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.

Hindu BusinessLine also asserts, “The high saturated fat content of palm oil boosts “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are known to be risk factors for heart disease.

Fact: While most previous studies concentrated on traditional blood lipids, cholesterol and lipoproteins (LDL, HDL), the 12-month Malaysian population study to which I referred earlier incorporated more advanced measures of sub-fractions of these lipoproteins, which are emerging as state-of-the-art measures to assess cardiovascular risk. This well-designed study evaluated the lifestyle and long-term impact of different ratios of carbohydrate and fat consumption in this target population. The overwhelming majority of participants (83.9%) cooked meals prepared with palm oil / palm olein. The remainder reported regular consumption of other more unsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower, canola, corn or olive oil.

After evaluating various key blood biomarkers of cardiovascular risk, diabetes, insulin resistance and inflammation, the researchers came to some remarkable conclusions. As senior author Dr. Kalyana Sundram stated, “Our study found that higher proportions of carbohydrates in the diet tend to be associated with elevated levels of multiple CVD risk factors including dyslipidemia, hypertension and atherogenic small LDL particle size. Higher proportions of dietary fat intake were not associated with most of these cardio-biomarkers.”

Hindu BusinessLine asserts, “A Stanford University study suggested that increased palm oil consumption could exacerbate mortality from ischemic heart disease and stroke.”

Fact: The truth is that an exhaustive, published two-year human clinical study found that palm-derived vitamin E tocotrienols support the brain’s white matter health by slowing the progression of white matter lesions. These same tocotrienols were shown to help the brain undergo less damage due to stroke and then to recover more quickly. Brain white matter lesions are not only linked to increased stroke risk, but they are also known to be linked to the development of other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Hindu BusinessLine asserts: “Consuming palm oil that has been repeatedly reheated may cause plaque deposits in the arteries due to a decrease in the oil’s antioxidant activity and formation of trans fats (a highly toxic form of fatty acid).

Fact: This is very much like saying that running a red light while driving a Ferrari is dangerous. The truth is that running a red light while driving any car is dangerous. Repeatedly heating any oil creates contaminants – that at high enough levels – are potentially dangerous to human health. These include, but are not limited to, trans fats. Isolating palm oil in this statement is myopic and inflammatory journalism.

Hindu BusinessLine asserts: “Palm oil consumption is extremely harmful not only to our cardiovascular health but for the environment as well.” The publication goes on to blame palm oil production for “loss of habitat for endangered species, climate pollution and human rights violations.”

Fact: This statement ignores the fact that the entire country of Malaysia, one of the world’s leading palm oil producers, is a net carbon sink meaning that it does not contribute to greenhouse gases. Malaysian palm oil has been produced sustainably and responsibly for more than 100 years, and its forest cover is actually increasing. As a medical scientist and conservationist, I am compelled to declare that I have visited critically important tiger and orangutan rescue sites in Malaysia, operated and funded for years by the Malaysian palm oil industry. These sustained initiatives are genuinely breathtaking examples of the commitment of a significant portion of the palm oil industry to endangered species and to important habitats and climatic stability.

Moreover, those visiting Malaysian oil palm plantations will witness the use of barn owls and snakes to limit the need for pesticides; there are nationwide burn bans; old palm trees are allowed to decompose in the sun to generate natural soil nutrients and reduce the need for inorganic fertilisers. Malaysia conserves energy by using palm fiber and palm kernel shells as fuel to generate steam. That steam is used to power the palm oil extraction process. Excess steam is used to generate electricity for the plantation and factory workers.

Further, the Malaysian palm oil industry has literally lifted millions out of poverty. More than 40 per cent of Malaysia’s palm-planted lands are tended by 640,000 family farmers, called smallholders. The Malaysian palm oil industry has been praised by leaders in other countries for providing these farmers with a living wage, and for building new roads, schools and healthcare facilities.

In conclusion, I would insist that before demonising palm oil and perpetuating fear of its consumption, responsible media ought to check the facts. Dig deeper. If they do, they’ll discover there’s an entirely different story to tell.

Peter Pressman, MD, MS, FACN is Vice-President of Medical Operations at Polyscience Consulting in Chatsworth, California. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University Medical School, and was trained at the University of Wisconsin and Rush-Presbyterian St. Lukes Medical Center. After serving as Assistant Professor of Medicine, Director of Educational Programs of the Pacific Center for Health Policy & Ethics, and Associate Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program, all at University of Southern California/Keck School of Medicine, he attended at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and later deployed in the Developing World as a Naval Medical Officer. Pressman has been continuously active in both internal medicine and surgical education, focusing on special topics in nutritional support. Pressman is a reviewer for the Journal of Food Science, the Journal of Food & Chemical Toxicology, and serves on the Editorial Board of Toxicology Research and Application. He has served on the Food Additive Task Force of the International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDFI) along with distinguished scientists representing the European Union and from the Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University. The Task Force has developed and is publishing a science driven framework for the safety assessment of technologically justified food additives during early life.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.