oil as their main dietary fat. The component of interest is the monounsaturated oleic acid content of olive oil, which on average is about 70 per cent of its composition.
“Palm olein, the liquid fraction of palm oil, averages 47-53 per cent of its composition as the same oleic acid that is found in olive oil and the other monounsaturated oils.”
It added that despite the lower content of monounsaturated oleic acid in palm olein, the ability of olive oil and palm olein to regulate plasma cholesterol levels in humans is essentially identical.
“Humans fed with diets predominating as either olive oil or palm olein showed identical plasma cholesterol response, which augurs well for the beneficial effects of these oils against coronary heart disease risk.”
But the huge difference is that palm oil is by far cheaper and therefore, more accessible to the general public.
• Study 1: Ng, K.W.T, Hayes, K.C., Dewitt, G. F., Jegathesan, M., Satgunasingam, N., Ong, A. & Tan, D. (1992). Dietary palmitic and oleic acids exert similar effects on serum cholesterol and lipoprotein profiles in normocholesterolemic men and women. J Am Coll Nutr. 11: 383-90.
• Study 2: Choudhury, N., Tan, L. & Truswell, A.S. (1995). Comparison of palmolein and olive oil: effects on plasma lipids and vitamin E in young adults. Am J. Clin Nutr. 61:1043-51
In allaying concerns over the link between palm oil and cardiovascular risk, Dr Bruce Fife, an author, speaker, certified nutritionist and naturopathic physician, says that palm oil is an exceptionally good oil. He wrote in chapter five of his book, The Palm Oil Miracle: “The biggest concern people have about using palm oil is that it contains a high amount of saturated fat. Fifty per cent of the oil consists of saturated fat. Saturated fats are supposed to be bad for the heart.
“So does palm oil cause heart disease? If you believed the advertisements and articles sponsored by the vegetable oil and drug industries, and the misguided warnings of the media who blindly criticise all saturated fats, you would think so. Despite the many voices speaking out in popular diet books and periodicals that have condemned palm oil, no studies back up this presumption. Why? Because it isn’t true.
“Numerous studies have evaluated the effect that palm oil has on cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease, and the consensus among researchers is that palm oil does not promote heart disease. If anything, it protects against it”.
In his book, Dr Fife also busts a few myths about palm oil. For example, the myth that palm oil contains cholesterol.
He wrote: “One of the biggest misconceptions many people have about palm oil is that because it contains saturated fat, it must also contain cholesterol. Only animal fats contain cholesterol. Palm oil is a vegetable oil and therefore, contains absolutely no cholesterol. Like all other unrefined vegetable oils, palm oil (and in particular red palm oil) contains a modest amount of plant sterols which are similar in structure to cholesterol. Plant sterols or phytosterols are not involved in the anthyerosclerotic process and do not promote heart disease. Plant sterols can, however, lower blood cholesterol.”
While it is true that red palm oil is high in saturated fat, what researchers have discovered is that it actually protects against heart disease. In the cardiovascular system, saturated fats contribute to plaque. And this is where it gets interesting. Studies have shown that adding palm oil to our diet can actually remove plaque build-up in arteries. In turn, this reverses the process of plaque and prevent blockages.
In addition, palm oil can also improve cholesterol values and help maintain proper blood pressure. The protective effects come from its high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory content.
In an article titled Effects Of Palm Oil On Cardiovascular Risk published in Med J Malaysia (1991) Chong Y.H. and Ng T.K. wrote: “The allegation that palm oil consumption leads to raised blood cholesterol levels and is therefore atherogenic, is without scientific foundation.
Examination of the chemical and fatty acid composition of palm oil or its liquid fraction should convince most nutritionists that the oil has little cholesterol-raising potential. The rationale for these are: It is considered cholesterol free. Its major saturated fatty acid, palmitic acid has recently been shown to be neutral in its cholesterolaemic effect, particularly in situations where the LDL receptors have not been down-regulated by dietary means or through a genetic effect.
“Palm oil contains negligible amounts (less than 1.5 per cent) of the hypercholesterolemic saturated fatty acids, namely lauric acid and myristic acid. It has moderately rich amounts of the hypocholesterolaemic, monounsaturated oleic acid and adequate amounts of linoleic acid. 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 allegation 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 may raise HDL levels and reduce platelet aggregability. As with all nutrients, there is a need to obtain a balance of different fatty acids found in fats in edible oils and other food sources.
“There is no single ideal source of fat that answers to the recent American Heart Association’s call to reflect a 1:1:1 ratio of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in relation to the recommended dietary fat intake of 30 per cent of calories or less.”
Palm oil for health
ACCORDING to the American Palm Oil Council, palm oil, naturally semi-solid at room temperature, does not require hydrogenation. It is a good replacement for partially hydrogenated oils for many reasons.
• Palm oil is trans fat free.
• Palm oil provides the same “hard or solid” fat that is required for pastries, cookies, crackers and other items that require long shelf stability and a particular texture.
• Palm oil is odourless and tasteless, perfect for consumers and manufacturers alike looking for a healthy oil for cooking and baking needs.
• Palm oil is rich in antioxidants.
• Palm oil increases good HDL to promote a healthy cardiovascular health.
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