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Palm oil under inquiry: are saturated fats harmful?

As food producers return to consuming palm oil due to the sudden shortage of sunflower oil, it is important to understand the impact of saturated fats in daily diets. Palm oil was once replaced because it bears a certain presence of saturated fats. The use of ‘palm oil free’ or ‘low in saturated fats’ labels are used as marketing tools to convey the message that the product with no palm oil is healthier.

Competere organized a round table titled ‘Saturated Fats’ to provide answers to this question, with their guests Francesco Visioli, Professor in Human Nutrition at the University of Padova; Dr. Kalyana Sundram, a consultant for CPOPC – Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries with over 40 years of experience in the field of oils and fats properties; as well as the founder and President of Competere, Pietro Paganini.

The discussion highlighted the need to assess the complexity of the landscape of unsaturated fatty acids, a wide category with a variety of metabolic effects. The speakers argued against the theory that deems the entire category of saturated fats as harmful to health because of their effect on LDL cholesterol concentrations, cardiovascular risk factor being the most common. Prof. Francesco Visioli: “In Italy and Europe, the largest proportion of dietary saturated fat is actually derived from dairy products, while meat-rich diets in other countries complicate the possibility of isolating the properties of these components from food as a whole.”

After decades of research, we can conclude that consuming saturated fats within a balanced diet has no harmful effects on health and that further studies are needed to clarify the physio-pathological properties of this category.

Prof. Francesco Visioli

Such evidence is currently relevant as many businesses go back to palm oil. Scientific literature has shown that there are no specific components of palm oil able that produce negative effects on health, and that it has a neutral effect on cholesterol metabolism. These findings have been further confirmed by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità and Centro di Ricerca Alimenti e Nutrizione (Food and Nutrition Research Center), which have underlined how the contribution of palm oil to the intake of saturated fatty acids is marginal and, above all, how it is conceptually wrong to give certain labels to food without the full diet context.

“We should ensure an ethical approach to nutrition, looking at what’s best for the consumer. Let’s dispel myths like that of the inherent harmfulness of cholesterol: its concentration in the blood is minimally dependent on diet and it is important for our metabolic function. Now we have scientific evidence to say that from a nutritional point of view, the fats it contains (in palm oil) are not bad per se: we must always talk about quantity and quality of the food,” added Dr. Kalyana Sundram.

Pietro Paganini concluded that the discussion on saturated fats led them to debunk myths that can confuse consumers: “Research has confirmed that there are no scientific elements that condemn palm oil: any attempt to label it as good or bad could take us further away from providing consumers with serious, reliable and scientifically proven information to choose their diet in a sustainable way.”