Saturated Fats, Part 1: The Good Rap

By Cat, December 2006; updated January 2007, January 2008, and April 2019 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia commons)

Wet-rendered lard from pork fatback

Before we can discuss intelligently about whether saturated fats are good or bad for human health, we must first understand what they are and where they are found.

And then investigate how they got such a bad reputation to get at the truth.

Saturated Fat: Deficiency Issues

See About Fats (Introduction) for more detail about what fats are (molecularly), and the different types of fats (saturated, unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated).

What happens when there is a dietary deficiency of saturated fats?  A study involving fatty acid composition of T-cells (white blood cells) from both young and old donors is a good example.  When the subjects were fed a diet deficient in saturated fats, the lymphocytes underwent age-related declines in their function.  This situation could be corrected when palmitic and myristic acids – saturated fatty acids –  were added to the diet (2A). 

Studies on dolphins (13C, 14) adds further evidence that saturated fats (such as those present in milk, cream and butter) may prevent or reverse insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes

Merocla asserts that 50% of the fats in your diet should be saturated – contrary to current popular belief. See Coconut OIl for a Healthy Heart (13A) for more.

Common Saturated Fats and Fatty Acids

Fats, as triglycerides, are the form found in foods (oil, butter, lard, suet, etc.) and in your body’s fat tissues (but fatty acids are the form found in cell membranes). Saturated fats are rarely made up entirely of saturated fatty acids, but several are mostly comprised of saturated fatty acids including the following fats/oils:

  • Coconut oil (86% saturated, 6% mon-unsaturated, and 2% polyunsaturated)
  • Butter (51% saturated, 21% mon-unsaturated, and 3% polyunsaturated)
  • Palm oil (49% saturated, 37% mon-unsaturated, and 9% polyunsaturated)
  • Duck and goose fat (35% saturated, 52% monounsaturated, 13% polyunsaturated)

Common saturated fatty acids found in fats

Stearic Acid

Stearic acid is a long-chain, C18* saturated fatty acid found in plant foods such as cocoa and cocoa butter, and in beef and mutton tallows.

Stearic acid made in an industrial setting by fully-hydrogenating oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated C18 fatty acid prevalent in olive oil and other sources) has been deemed ‘healthful’ by the vegetarian/vegan authorities. Yet they condemn naturally-occuring stearic acid present in vegan oils like coconut oil and cocoa butter as well as animal sources, because they believe natural soured stearic acid to cause heart disease. This does not make sense to me

* C18 means 18 carbons in the fatty acid chain. This type of nomenclature is common in discussion of fatty acids. Another example, C16, means 16 carbons in the fatty acid chain.

Heptadacanoic Acid

This is a long-chain, C17 saturated fatty acid found in certain fish and dairy, and used for the dolphin studies regarding prevention/reversal of insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes (13C, 14). Butter is a good source for humans.

Palmitic Acid

Palmitic acid is long-chain, C16 saturated fatty acid found in palm oil (45% of content) and animal, dairy fat (roughly 25% of content), beef tallow, and meats (red meat, chicken and wild game). It is also found in oils from plants, such as palm oil (for which palmitic acid is named), and seed oils such as cottonseed oil.

Our bodies make palmitic acid out of excess dietary sugars and protein, for storage in fatty tissues. It is used for stabilization functions, especially in cell membranes.

Myristic Acid

Myristic acid is a medium-chain, C14, saturated fatty acid found in coconut oil and dairy fat (butterfat).  It is part of the alpha subunit of G-protein receptors.  It is used to stabilize many different proteins, including those used in the immune system, and to fight tumors.  If it is not available in the diet, the body goes without, since no other fat can substitute; this can have dire consequences, including cancer and immune system dysfunction (2A). [Interesting note: Myristic acid is often an ingredient in skin moisturizers and emollients.]

Lauric Acid

Lauric acid is a medium-chain, C12, saturated fatty acid found in mother’s milk, coconut milk, coconut oil, and dairy fat.  It has antimicrobial properties, both as a free fatty acid and also as a monoglyceride (monolaurin).  It cannot be made by the body (except in mammary glands of nursing mothers) and so is considered an essential fat.  Like myristic acid, it is used to stabilize many specific proteins in the body; without this stabilization, the protein cannot function properly (2A).

