Palm oil comes from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and is a fat with a solid consistency at room temperature. It is an ingredient widely used in the food industry and has a content of saturated fatty acids superior to most other fats used in food (sunflower oil, soybean oil and vegetable margarines which have a lower percentage of saturated fatty acids and a higher content of mono / polyunsaturated fatty acids). Its wide use in food products is due to the fact that, due to the prevalence of saturated fatty acids, it contributes to giving taste, friability and crunchiness and is more resistant to oxidation and rancidity processes.
Crude palm oil is made up of almost 100% lipids, especially in the form of triglycerides (formed by a molecule of glycerol to which 3 fatty acids are linked). Only butter has a percentage of saturated fatty acids similar to that of palm oil, while coconut oil shows even higher contents.
Consumption in Italy of saturated fatty acids
The main national and international health bodies recommend that the calories supplied by saturated fatty acids do not exceed 10% of the daily total therefore, for a theoretical requirement of 2000 kilocalories (kilocalories), they should not exceed 22 grams per day (g / day) .
The use of palm oil in processed products (ie those products obtained by processing the original foods, by the possible addition of ingredients necessary for their processing or to give them specific characteristics) is often associated with that of other ingredients (both animal origin than fats of vegetable origin) which provide, such as palm oil, saturated fatty acids (especially palmitic acid).
According to the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Italian adults consume on average about 27 grams of saturated fatty acids per day, with an average contribution of palm oil estimated at 2.5 grams in the age group between 18 and 64 years. (9.7% of the total saturated fatty acids comes from palm oil).
In children aged between 3 and 10 years, the estimates (referring to the years 2005-2006, the only ones available at the moment) indicate an average consumption of saturated fatty acids of 25.4 grams per day (g / day), with a share coming from palm oil corresponding to 4.4 grams / day, equal to 17.2% of total saturated fatty acids.
Overall, it emerges that the total consumption of saturated fatty acids in the Italian adult population is slightly higher (11.2%) than the suggested target for prevention.
The overall consumption of saturated fat in children between 3 and 10 years is also higher than 10%. However, it is necessary to consider that the data referring to the age groups between 3 and 10 years combine the ages in which consumption differs significantly and should therefore be interpreted with caution, also taking into account the greater need for saturated fat in infants and in the first years of life.
Effects on health
The possible negative health effects of palm oil are linked to the presence in it of a significant amount of saturated fatty acids which, according to scientific evidence, if consumed in excess are responsible for an increased risk of some diseases, in particular of cardiovascular ones.It should be pointed out, however, that no food or ingredient is toxic in itself but any negative effects on health derive from the quantity consumed and from the lifestyle of each individual.
Therefore, what can pose a health risk is the consumption of excessive quantities of processed products containing palm oil. The saturated fats contained, in fact, are added to those already taken with foods of animal origin commonly present in the daily diet such as, for example, milk and derivatives, eggs and meat, rich in these fats.
In people with normal blood cholesterol values, not overweight or obese, who consume a varied diet with adequate amounts of polyunsaturated vegetable fatty acids, the consumption of palm oil is not related to the increase in risk factors for disease. cardiovascular.
Furthermore, there is no evidence of a connection between the consumption of palm oil and the appearance of cancer in humans.
At the same time, in the population at risk such as children, the elderly, people with altered fat metabolism, overweight or obese individuals, individuals with cardiovascular disease or with hypertension, the consumption of higher than permitted quantities of saturated fatty acids must be kept in check because they are more sensitive to their negative effects than the general population.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in evaluating the health risks deriving from substances that form in vegetable oils refined at high temperatures (about 200 ° C), has focused attention on some fatty acid substances, called glycidyl esters (GE), which are formed in palm oil during technological processes. These substances represent a potential health problem for consumers but it should be emphasized that the levels of GE in palm oils and fats halved between 2010 and 2015, thanks to voluntary measures taken by producers. This resulted in a significant decrease in their intake. In this regard, EFSA has made a number of recommendations for further research to be conducted to address the data gaps and improving knowledge on toxicity (Process contaminants in vegetable oils and foods).
In conclusion, in the context of a varied and balanced diet, it is necessary to limit the consumption of foods containing high quantities of saturated fats.
Higher Institute of Health (ISS). Technical scientific opinion "on" the possible toxicity of "palm oil as a food ingredient"