by Catherine M. Haug, December 2006; updated January 2007, January 2008, and April 2019 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)
The first indictment of saturated fat was made by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1953. In comparing data on fat intake and mortality from six countries, he noted that Americans ate the most fat and had the highest death rate from coronary heart disease (CHD); the Japanese ate the least fat and had the fewest deaths from CHD. His paper sent alarm through American medical ranks. While many questioned his findings, within just a few years, Dr. Keys’ conclusions were accepted as fact by the American Heart Association (and soon after by the medical community at large), and saturated fats were demonized.
But we now know they were wrong.
- Includes: 1. Indictment; 2. The Big Dupe; 3. Debunking the Big Dupe; 4. Will the Real Bad Fat Please Stand Up? 5. Conflicting Evidence; 6. The Bad and Good Raps; A Summary
- See also: 1. About Fats, an Introduction. 2. Fats and Fatty Acids; 3.
- Saturated Fats Part 1: The Good Rap; 4. Saturated Fats Part 3: A Bad Rap; 4. Chemically-Altered Fats; 5. Artificial Trans-Fats no longer Recognized as Safe
- Cat’s related articles on The EssentiaList: 3. Butter (and other saturated fats) is a health food! (2014); 4. Love your Butter (2010); 5. Artificial Trans-Fats no longer Recognized as Safe (2018)
What Are Saturated Fats? A Review
Saturated Fats are a type of fat found mostly in animals and tropical plants (palm and coconut). Their fatty acid chains have no ‘double bonds’ between carbons, and thus are not as vulnerable to attack by oxidizing agents. They are solid at room temperature, but melt upon heating, and do not readily become rancid. For more, refer to Saturated Fats Part 1: Intro.
As mentioned above, Dr. Ancel Keys was the first to indict saturated fat as the cause of coronary heart disease.
However, it is important to note that his study looked at data from only 6 countries: USA, Canada, Australia, England, Italy and Japan. What about the statistics for another 16 countries, which was available to him at that time? Why didn’t he consider these?
Perhaps it was because that additional data would have revealed huge flaws in his analysis.
- The apparent link between saturated fat intake and CHD would have been broken. For example, Finland’s death rate from CHD was at that time 24 times that of Mexico, although fat-consumption rates in the two nations were almost identical.
- Two seemingly related events do NOT prove cause. Could it not be that something else, yet unobserved and unmeasured is the missing link? For example, Americans also watched more TV than other nations; consumed more sugar and white bread; and ate more manufactured fat (margarine, Crisco).
For more on this, refer to a recent MSNBC article (9), or read my condensed version of the original article titled: What if Bad Fat Isn’t So Bad? on the subject of Saturated Fats.
The Big Dupe
We have been led to believe that saturated fats are bad for our health; that they lead to clogged arteries, heart disease, and heart attacks. But we have been duped.
Indeed, a 2006 Associated Press article: “One High-Saturated Fat Meal Can Be Bad,” by Joe Milicia, August 7, 2006 claims that a recent Australian study proves that saturated fats cause inflammatory damage to blood vessels within hours of ingestion.
A study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine claims to have proven that a meal high in fats, especially saturated animal fats, (as opposed to high-carb) reduces endothelial function of a major artery, which indicates that high-fat consumption is bad for health.
However, careful analysis of the Australian study and its conclusions do not support this claim. For more on this, please read the article by Chris Masterjohn: “Saturated Fat Attack (2D).”
Similarly, an analysis of the Maryland study’s results actually indicate just the opposite of its conclusions, when one looks at the effect of each diet on serum cholesterol and glucose levels. Furthermore, the decreased endothelial function after the high-fat meal could have been caused by dietary factors other than the level of fat in the diet; for example, by the higher amount of MSG and trans fats present in this particular high fat diet. For more on this, please read Mary G. Enig’s article: “An Example of Junk Science.” (2C)
The primary study cited as proof that saturated animal fats and cholesterol lead to heart disease, the Framingham Heart Study (1948 – 1988), actually proved just the opposite: the more saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories one consumed, the lower the person’s cholesterol, body weight, and the greater the person’s physical activity! While the study did show that those who weighed more and had abnormally high blood cholesterol levels were slightly more at risk for future heart disease, it also revealed that weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with fat and cholesterol intake in the diet. (1)
Debunking the Big Dupe
If, as we have been told, heart disease is caused by consumption of saturated animal fats, one would expect that the disease would have all but disappeared during the 20th century, as Americans replaced saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in their diet.
