Even if you have not seen palmitic acid on food ingredient labels. This is because if coconut oil or palm oil are among the ingredients and it is very possible that the food has palmitic acid and is not labeled and only says «vegetable oils». This fatty acid is found in animal products and some vegetable oils.
So what is palmitic acid and what are its possible health effects?
Palmitic acid is a saturated fat. It is naturally found in some animal products such as meat and dairy products, as well as palm and coconut oils. Because these two oils are frequently used in processed foods, you may be getting more palmitic acid than recommended in your diet without even realizing it. At present it is obligatory to put it on the labels and just read them to reject the products that contain it.
Negative effects on health
Approximately one in four deaths in the United States each year is due to heart disease. It is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
Factors such as obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, evidence seems to suggest that palmitic acid is also a risk factor.
Studies show that palmitic acid can significantly increase levels of LDL cholesterol, or «bad» cholesterol. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), palmitic acid increases these LDL levels more than other saturated fats, such as stearic acid.
Saturated fats, found in foods of animal origin, are associated with adverse health effects, but unsaturated fats such as those found in vegetable foods and fatty fish are not. Unsaturated fats appear to have beneficial health effects and are even used in the treatment of heart disease and diabetes. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, which have similar structures, are used to treat high blood cholesterol levels and may be effective in preventing type 2 diabetes.
Saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, are potent activators of enzymes called Jun kinases (JNK), molecules that are involved in the development of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and atherosclerosis. Unsaturated fatty acids such as palmitoleic acid (POA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) work the opposite way. They block the activation of JNK by palmitic acid.
The key difference between palmitic acid and palmitoleic acid is an unsaturated bond, which means that two hydrogen atoms are missing from palmitoleic acid. Saturated fatty acids have rigid hydrocarbon tails, while unsaturated fatty acids have bent hydrocarbon tails. The incorporation of saturated fatty acids into the cell decreases the fluidity of the cell membrane.
It appears that the cell membrane is the only structure in the cell that can differentiate between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, so researchers looked for membrane-associated protein kinases that might explain the different effects on JNK activity. An enzyme identified as c-Src, which resides within the cell membrane, appears to be responsible for the activation of JNK by palmitic acid and other saturated fatty acids. The saturated fats suffocate and push c-Scr into the cell membranes, literally clogging the membranes at the molecular level and disrupting the basic metabolism. Jun Kinases sets in motion chemical reactions that cause resistance to insulin and cardiovascular disease. Unsaturated fats, such as POA and EPA, work the opposite way and block the accumulation of c-Src, preventing the chain of events that lead to health problems.
Trans fats are obtained by chemically modifying vegetable oils. They have great virtues for the food industry.
On the one hand, they can be reused a large number of times without deteriorating, so they are used by many establishments that offer fried food – the most typical example is fast food chains. On the other hand, they improve the presentation, and in some cases the texture and flavour, of foods – the typical example is offered by industrial bakeries; products that would be oily if made with liquid fats at room temperature become more presentable when made with trans fats.
More presentable, yes, but less healthy: a study sixteen years ago found that trans fats raise the level of LDL (or bad) cholesterol in the blood. Since then, and especially in the last ten years, dozens of studies have confirmed the harmful effect of trans fats on cholesterol.
It is important to know about trans fats because diets rich in these fats have a direct and proven relationship with LDL cholesterol levels and, therefore, with the risk of coronary heart disease. They may increase the risk of coronary heart disease more than saturated heart disease. Epidemiological studies have estimated that for every 2% increase in the amount of calories coming from trans fats in the diet, the risk of suffering a myocardial infarction or stroke increases by 25%.
Currently, products sold in U.S. supermarkets must already indicate how much trans fat they contain. The American Heart Association has updated its dietary recommendations with a new rule that limits trans fat consumption to 1% of the total calories in the diet – while saturated fat abundant in meats can account for 7% of calories, and the most recent measure, the New York City Department of Health voted to eradicate trans fat from the city’s 20,000 restaurants.
No similar measure, if only to indicate the trans fat content on food labels, has prospered so far in Spain. Many foods have a volume of important information on the labels and most people don’t read it and don’t condition their purchasing decision.
Brussels, however, does not think the same: the European Commission plans to introduce new food labelling rules soon and it is not ruled out that the new labels should indicate the trans fat content.
For now, in the absence of more transparent information, consumers can deduce whether a product has trans fats by reading the list of ingredients. If it contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (or fats), then it will contain trans fats, as they are obtained by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. What the consumer cannot get to know is the exact amount of trans fat it contains. Nor can it be reported whether this type of fat is found in restaurant dishes or bar bakery products.
trans fats in foods:
The products most likely to contain this type of fat include industrial baked goods, biscuits, margarines, envelope soups, popcorn, industrial fried foods, aperitif snacks and salad dressings. However, «the contents can vary considerably (from less than 1% to 30% of the fat content) depending on the type of fat used in food production,» said the European Food Safety Authority in its report.
They also contain trans fats, in this case of natural origin, bovine and ovine foods such as some meats and cheeses, as these fats are produced naturally in the organism of ruminants. «Eliminating them completely from the diet is not feasible’, although they should be eliminated in the production of certain products’.
Approximately 3% of the calories consumed by the Spanish population comes from trans fats, an amount that exceeds the 1% recommended by the American Heart Association, and «there are citizens with a clearly excessive consumption.
The problem of labelling cannot be solved by Spain, but requires European legislation. We can impose stricter rules on our producers, but we cannot veto the entry of products from other countries.
So our industry could be at a disadvantage. What about the problem of lack of data? Should we not analyse food samples to find out how many people eat and which foods contain more? «We do not carry out analyses because we do not have the capacity to act’, it is said.
The result is that «only industry knows how much trans fat is in food». Denmark was the first European country to put the health of consumers before the interests of industry and since 2003 has a law that limits the levels of trans fats that can contain processed foods.