Palmitic Acid in Coconut Oil Is More Important Than You Think

Palmitic acid doesn't always make its way onto ingredient lists. But if you've ever bought coconut oil or a product that's made with palm oil, both contain this fatty acid. Many animal- and plant-based foods contain palmitic acid, and it's actually the most abundant saturated fat acid in your body and plays many essential roles.

Tropical oils like coconut oil contain palmitic acid,w which is also naturally present in our bodies. (Image: belchonock/iStock/GettyImages)

Palmitic Acid's Important Role in the Body

First, let's dive into how your body can manufacture this fatty acid on its own. The American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and other medical authorities recommend limiting your intake of saturated fats as part of a healthful lifestyle. That said, a limited amount of palmitic acid in your diet can support its various beneficial roles and functions. Cells can use it as fuel to generate energy and palmitic acid is a key component of cell membranes, lung secretions and some signaling molecules, which regulate cellular activities.

Fat as Fuel

Your cells can use palmitic acid (and other fatty acids) as fuel to generate the energy necessary to perform their biological functions. The energy results from fatty acid oxidation or, more simply, "burning" fat. This process typically provides most of the energy needed to support your daily activities and low-intensity exercise, such as a leisurely walk.

Another energy-generating process called glucose oxidation provides most of the remaining needed energy. During moderate to intense exercise, the relative contribution of fatty acids and glucose used to fuel your muscles varies depending on factors such as how long you're working out for and when you last ate.

Your body stores excess calories primarily as triglycerides in your fat cells, or adipose tissue. Here's the science of how it works: Each triglyceride molecule consists of three fatty acids bound to a glycerol backbone. When you need energy, your body breaks down triglycerides and the liberated fatty acids (including palmitic acid) undergo oxidation. And voilà, energy is produced!

In fact, the saturated fat is especially important for babies. A whopping 45 to 50 percent of newborns' body fat is made up of palmitic acid, as reported in a September 2016 Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition article. The author further notes that palmitic acid's importance as a contributor to a baby's fat stores continues after birth — it accounts for about 10 percent of the total caloric intake in exclusively breastfed infants.

Nerve and Brain Protection

Dietary or synthesized palmitic acid can serve as the foundational building block to create other fatty acids. Fatty acids are incorporated into chemicals, such as phospholipids, that function as structural building blocks of cell membranes — structures that surround cells and contain their contents. Palmitic acid is particularly abundant in cell membranes. It is also a building block for compounds called sphingolipids, which are abundant in membranes that surround and protect your brain and nerve cells.

Several derivatives of palmitic acid function as cell signaling molecules — meaning that they bind to cell receptors and trigger specific effects. For example, lab and animal studies have shown that signaling molecule palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) exerts anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and pain-reducing effects, as reported in a June 2017 British Journal of Pharmacology review.

Anti-Diabetic Effects

Palmitic-acid-9-hydroxy-stearic acid (9-PAHSA) is another signaling molecule that exerts anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic effects. A study conducted in mice demonstrated that supplementing their diet with 9-PAHSA led to improved insulin sensitivity and less fat tissue inflammation, according to a February 2018 Cell Metabolism study. However, comparable human studies haven't been conducted yet.

Your body normally tightly controls the palmitic acid concentration in your tissues, synthesizing the fatty acid when dietary shortfalls occur. With certain medical conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, the body isn't able to regulate the amount of tissue palmitic acid as well, and ends up producing more. (So, this occurs mainly because the body overproduces the fatty acid — not from eating too many foods containing the fat.)

Lung Surfactant

Cells in your lungs produce a secretion called lung surfactant, also known as pulmonary surfactant. This fluid lines the microscopic lung air sacs, preventing them from collapsing when you exhale. Lung cells that produce pulmonary surfactant incorporate palmitic acid into a molecule called dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC). This is the predominant component of lung surfactant, accounting for 60 percent the fluid according to a November 2017 Frontiers in Physiology review article.

You may have heard of lung surfactant in the context of premature babies, who can suffer breathing difficulties due to inadequate production. However, adequate amounts of DPPC-rich lung surfactant is key to normal lung function throughout life.

Should You Eat Foods Containing Palmitic Acid?

The main food sources of palmitic include meats, animal fats, milk, dairy products, eggs and vegetable oils — especially palm oil. Palmitic acid accounts for 44 percent of the fats in palm oil, according to the November 2017 Frontiers in Physiology article. Processed foods also usually contain significant amounts of palmitic acid due to use of palm oil as an ingredient.

The role of saturated fats in heart disease risk remains a hotly debated topic with various studies finding mixed results, as reviewed by Baylor College of Medicine professor Dennis M. Bier, MD, in a September 2016 Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition study. The same holds true with respect to some other chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

And because palmitic acid is a type of saturated fat, healthcare professionals have long cautioned against eating too much. However, the authors of a systematic review evaluating the effects of palm oil on the risk for heart disease found a lack of strong evidence to either support or refute such an association, as reported in the journal PLOS One in February 2018. The researchers point out that failure to establish a clear association could be due to the fact that palm oil is added to many foods, making it challenging to accurately determine true dietary intake and possible risks. Simply put, it's complicated.

However, eating too many calories and unhealthy carbs, as well as living a sedentary lifestyle, can cause the body to produce more palmitic acid, potentially leading to conditions such as high blood sugar and dangerous accumulation of fat around major organs, according to the November 2017 report. Eating omega-3-rich foods may help balance the ratio.

Rather than focusing on your intake of specific fats, like palmitic acid, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a food-based approach to achieve a healthful amount and variety of fats in your diet. This includes enjoying fatty fish, nuts and seeds, lean meats and poultry, low-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes regularly.

And don't fear coconut if you like cooking with the flavorful oil! Coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil all come from palm trees but their fatty acid composition differs substantially. While paltimic acid is the most abundant fat in palm oil, lauric acid — which can raise the good HDL cholesterol — is the predominant fatty acid in both coconut and palm kernel oils.

Tip

Speak with your doctor about dietary fat recommendations for you depending on your specific circumstances, including any ongoing medical conditions or health challenges.

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