Palmitic acid is a saturated fatty acid commonly found in both animals and plants. It is a major component in the oils from palm trees, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil. Many medical authorities, such as the World Health Organization, say dietary intake of saturated fats such as palmitic acid increases your risk of cardiovascular diseases. However, in moderation, palmitic acid might not be entirely bad for you, as it does display mild antioxidant and anti-atherosclerotic properties, at least in animal studies. In general, diets higher in unsaturated fats are considered healthier.
Palmitic acid was first isolated in the mid-1800s from palm oil, although it was later discovered to be in many other foods, such as butter, cheese, milk, meat and other vegetable oils such as olive oil, according to the “Dictionary of Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods." Palmitic oil is also a main saturated fat within chocolate, along with oleic and stearic acids. The salt form of palmitic acid is called palmitate, which is commonly added to low-fat and fat-free milk.
According to a Korean study published in a 2010 edition of the “Journal of Medicinal Food,” palmitic acid does display antioxidant properties and can help prevent atherosclerosis in rats, but it is not as effective as oleic acid.
Palmitic acid has been thought for many years to raise cholesterol levels if consumed, although a 2002 Canadian study published in the “Asian Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition” examined the effects of high consumption of palmitic acid in healthy volunteers and concluded it does not raise cholesterol if it is combined with linoleic acid. However, when palmitic acid was combined with lots of trans-fatty acids, “bad” LDL cholesterol levels rose and “good” HDL cholesterol decreased. This is significant because linoleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid, is always found with palmitic acid in olive, palm and coconut oils. In other words, palmitic acid is virtually never consumed apart from other healthier fats, so its negative impact on health might have been over-estimated previously.
Oils from palm trees, especially virgin coconut oil, are gaining attention for their health benefits, mainly due to their medium-chain fatty acids, which are utilized for energy and do not raise cholesterol levels. However, the main benefits of coconut oil are due to lauric and capric acids, not palmitic acid. As such, some people might be confused and assume that palmitic acid is healthier for them than it actually is. Ask your doctor about the benefits and drawbacks of the various kinds of fats.