Monolaurin is the mono-glyceride formed with glycerol and a single fatty acid, lauric acid.  It has strong antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-protozoal  properties, active in destroying (2C):

  • Lipid-coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, and influenza;
  • Various pathogenic bacteria including listeria monocyogenes (implicated in lysteriosis) and heliobacter pylori (implicated in stomach ulcers); and
  • Protozoa such as giardia lamblia.

“Coconut oil was heavily used in the US at one time, being used for baking, pastries, frying, and theater popcorn. But starting in the 1980s some very powerful groups in the US, including the American Soybean Association (ASA), the Corn Products Company (CPC International) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) [aided by the US FDA], began categorically to condemn all saturated oils. Faulty science was used to convince the public that ALL saturated fats were unhealthy, when in fact saturated fats rich in the medium chain fatty acids, like lauric acid, are very healthy.” (2C)  More information at Coconut Info.com (5). Also refer to my article on Tropical Oils.

Butyric Acid

Butyric acid is a short-chain, C4  fatty acid present in butterfat, and has a strong odor of rancid butter (when butterfat becomes rancid, the butyric acid is hydrolized from the glycerol backbone, emitting it’s fragrance).  It is produced by bacterial fermentation of non-digestible carbohydrates (fiber) in the large intestine. (C2 acetate, and C3 propionate are also produced by this fermentation).  It is also one of the products formed by the kombucha mushroom fermentation, in kombucha tea.

Butyric acid is a very important fatty acid, especially in the gut and liver. It is a recommended supplement when doing any type of detox.

According to Mercola (13B), Butyric acid acts as a modulator of genetic regulation, and helps to prevent cancer.

Debunking The Bad Rap

Back in the 1960s, saturated fats were declared un-healthful because they caused heart disease and other issues. Actually, that started a few decades earlier, but it really went mainstream in the ’60s. everyone started replacing lard with vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, etc.) for frying, or with vegetable shortening (think Crisco) for baking. And the replaced butter with margarine.

Did that reduce the incidence of heart disease? No. In fact, it increased. But still people believed saturated fats were bad bad bad.

That all started to change in the 21st century as science found errors and mis-interpretations of data in the research publications that supported the premise that saturated fats are bad for health.  See my postings on The EssentiaList: Love your Butter (Dec 2010) and Butter (and other saturated fats) is a health food! (June 2014) for more.

And now, Mercola reports Saturated Fat Finally Vindicated in Long Buried [40-year old] Study (17); see also Re-evaluation of the traditional diet-heart hypothesis: analysis of recovered data from Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968-73) (15).

The Good Rap

Now lets explore the good things saturated fats do for us:

  • Cellular health:  Saturated fats constitute at least 50% of the cell membranes, providing stiffness and integrity for proper function (1);
  • Bone health:  for calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50% of dietary fats should be saturated (1). Saturated fats are essential for the ability to absorb minerals such as calcium from our foods (13C).
  • Digestive health:  Saturated fats are used for signaling activities that, for example, tell the gastrointestinal musculature when to contract (to move digesting food along) (2A). They also promote satiety to prevent over-eating (13C).
  • Brain Health: saturated fats are the optimal source of fuel for brain activities (13C)
  • Coronary artery health: Saturated fats lower Lipoprotein-A, a type of LDL cholesterol that indicates proneness to heart disease (1);
  • Heart health:  The fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated (stearic acid and palmitic acid).  The heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress (1);
  • Liver health:  Saturated fats protect the liver from alcohol & other toxins (like Tylenol) (1);
  • Immune system support (1);
  • Essential for fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K): Saturated fat is the only carrier for these vitamins from your gut to your cells, and is needed for conversion of beta-carotene (from plants) to vitamin A (in animals). (13C)
  • Signaling processes, such as the on/off switches associated with membrane receptors (for example, the insulin receptors) (2A). For more on this, see below;
  • Fat utilization: Support proper utilization of essential Omega-3 fatty acids (1);
  • Antimicrobial properties:  Saturated fats like butyric acid (from bovine butterfat), capric acid (from goat butterfat), and lauric acid (from coconuts) all protect us from viruses, yeasts and pathogenic bacteria in the gut (1). Caprylic acid is an anti-viral and anti-fungal e.g., anti-candida) agent (13C).
  • Boosting metabolism through ketogenesis: Medium-chain fats (MCTs) such as those in coconut oil and raw milk are known to stimulate ketogenesis and boost metabolism, to help with weight loss (11).
  • Cancer prevention: Butyric acid (from which butter gets its name) modulates genetic regulation and helps prevent cancer (13C).