However, the opposite is true. Between 1910 (when the disease was extremely rare) and 1970 (when heart disease was responsible for over 40% of all American deaths), the percentage of animal fat in the American diet declined from 83 to 62%. In that same period, butter consumption declined from 18 to 4 pounds/year/person –a 77% decrease– as margarine replaced butter at the dinner table. Indeed, between 1900 and 1980, there was a 400% increase in the consumption of dietary vegetable oils (margarine, shortening, and refined cooking and salad oils). (1)
In a multi-year study of several thousand British men:
- Half (Group A) were asked to:
- reduce saturated fat and cholesterol in their diets,
- stop smoking, and
- increase consumption of unsaturated oils such as margarine and vegetable oils.
- The other half (Group B) continued to eat and smoke as they had always done.
- Half (Group A) were asked to:
After one year, those in Group A (the so-called ‘Good’ diet) had 100% more deaths than those in Group B (the so-called ‘Bad’ diet), in spite of the fact that those on the “bad” diet continued to smoke! And yet the study concluded “The implication for public health policy in the UK is that a preventive programme such as we evaluated in this trial [that consumed by Group A] is probably effective…”.(1)
Will the Real ‘Bad Fat’ Please Stand Up?
If one analyzes the composition of artery clogs, it is revealed that only about 26% is saturated fat. The other 74% is unsaturated fat, of which more than half is polyunsaturated fat. (1)
The dietary “experts” (The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs) all claim that animal fat is linked with both heart disease and cancers of various types. Yet when researchers from the University of Maryland examined the data used to make such claims, they found that vegetable fat consumption was correlated with high rates of cancer, and animal fat was not. (1)
I do not intend to discredit the importance of unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in food; nor indeed of saturated fats. Instead, I think its a question of dietary balance, and I do intend to discredit hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated polyunsaturated fats in foods.
There is a lot of controversy about the relative effect of saturated fatty acids on human health, primarily because the producers of vegetable oils want us to believe that vegetable oils, and products derived from vegetable oils, are better for us than products containing animal fats.
First they told us saturated fats are bad while partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils are good for us. And then we learn that the latter is high in trans fats, now known to be very toxic.
Now they tell us that complete hydrogenation of vegetable oils, a process that converts them to saturated fats like stearic and palmitic acid, are good for us. Yet animal-derived stearic and palmitic acids are still considered bad? Does this even make sense? Only if you are BIG-AG and want to promote your vegetable oil products at the expense of animal products.
- On one hand, research has shown that long-chain saturated fats (like stearic and palmitic acids) do not raise LDL cholesterol relative to oleic acid (the cholesterol-neutral monosaturated C-18 fat dominant in olive oil), unlike the shorter-chain myristic and lauric acids. 7 It is also observed that C18 stearic acid more readily converts (oxidizes) to C18 oleic acid than C16 palmitic acid converts to C16 palmitoleic acid in humans. 8
- On the other hand, a 1999 review of data on over 80,000 subjects from the Nurses’ Health Study indicates that controlled intake of short- to medium-chain saturated fatty acids (C4 – C10) were not significantly associated with the risk of CHD (coronary heart disease), while intakes of longer-chain saturated fatty acids (C12 – C18) were each separately associated with a small increase in risk. 9
What is one to think?
We do know that the shorter-chain saturated fats (C4 – C12) are digested and metabolized differently than the longer-chain fats.
- The longer chain fats (C14 and longer) require bile salts for digestion, whereas shorter chain fats (C4 – C10) such as those from butterfat, coconut and palm oils are removed from the glyceride backbone without the need of bile salts. These shorter chain fats are also shuttled directly to the liver without being incorporated into chylomicrons for blood transport, as are the longer chain fats. 3
- Mitochondria – compartments within the cells where energy is produced – prefer the short chain fats for energy production during coronary artery constriction. Longer chain fats require active transport (by proteins) across the mitochondrial membrane, but the short chain fats bypass this active transport. 10
Bad and God Raps, about Butter and other Saturated Animal Fats: A Summary
The information in this section was originally part of my 2014 article on The EssentiaList: Butter (and other saturated fats) is a health food! (17)
The Bad Rap
The conclusions drawn from 20th century studies on fats and heart health were wrong on at least 2 fronts:
Front #1: To study saturated fats (pre-1957), they used vegetable fats that were hydrogenated, rather than natural saturated fats such as those found in lard or coconut oil. And, as it turns out, those hydrogenated vegetable fats were not hydrogenated to saturated fat, but rather partially-hydrogenated to trans fats, which we now know to be responsible for the negative effects on heart health that the researchers incorrectly blamed on saturated fats like butter.
