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The Saturated Fat Monster

Updated on March 14, 2013
Darth Vader, of Star Wars fame
Darth Vader, of Star Wars fame | Source

Basic fat terminology

We Americans love our heroes, and we love to hate our villains. Health authorities are all too happy to cater to these tastes. Willy-nilly, the legend of the Saturated Fat Monster has gained a cult following, rivaling that of Darth Vader himself.

But before we examine the reality behind the image, here's a little background on the chemical terminology that we'll use. The carbon-carbon bonds in food are classified as covalent; i.e. they share electrons. In this context, an ordinary single bond is a pair of electrons shared by two neighboring carbon atoms. A double bond is similar, but with four shared electrons, rather than two.

Basically, a fat molecule--also known as a triglyceride--consists of three fatty acid subunits, which are joined to a smaller glycerin subunit. Some health mavens claim that animal fats are saturated. However this is not entirely accurate. Most animal fats--including those from red meat--contain all three major categories of fatty acids.

These include saturated fatty acids, which have no carbon-carbon double bonds; monounsaturated fatty acids (having only one carbon-carbon double bond); and PUFAs, or polyunsaturated fatty acids (having two or more carbon-carbon double bonds). The fat from red meat does contain a lower proportion of unsaturated fat than soybean oil, for example. So much for nomenclature.

Chicken Fried Bacon--with gravy, of course. This has got to be the ultimate backlash against Politically Correct cuisine.
Chicken Fried Bacon--with gravy, of course. This has got to be the ultimate backlash against Politically Correct cuisine. | Source
Butyric acid is a relatively benign saturated fatty acid. However high concentrations of free butyric acid are pretty stinky!
Butyric acid is a relatively benign saturated fatty acid. However high concentrations of free butyric acid are pretty stinky! | Source
Yours truly
Yours truly | Source

Risks and benefits of fats

The two most common saturated fatty acids in the American diet are stearic acid (having 18 carbon atoms per molecule) and palmitic acid (16 carbons). Yes, excessive palmitic acid consumption can contribute to arterial plaque. Conventional wisdom is correct about that one specific point. On the other hand, current research suggests that stearic acid is as benign as the monounsaturated oleic acid in olive oil.

If a given food fat contains one of these saturated fatty acids, it will also contain the other. However the relative proportions vary. Does the stearic acid in food fat partially cancel out the bad effects of palmitic acid? We don't know yet.

Similarly, can increasing ones consumption of PUFAs (from fish oil, certain nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils) partially cancel out the bad effects of palmitic acid? If so, to what extent? There's some suggestive preliminary research in this area.

Caprylic acid, aka octanoic acid (8 carbons) is a slightly less-common saturated fatty acid. There's been some good press about this and other medium chain saturated fatty acids in MCTs (medium chain triglycerides). MCTs are found in coconut oil and in real butter. Do the good effects of the MCTs in butter cancel out the bad effects of the palmitic acid?
We don't know yet.

Speaking of butter, let's not forget about butyric acid (4 carbons). This short-chain saturated fatty acid is a component of butter fat. Preliminary research suggests that it encourages some types of cancer cells to undergo apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Some friendly bacteria in your digestive tract 'eat' dietary fiber, and manufacture butyric acid. This may partially explain the mildly anti-carcinogenic effect of adequate fiber in the diet.

Are saturated fats 'bad for you'? Current research suggests that saturated fatty acids are a mixed bag. Some of them are OK, and others are less than OK. Ditto for unsaturated fats. Since most physicians don't have time to keep current on nutrition, they keep repeating platitudes from the 1970s about the Saturated Fat Monster.

Here's my take on the politics of saturated fats: For many years, propagandists from the vegetable oil industry have trounced the propagandists from the dairy and red meat industries. I regard meat as a quantitative health issue, rather than a qualitative one.

Margarine and shortening--and the snack foods that contain it--is another can of worms. The trans fatty acids therein, formed as by-products of the hydrogenation process, are unhealthful. Ironically, if the hydrogenation process was allowed to go to completion, we'd have essentially 100% stearic fat, which is OK from a health perspective. However this product would not have the world's best 'mouthfeel'.

By the way, the word "trans" describes a particular geometry of substituents about a carbon-carbon double bond. The word "cis" describes a different geometrical arrangement. Anyway, the trans fatty acids in margarine and shortening are unsaturated, by definition. Thus not all unsaturated fatty acids are 'good guys'.

Are all trans fatty acids necessarily bad? No. The conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) isomers found in beef, dairy, and egg fats have had some good press as potential anti-carcinogens. And for whatever it's worth, the CLA content of butterfat from exclusively grass-fed dairy cattle is substantially higher than average.

