Palmitic Acid Benefits vs. Risks: What You Need to Know

Palmitic acid - Dr. Axe

Although saturated fats, such fatty acids like palmitic acid and stearic acid, often get a bad rap in terms of their health impact, there’s good reason to include them in your diet in moderate amounts. After all, fat is an essential macronutrient and has many functions.

For example, palmitic acid benefits include helping form cell membranes, lung secretions and signaling molecules, while also storing and utilizing energy within cells and modifying proteins.

While some saturated fat in your diet is overall supportive of cognitive, hormonal and metabolic health, there is the potential to consume too much. Your body can make more palmitic acid (PA) than is ideal if you consume a mostly unhealthy diet and aren’t very active, potentially leading to higher risk for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Below we’ll take a look at the roles that PA has, how it should be balanced with other healthy fats, and the best way to consume it and use it on your skin.

What Is Palmitic Acid?

Palmitic acid is defined as “a common saturated fatty acid found in fats and waxes including olive oil, palm oil, and body lipids.” PA also goes by a number of other names, including 1-hexyldecanoic acid, hexadecanoate and palmitate.

Palmitic acid (16:0, PA) is considered a long-chain fatty acid, which are acids that contain between 13 and 21 carbon atoms. PA has 16 carbons and is the first fatty acid produced during lipogenesis (fatty acid synthesis).

Where is palmitic acid found? It’s naturally found in animals (including humans) and in some plants.

Because it’s a fatty acid, you’ll find it in fat-containing plant foods including coconut oil, palm and palm kernel, olive and flaxseed oils, as well as animal-derived foods like meat and milk.

In the human body it is synthesized endogenously from other fatty acids, carbohydrates and amino acids — plus it is obtained from people’s diets. It’s actually the most common saturated fatty acid found in tissues within the human body, accounting for 20 percent to 30 percent of total fatty acid content.

Potential Benefits/Uses

Is it healthy or harmful to consume palmitic acid? Below are some potential palmitic acid benefits, as well as a few caveats.

1. Supports Cellular Functions

PA plays a critical role in supporting normal cellular membrane function, in addition to helping the body store energy to facilitate metabolic functions.

Some of its roles include providing membranes with essential characteristics for cell division, biological reproduction and intracellular membrane trafficking. It also helps create sphingolipids found in cell membranes that help protect brain and nerve cells.

In order for it to have positive effects on levels of inflammation — and to play a role in energy generation, protein modification and formation of membrane phospholipids — PA needs to be consumed in balance with unsaturated fatty acids, especially polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), such as linoleic acid.

PA seems to be safest when it is consumed as part of an overall healthy diet, as opposed to one that is high in processed foods. High levels of PA have potential to be problematic for human health when they result from a diet that has excessive amounts of sugar and carbohydrates, especially when someone also leads a sedentary lifestyle.

When someone’s diet contains too many calories in general, resulting in positive energy balance, this can also contribute to overly high levels of PA and increased visceral fat storage.

Overaccumulation of PA in human tissues can promote inflammation and lead to conditions such as fat gain, high cholesterol and high blood sugar — therefore obtaining the right ratio of PA to other fats in your diet is key.

2. Needed to Form Other Beneficial Fatty Acids

Findings on the effects of PA in people’s diets have been mixed overall. While many experts feel that consumption of medium-chain saturated fats (such as lauric acid, found in coconut oil) and monounsaturated fat (such as oleic acid, found in olive oil) is healthier than consumption of saturated fats, one potential benefit of consuming palmitic acid is that it helps make other beneficial fatty acids.

Palmitoleic acid (POA) is a type of n-7 monounsaturated fat that is not commonly found in foods but rather is a product of palmitic acid metabolism in the body. It’s been linked to protection against insulin resistance, inflammation and fat storage compared to long-chain saturated fatty acids.

In certain human and animal studies, palmitoleic acid has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and lipid-lowering effects.

Because it helps form POA, some studies have linked moderate PA consumption to prevention of metabolic syndrome, including cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance associated with diabetes and obesity, but others have found the opposite to be true.

While PA converting to POA can have some positive effects on metabolic markers, it can also potentially contribute to heart disease in some cases. When consumed in high amounts it seems capable of raising LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, potentially even more so than other saturated fatty acids.

Again, it all comes down to balance.

