The role of palmitic acid in our body and diet

While palm oil is naturally rich in palmitic acid, palm oil and palmitic acid are not one and the same thing. So what is palmitic acid? And what is it related to our health? We asked. professor Sebastiano Banni, from the University of Cagliari in Italy.

What is 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. And there is a good reason: 20-30 percent 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.

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.

Read the scientific publication of professor Banni here.