What about CLA supplements? I purchased some from a local health food store many years ago, and they turned out to be rancid. Yuck! Health food store owners need to be educated about the need to keep their CLA supplements refrigerated at all times. Until that happens, I cannot recommend these particular supplements.

Organic chemistry boffins will be interested to learn that the CLA, rumenic acid (also known as c9, t11 CLA), is simultaneously cis and trans. It has two carbon-carbon double bonds, with differing geometries.

A quaint superstition from the late 20th Century says that dietary fat is always 'bad for you'. First, if you follow a truly fat-free diet, with no 'cheating' and no 'oopsies', it will eventually kill you. Fortunately, it's extremely difficult to avoid fats entirely. Even organically grown brown rice contains a little fat. Most people can easily satisfy their need for essential fatty acids, like cis-linoleic acid, without eating a whole lot of fat.

Some people feel better eating a relatively small amount of fat. Others, including myself, function better with a moderately high fat intake. One size does not fit all.

Second, early studies showed that people could lose body fat in the short term, by cutting back on their dietary fat. Here's my educated guess about this preliminary result. Low-fat recipes don't taste as good as conventional recipes; so we're less tempted to 'pig out'.

Unfortunately, this research led to an 'arms race' between dieters and food technologists. The result: commercial 'diet' desserts--with extra sugars to partially compensate for the lower fat content--that are almost as yummy as conventional desserts. And dieters are back on Square One.

It's best not to get too concerned about the latest Scare of the Month Club article that comes down the pike. There's an old saying in the news biz: If it bleeds, it leads. More to the point, biomedical studies are all based upon measurements, and all measurements have varying degrees of uncertainty. There are at least three different approaches to studies on the effects of diet on health. And in two of them, there are potential method errors, in addition to the random errors associated with measurement.

1. Questionnaire-based surveys. Ask a large number of people about their dietary habits, and study specific aspects of their health over the years. Are the healthier people healthier because of their diets, or do they choose certain eating patterns because they're healthier to begin with?

2. Well-funded intervention studies. There's a control group that continues to eat what they're accustomed to, and an experimental group that's encouraged to make certain changes in their diets. Look at morbidity and mortality in both groups over a long period of time.

3. Intervention studies that are done 'on the cheap'. These are similar to the above, but the study is for a much shorter period of time. And the researchers look at selected biomarkers of the disease in question, rather than actual outcomes.

Type 3 studies are useful for suggesting more comprehensive Type 2 studies in the future. But as a practical matter, they should be taken with a grain of salt. As General Semantics buffs are quick to point out, the map is not the same thing as the territory.

Now let's return to the main topic. In addition to providing EFAs, common dietary fats slow down starch digestion, so that you're not ravenous two hours after breakfast. In the world of food, there are no heroes, and few villains--not even saturated fat.

Copyright 2011 and 2013 by Larry Fields


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    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Hi beingwell,

      Thanks for your comment. Great minds think alike. :)

    • beingwell profile image

      beingwell 5 years ago from Bangkok

      They are very taste, though. Just exercise daily and you'll be safe to eat moderate amounts of fat.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi, catsimmons. Thanks for your comment.

    • catsimmons profile image

      Catherine Simmons 6 years ago from Mission BC Canada

      Awesome hub, voted up, I could read you all day :-)

      In summary I think my Mother was right when she said "all things in moderation"!!

      Everyone is unique and we have to approach our nutrition in that way.

      The message I received loud and clear was that we should try and keep to natural products, because the impurities we introduce by processing food, that are often not even specified are the real "dark side"..

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Alan. Thanks for your input. It gives me an opportunity to clarify. There are probably some other readers who have questions that are similar to the ones that you raised.

      Please note hat I did not label Palmitic Acid as a 'bad guy'. However I did say that *excessive quantities* of PA can have bad cardiovascular effects. I'm reminded of an ancient saying: It's the dose that makes the poison.

      Here's an example. Some health mavens are enthusiastic about water, which we ordinarily think of as being a 'good guy'. As the old health platitude says, thou shalt drink at least 8 glasses of water every day.

      Now here's a thought-experiment. Someone parachutes into the middle of Lake Michigan, just after all of the Winter ice has melted. He has no special equipment, and is wearing only swim trunks. In light of this thought-experiment, does water in all quantities and under all circumstances still qualify as a 'good guy'?