Signaling Processes

As mentioned above, certain saturated fatty acids (C16 palmitic acid, C14 myristic acid and C12 lauric acid.) are involved in turning membrane receptors on and off.  Sensors on the outside of the cell membrane, typically G-proteins which involve a linkage to myristic acid, react to the presence of certain substances in the cell’s environment, for example, adrenaline and insulin. When the substance is present, the sensor causes the receptor to turn on, allowing the substance to bind to the receptor.  This binding, in turn, sets off another signal to the interior of the cell, which in turn causes the cell to act in a particular way:

  • Consequences of adrenalin binding to the adrenalin receptor include the entire adrenaline response:  the heart beats faster, the blood flow to the gut decreases while the blood flow to the muscles increases, and the production of glucose is stimulated (to feed the muscles); all of this is to allow the body to fight or run.
  • Consequences of insulin binding to the insulin receptor are described in my articles on Insulin Resistance (see Sources, from my old iWeb site, #1, below)

An insufficiency in these specific medium-chain fatty acids can interfere with this important function. Fortunately, the body can make these fatty acids from sugars and some proteins in the diet, as long as the necessary enzymes are present.

Sources

From my old iWeb site:

  1. These links are on my old health articles site, which will eventually be moved to a WordPress blog:
    1. Insulin Resistance Menu (in Health-Disease section), including
    2. Insulin, Insulin Resistance, and Metabolic Syndrome:  An Overview and
    3. Insulin Resistance: A Look at Causes.

General References:

  1. Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary G, Enig, pH.D
  2. Mary G. Enig, PhD
    1. (2) westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/import_sat_fat.html
    2. (2) westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/fat_absorption.html
    3. (5) Coconut: In support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary G. Enig, PhD (coconutoil.com/coconut_oil_21st_century.htm)
  3. (3) An Example of Junk Science, by Mary G. Enig, PhD (westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/fats_junkscience.html)
  4. (4) Chris Masterjohn article: westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/saturated-fat-attack.html 
  5. (6) Brian Shilhavy article: alternative-healthzine.com/html/0108_2.html
  6. (7) ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/60/6/986S
  7. Wikipedia on:
    1. (8) Stearic acid (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stearic_acid)
    2. (13) Lard (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lard)
  8. (9) ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/70/6/1001
  9. (10) Mitochondrial Preference for Short Chain Fatty Acid Oxidation … (pdf file) (circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/105/3/367.pdf)
  10. (11) msnbc.msn.com/id/22116724
  11. (12) mynchen.demon.co.uk/Ketogenic_diet/Supplements/MCT_oil.htm
  12. (13)Wikipedia on Lard (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lard)
  13. Mercola
    1. (14) on Coconut Oil for a Healthy Heart (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/05/31/coconut-oil-for-healthy-heart.aspx)
    2. (15) on Fat for hunger pangs (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/06/15/fat-all-the-same-for-stopping-hunger-pangs.aspx)
    3. (16) on saturated fats and type-2 diabetes (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/08/10/saturated-fat-helps-avoid-diabetes.aspx)
    4. (17) on vindication of saturated fats (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/04/25/saturated-fat-finally-vindicated.aspx)
  14. (18) Dolphin studies regarding saturated fats in diet: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26200116 and sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150722144627.htm
  15. (19) Article in BMJ by (bmj.com/content/353/bmj.i1246_Christopher E Ramsden, medical investigator, et. al.

Related Articles

  1. A New Look at Coconut Oil by Mary Enig PhD
  2. Philip Dickey article for Green Alternatives magazine, May/June 1992 from www.dld123.com/q&a/index.php?cid=94

About Cat

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