Front #2: They observed the effect of different types of cholesterol on the heart’s arteries and determined that LDL cholesterol was responsible for the accumulation of plaque in the arteries, that eventually leads to obstructions and heart attacks. But they now know there are at least two types of LDL:
- Small, dense LDL – the actual culprit in arterial plaque; and
- Large, fluffy LDL – ‘benign’ and not the culprit in arterial plaque.
Guess which one increases with butter and other saturated fats in the diet? The large, fluffy ones.
The Good Rap
Headlines around the world are announcing “Butter is Back” after articles published in: the journal Annals of Internal Medicine (11) and Medical News Today (12) were lauded in Time Magazine (14), NBC’s Today Show (15, includes video), and Mercola (16).
These follow the publication of an article in the New York Times (13) by researcher Dr. Fred Kummerow, who has been studying the effect of different lipids (including fats and cholesterol) on health for 80 years. He was the first to alert people to the problem of trans fats in margarine and vegetable shortening, in 1957!
One caveat: To be most healthful, all dairy including butter should be from grass-fed/pasture-raised livestock. Most national brands feed their cows grain/soy feed that is not natural for dairy livestock and is likely GMO. The best butter is homemade, from the raw or cultured cream of grass-fed dairy animals.
So, where did ‘science’ go wrong in pointing the finger at saturated fats, and why?
Now that we can see that perhaps the experts have been leading us astray, we can examine what good things saturated fats do for us. Refer to:
- Saturated Fats Part 1: The Good Rap.
- Saturated Fats Part 3: A Bad Rap: last section, titled, ” Cat’s understanding of where Science went wrong.”
- Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary G, Enig, pH.D
- Weston A. Price Foundation:
- (2) westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/import_sat_fat.html by Mary G. Enig, PhD
- (2) westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/fat_absorption.html by Mary G. Enig, PhD
- (3)westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/fats_junkscience.html by Mary G. Enig, PhD
- (4) westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/saturated-fat-attack.html by Chris Masterjohn
- (5) Coconut: In support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary G. Enig, PhD
- (6) alternative-healthzine.com/html/0108_2.html by Brian Shilhavy
- (7) ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/60/6/986S
- (8) Wikipedia: Stearic acid (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stearic_acid
- (9) ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/70/6/1001
- (10) Mitochondrial Preference for Short Chain Fatty Acid Oxidation … (pdf file)
- (11) msnbc.msn.com/id/22116724
- Milicia, Joe, “One High-Saturated Fat Meal Can Be Bad,” Associated Press. Carried by the Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/07/AR2006080700905.html. Published August 7, 2006. [Cat’s note: that original Washington Post article link no longer works.]
- Annals of Internal Medicine (annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1846638)
- Medical News Today, March 18, 2014 (medicalnewstoday.com/articles/274166.php)
- New York Times, December 16.2013 (nytimes.com/2013/12/17/health/a-lifelong-fight-against-trans-fat.html?_r=1&)
- Time Magazine, June 12, 2014 (time.com/?pcd=hp-magmod#2863227/ending-the-war-on-fat
- NBC Today: Ending the war on butter: Are fatty foods really OK to eat? June 12, 2014 (today.com/health/ending-war-butter-are-fatty-foods-really-ok-eat-2D79795749)
- Mercola, Butter is Back (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/06/23/butter-trans-fat.aspx)
- The EssentiaList: essentialstuff.org/2014/06/23/Cat/butter-and-other-saturated-fats-is-a-health-food/
- A New Look at Coconut Oil by Mary Enig PhD
- Philip Dickey article for Green Alternatives magazine, May/June 1992 from www.dld123.com/q&a/index.php?cid=94