      You are quite correct in pointing out that PA is found in some of the tissues of the human body. And that would be true even if we all ate healthful diets that were extremely low in PA, because most human bodies can manufacture all of the PA that they need 'from scratch'.

      What conclusion can we reasonably draw from that fact? PA is not a deadly poison under all circumstance, and in all quantities. Does this make PA a 'good guy'? No, it does not. Here's why.

      At any given time there's an optimal range for the blood level of PA. If one 'pigs out' on a high-palmitic fat, the concentration of PA in the blood will temporarily exceed the level that's optimal for good health.

      Scientists have looked at some of the consequences of a high-PA diet. At the moment, such a diet appears to be unhealthful for the cardiovascular system. However future research may paint a more complicated picture. My educated guess is that a relatively small amount of PA in the diet is safe for most people.

      Here's a link to the references section of the Wikipedia article on PA.

      Click on Reference Number 7. That will take you to a very long PDF from the World Health Organization. Although it's not the word of God, it's the best information that we have at the moment.

    • profile image

      Alan Watson 6 years ago

      I wonder - can saturated palmitic acid be bad? Sixty-eight percent of lung surfactant is palmitic acid. Also, palmitic acid is a stem fatty acid - the de novo fatty acid a healthy body makes. Also, to address physiological needs, our bodies can convert palmitic acid into monounsaturated oleic acid and, in turn, convert oleic into palmitic. As you point out, all food fats are combinations of different fatty acids - including palmitic. Palmitic deserves reconsideration; palmitic must be 'good.'

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Naomi's Banner. Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      jt walters 6 years ago

      Actually Larry, it was a family member i was caring for. I lost my family member but was able to postpone death for 2 years when she was only end stage without about out three months left.

      Actually my research went into to veterinarian medicine where they were able to induce Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease which caused cellular mutations and it is an ongoing reserach project to take live biopses of people with Cancer and see if this theroy fends out.

      I just thought you might have had some thoughts about NAFLD being the cause of cancers. But thanks for responding.

      All My Best,


    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi JT Walters. I'm sorry to hear about your medical situation.

      My brother, who is a licensed acupuncturist, takes the paradoxical view that everything is medicine, and that everything is poison! IOW, a given food or beverage can be helpful in one situation, and harmful in another situation.

      Some nutritional research focuses on what helps most healthy to stay healthy, without looking too closely at the underlying reasons. That's partly because the mechanics of the aging and disease processes are not well understood.

      We have a number of overlapping models. In chronological order, some of these are: Bjorksten's cross-linking hypothesis, Harmon's free radical hypothesis, Dilman's neuroendocrine hypothesis, and Pericone's inflammation hypothesis. Each of these makes general suggestions.

      Medical research is partly guided by theory, and partly by 'alchemy'. As an example of the latter, pharmaceutical companies are spending a lot of money on automated preliminary screening of plant extracts for anti-cancer properties. This approach has led to the discovery that taxol, originally from the Pacific Yew tree, is useful in treating breast cancer, for example.

      I'm glad that you've found a modality that's helpful for your health problem.

      Best wishes, Larry

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      You're a bio-chemist, JTWalters?

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 6 years ago from Florida

      This was an interesting read but I disagree on a few points. However it was well written. I have just finsihed end life Cancer care for which I am certain the etiology is Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease or NAFLD. I manage to prolong end stage life by manipulating fats which limited the spread of cancer. I paired sugras with MCT and complexed carbohydrates and I was relying heavily upon esterlys which is never written up as good fat.

      It would seem we are doing more harm to ourselves manufacturing foods than just eating what is fresh.

      So it is a well written article and if I hadn't spent the last decade of my life in biochemistry I would agree with everything you have written but I think you are missing the fact that Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease is causing mutations in the cells which lead to disease and specifically cancers. And when you are dealing with Cancer it is very important to manipulate the fats so the liver functiosn as normally as possible.

      But well written. Excellent article. Thumbs up!!

    • Naomi's Banner profile image

      Naomi's Banner 6 years ago from United States

      Good coverage on the makeup of fats. We definately need them in our diet but we just need to be aware of which ones are trouble and which ones and how much is needed in our daily diet. Thanks!

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi AliciaC. Thanks for stopping by.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for a very good and interesting overview of dietary fats. You've included some great information in this hub.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi WillStarr and denise.w.anderson. Thanks for the compliments.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 6 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I think it is funny that margarine was first invented because butter and lard were so "bad" and now, margarine has had such bad publicity that butter is making a comeback! Thanks for the science lesson!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Great stuff, Larry. I suspect you'll have a lot to say on topics like this one! Well done, and one to bookmark.