3. Supports Skin Health

What does palmitic acid do for skin? It’s been found to help heal some of the following skin issues:

  • Rash
  • Irritation and redness
  • Dryness
  • Insect bites

Palmitic acid is used in skin care mostly as an emollient and moisturizer — and sometimes also to help with cleansing. Its primary benefit for skin health is locking in moisture by forming a protective layer on the skin.

It may also have some antioxidant effects that protect against free radical damage and signs of aging. And finally, it can help remove dirt, sweat and oil from the skin by combining with dirt and oil molecules before they are washed away.

You’ll find PA in a variety of skin care products, including ointments, serums, soaps and facial cleansers.

Risks and Side Effects

Is palmitic acid harmful? It seems to be very safe for topical use and is unlikely to cause side effects in most people.

Overall, evidence suggests that it may be harmful to consume internally in high amounts, especially when taken alone in supplement form. A safer option seems to be consuming it from food sources, such as palm oil and coconut oil.

Although research focused on the association between consumption of saturated fats and increased risk for cardiovascular disease has come a long way in recent years, it’s still thought that a high-fat diet that includes lots of saturated fat and cholesterol may be risky for some.

Saturated fatty acids (lauric, myristic and palmitic acids) are known to raise blood cholesterol concentrations. Too much saturated fat in the diet is still believed by some experts to be an important precursor for the development of coronary heart disease.

There may also be potential for disruption of PA balance to contribute to physiopathological conditions — such as atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer — therefore it’s important to understand your personal risk and how you respond to different levels of fats in your diet.

The bottom line? PA may lead to detrimental health effects when consumed in excessive amounts and if there’s an imbalance of fats in someone’s diet (too much PA compared to monounsaturated fats and PUFAs like omega-3s, omega-6s, and other healthy fats).

What’s the best way to prevent this? Eat a diet containing a variety of whole foods, including healthy fats like coconut, avocado, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and grass-fed meats.

Foods and Sources

Is palmitic acid made from palm oil? Yes, it’s one major component of palm oil (the oil from the fruit of palm trees) and is also found in some other oils too, including soybean oil.

It accounts for an estimated 44 percent of total fats found in palm oil.

If you are going to use palm oil when cooking, you may want to opt for crude palm oil/red palm oil, which is extracted in a way that preserves its healthy beneficial compounds, such as triacylglycerols, vitamin E, carotenoids, phytosterols and phospholipids. It contains less palmitic acid that regular palm oil but is a healthy choice due to its other fats.

As mentioned above, PA is present in some animal products and some plants, including coconuts, cocoa and palm trees. Coconut oil, soybean oil and palm oil are often added to processed foods, so you’ll also find it in some packaged/processed foods, including:

  • cookies
  • biscuits
  • cakes
  • candies
  • cheese analogs
  • chips
  • chocolate
  • confectionary fats
  • crackers
  • peanut butter
  • frozen meals

PA can also be found in meat, butter, cheese and milk, accounting for about 50 percent to 60 percent of total fats, and is naturally present in human breast milk (20 percent to 30 percent of total fats).

The average intake of PA is estimated to be about 20 to 30 grams per day. There’s some evidence suggesting that even when people consume more from their diets, PA content within tissues in the human body stays relatively constant because it’s tightly controlled.

Higher intake is counterbalanced by PA endogenous biosynthesis, in which other fatty acids are made.

Aside from being found in some fat-containing foods, PA is added to a number of supplements and skin care products that can be used topically on the skin and also taken internally, including:

  • Borage oil capsules
  • Flaxseed oil capsules
  • Skin supplements containing vitamin E
  • Cleansers
  • Skin-brightening serums
  • Facial masks

Additionally, a modified version called sodium palmitate, which is obtained from palm oil, has several industrial uses and benefits for food manufacturing. It’s added to many types of soaps and also to fortified low-fat milk and some processed foods to improve the texture and “mouth feel.”

For example, one type called retinyl palmitate is a source of vitamin A that is added to reduced fat milk to help replace some of the lost vitamin content.

Conclusion

  • Palmitic acid (or palmitate) is a long-chain fatty acid that is found in foods containing saturated fat, such as palm oil, coconut oil and cocoa. It’s also made by the human body and found in animal foods, such as meat, butter, cheese and milk.
  • There seems to be both pros and cons of consuming this type of fat. Potential palmitic acid benefits include supporting skin health, having anti-inflammatory effects and potentially supporting metabolic health.
  • On the other hand, too much PA in proportion to other healthy fats may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s important to consume PA in balance with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats for the most benefits.

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