Nutrition Trends: Don't Fear Tropical Oils

Dr. Mark Anthony puts tropical oils in their proper nutritional perspective.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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It used to be if we wanted to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease we were told to avoid fat like the plague. Low-fat products burst on the scene everywhere. People consumed mass quantities to avoid such high-fat "evils" as nuts, seeds and avocadoes.

Then we were told some fats are good. We need fats, and fat-free really isn't such a good idea after all. It was the type of fat that counted. Nuts were in; olive became the quintessential "good" salad oil. We were told instead to avoid saturated fats; they were on the hit list for raising cholesterol. At the top of the list in those days were tropical oils - specifically from coconut and palm.

Soon enough, the anti-carb fad took over and nobody was talking about fats except in reference to how good it was to eat bacon again, this time as a "health food." Now the low-carb fad is all but finished, and immediately on the heels of this event is the "Oust the Trans Fats!" revolution. In January, products with trans fats will have to carry a "warning" label, and so the rush is on for processors to replace them.

Ironically, the group that sounded the early warning system against saturated fats - Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) - was indirectly responsible for trans fats. Trans fats were, for the most part, created to replace saturated fats. To be fair, CSPI led the charge against dietary fats over 30 years ago.

In June, CSPI issued a report titled, "Cruel Oil: Palm Oil's Impact on Health and Environment." But do tropical oils deserve to be there? Have we drawn the "evil" circle a little too wide again?

One of the reasons we may have an natural affinity for tropical oils is that they are rich in medium-chain triglycerides. These are fats whose saturated fatty acids are readily used as energy. (In addition, red palm oil is rich in beta-carotene, a highly beneficial antioxidant found in green and orange vegetables.) Macadamia nuts and brazil nuts are both tropical and have some saturated fat. But they are high in antioxidants and minerals.

Despite how they are portrayed, the purpose of tropical oils in nature was not to raise cholesterol so the human population could be reduced. In fact, populations such as the Polynesian Puka Puka and Tokelau islanders maintain remarkably low rates of heart disease despite obtaining most of their fat calories from coconut oil. That's consistent with studies from Ohio State University which compared the effects of different types of saturated fatty acids on lipoprotein metabolism.

When cholesterol and unsaturated fat intake was consistent with amounts found in the American diet, it didn't matter much whether added saturated fat came from the type of fatty acids found in tropical oils verses those from butterfat or the saturated fats found in beef. In fact, similar to results in other studies, tropical oils have been found to raise HDL cholesterol!

When we put tropical oils into a healthy, realistic fat-eating perspective, they don't appear to be much of a threat at all.

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