Palmitic acid is the most widespread fatty acid in the world and plays an important role in biology and in our body. Edmond Frémy discovered this particular fatty acid in 1840, in saponified palm oil, which is an edible oil from the fruit of oil palms growing in tropical areas. In these regions palm oil has been consumed as a source of fat for thousands of years. Today, we know that other fats and oils also contain palmitic acid and that we even produce palmitic acid in our own body.
While palm oil is naturally rich in palmitic acid, palm oil and palmitic acid are not one and the same thing: anything discovered about palmitic acid does not automatically apply to palm oil. Calling for a ban on palm oil based on palmitic acid research is meaningless and may prove counterproductive to our health.
First of all, what is palm oil?
Although unknown to Europe, humans have been consuming palm oil for more than 10,000 years. Palm oil is a stable food for many Asian and African countries. It delivers basic food, energy and essential nutrients to more than two thirds of the world’s global population. It is a very effective crop and provides 3-7 times the amount of oil per ha compared to other oil crops that are more familiar to Europe, such as rapeseed or sunflower oil.
In the past century palm oil was introduced in the diet of western countries, mostly because it provided good product characteristics and shelf life, it could be easily produced, and efficiently transported. Currently, more than half of the products we consume in Europe contain palm oil, usually in combination with other fats and oils or in the form of emulsifiers in which palm oil is a key ingredient.
To better understand the role that palm oil plays in our diet, please check our short video on palm oil and nutrition.
Why do we have saturated fat and palm oil in our food?
In nature, all fats and oils contain saturated fat, and the amount varies according to its biological purpose. Fats high in saturated fat are solid at room temperature, whereas oils high in unsaturated fat are softer or liquid at room temperature. Many fats and oils from seeds produced in a temperate climate are relatively low in saturated fats and are liquid at European room temperature. On the other hand, oils and fats originating from the tropics and a warm climate, such as palm oil and coconut fat are usually relatively high in saturated fat.
Just like when you prepare food at home, food technologists create recipes using a mix of fats and oils to develop foods with specific requirements, high or low in saturated fat. Palm oil has a natural balance in saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, with characteristics between liquid oil and solid fat. It is added to products such as margarine to improve characteristics and help the uptake of essential fatty acids, but it is also widely used in readily available high-energy food, such as cookies and filled chocolate.
Now what about palmitic acid?
Palmitic acid is the most common type of saturated fatty acid found in animals, plants and microorganisms. It is also the most abundant saturated fatty acid in our human body. On average a 70 kg person is made up of 3.5 kg palmitic acid. And there is a good reason: 20-30% of the phospholipids of each cell membrane are made of palmitic acid to enable its proper functioning. In other words without palmitic acid, our cells would not function properly.
So where do we find palmitic acid in a typical western diet?
Palmitic acid is also part of almost every fat or oil in temperate regions. It is highly present in meat, cheese, butter, and dairy products and in smaller concentrations in regional oils such as sunflower and rapeseed oil. Together they deliver most of the palmitic acid that we currently consume in Europe.
The importance of palmitic acid in the human diet may be illustrated with human breast milk. Human milk is high in saturated fat (38-41 energy %), and usually high in palmitic acid (around 45% after birth to 25% at later lactation). Whether the palmitic acid serves a biological purpose or how much is needed is not really clear. What we do know is that the composition of saturated fat in human breast milk is relatively stable.
Our body functions with palmitic acid. But do we need to get palmitic acid from our diet?
Palmitic acid is such an important fatty acid that our body has developed ways to produce it from other nutrients. This internal ‘control mechanism’ (de novo lipogenesis) ensures that the concentration of palmitic acid is kept relatively stable. If needed, our body can produce palmitic acid internally from other fatty acids, sugars, and alcohol and even from proteins. In other words, changes in palmitic acid intake from the diet itself hardly influence the amount of palmitic acid present in the body: in normal conditions, our body will keep the concentration relatively stable.
What about new studies relating palmitic acid with chronic disease?
In poor dietetic conditions, such as excessive intake of energy and sugars in a sedentary non-active lifestyle the ‘control mechanism’ is disrupted and health issues may arise. In these circumstances, palmitic acid in our blood increases and is associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease.
So what about this ban on palmitic acid or palm oil?
The call for a ban on palmitic acid is meaningless, because our body will hardly respond to lower palmitic acid intake. It will simply start to produce its own palmitic acid from other nutrients. In poor dietetic conditions this will be counterproductive, because it may lead to overproduction in our own body.
Any call for a complete ban on a specific nutrient or a stable food is non-justified because of the role they play in our diet. Instead of calling for bans, we should focus on truly implementing the dietary advice from health authorities to lower energy intake, eat a larger variety of sustainably produced, plant-based foods and adopt a less sedentary lifestyle.