By Dr. Atli Arnarson
The health effects of saturated fats are a controversial topic. In the past, saturated fat was widely believed to be a major cause of heart disease. Today, scientists are not so sure.
However, one thing is clear: saturated fat is not a single nutrient. It is a group of different fatty acids with varying effects on health and metabolism.
This article takes a detailed look at the most common saturated fatty acids, their health effects and dietary sources.
What Is Saturated Fat?
Saturated fat is one of the two main classes of fat, the other being unsaturated fat.
These groups differ slightly in their chemical structure and properties. For instance, saturated fat is generally solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fat is liquid.
The main dietary sources of saturated fat are fatty meat, lard, tallow, cheese, butter, cream, coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter.
All fats are composed of molecules called fatty acids, which are chains of carbon atoms. The different types of saturated fatty acids can be distinguished by the length of their carbon chains.
Here are the most common saturated fatty acids in the human diet:
- Stearic acid: 18 carbon atoms long
- Palmitic acid: 16 carbon atoms long
- Myristic acid: 14 carbon atoms long
- Lauric acid: 12 carbon atoms long
- Capric acid: 10 carbon atoms long
- Caprylic acid: 8 carbon atoms long
- Caproic acid: 6 carbon atoms long
It's rare to find saturated fatty acids other than these in the diet.
Saturated fatty acids that are less than six carbon atoms long are collectively known as short-chain fatty acids.
These are produced when gut bacteria ferment fiber. They are created in your gut from the fiber you eat and can also be found in trace amounts in some fermented food products.
Bottom Line: Saturated fatty acids are one of the two major categories of fat. Common dietary saturated fatty acids include stearic acid, palmitic acid, myristic acid and lauric acid.
How Does Saturated Fat Affect Health?
Most scientists now accept that saturated fats are not as unhealthy as previously assumed.
This doesn't necessarily mean that saturated fats are unhealthy. It simply suggests that certain unsaturated fats are protective, while saturated fats are neutral.
In comparison, replacing saturated fat with carbs doesn't provide any health benefits and even impairs the blood lipid profile. This is a measurement of the levels of lipids in your blood, such as cholesterol and triglycerides (5).
Although it is clear that some saturated fats may raise the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the association between cholesterol levels and heart disease is a bit more complex than that.
For more information on the issue, read this article.
Bottom Line: Saturated fats are not as harmful as previously believed. Growing evidence suggests there are no strong links between saturated fat and heart disease.
1. Stearic Acid
Stearic acid, which consists of 18 carbon atoms, is the second most common saturated fat in the American diet (8).
Compared with carbs or other saturated fats, stearic acid lowers the "bad" LDL cholesterol slightly or has neutral effects. This suggests it may be healthier than many other saturated fats (9, 10, 11).
Research shows that stearic acid is partly converted to oleic acid, a healthy unsaturated fat, within the body. However, according to some estimates, the conversion rate is only 14 percent and may not have much relevance to health (12, 13).
The main dietary source of stearic acid is animal fat. The levels of stearic acid are usually low in plant fat, with the exception of coconut oil, cocoa butter and palm kernel oil.
Stearic acid is considered a healthy saturated fat.
It does not appear to raise the risk of heart disease. This seemed to be true even in a study of people whose stearic acid intake constituted up to 11 percent of their total calorie intake for 40 days (9).
Bottom Line: Stearic acid is the second most common saturated fat in the American diet. It appears to have neutral effects on the blood lipid profile.
2. Palmitic Acid
Palmitic acid is the most common saturated fat in plants and animals. It is 16 carbon atoms long.
In 1999, palmitic acid made up an estimated 56.3 percent of the total saturated fat intake in the U.S. (8).
The richest dietary source is palm oil, but palmitic acid also makes up approximately a quarter of the fat in red meat and dairy, as shown in the chart below.
Compared to carbs and unsaturated fats, palmitic acid raises the levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol without affecting the levels of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (9, 11, 14).
High levels of LDL cholesterol are a well-known risk marker of heart disease.
Although palmitic acid raises the levels of total LDL cholesterol, this is mainly due to an increase in large LDL particles. Many researchers consider high levels of large LDL particles to be less of a concern, but some people disagree (6, 16, 18).
Additionally, when other fatty acids, such as linoleic acid, are eaten at the same time, they can offset some of palmitic acid's effects on cholesterol (19).
These aspects of palmitic acid need to be studied further before clear conclusions can be reached.
Bottom Line: Palmitic acid is the most common saturated fatty acid, making up over half of all the saturated fat eaten in the US. It raises LDL cholesterol levels without changing HDL cholesterol.
3. Myristic Acid
Myristic acid consists of 14 carbon atoms.
Consuming myristic acid causes a significant increase in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol compared to consuming palmitic acid or carbs. However, it doesn't appear to affect levels of HDL cholesterol (11, 25).
These effects are much stronger than those of palmitic acid. Yet similar to palmitic acid, myristic acid appears to increase the levels of large LDL particles, which many scientists consider to be less of a concern (6).
Myristic acid is a relatively rare fatty acid, not found in high amounts in most foods. Yet certain oils and fats do contain decent amounts, as shown in the chart below.
Although coconut oil and palm kernel oil do contain relatively high amounts of myristic acid, they also contain other types of fats, which may offset the effects of myristic acid on the blood lipid profile (26).
Bottom Line: Myristic acid is a long-chain, saturated fatty acid. It raises LDL cholesterol more than other fatty acids.
4. Lauric Acid
Lauric acid is 12 carbon atoms long, making it the longest of the medium-chain fatty acids.
It raises the levels of total cholesterol more than most other fatty acids. However, this increase is largely due to an increase in the "good" HDL cholesterol.
In other words, lauric acid reduces the amounts of total cholesterol relative to HDL cholesterol. These changes are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease (27).
In fact, lauric acid appears to have more beneficial effects on HDL cholesterol levels than any other saturated fatty acid (11).
Lauric acid makes up approximately 47 percent of palm kernel oil and 42 percent of coconut oil. In comparison, other commonly eaten oils or fats contain only trace amounts of it.
Bottom Line: Lauric acid is the longest medium-chain fatty acid. Although it raises total cholesterol significantly, this is largely due to an increase in HDL cholesterol, which is beneficial for health.
5–7. Caproic, Caprylic and Capric Acid
Caproic, caprylic and capric acid are medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). They range from 6–10 carbon atoms in length.
Their names are derived from the Latin "capra," which means "female goat." They are sometimes referred to as capra fatty acids, due to their abundance in goat's milk.
MCFAs are metabolized differently than long-chain fatty acids. They are more easily absorbed and transported straight to the liver where they are rapidly metabolized.
Evidence suggests that MCFAs may have the following benefits:
- Weight loss: Several studies indicate that they may slightly increase the number of calories burned and promote weight loss, especially when compared with long-chain fatty acids (28, 29, 30, 31, 32).
- Increased insulin sensitivity: There is also some evidence that MCFAs increase insulin sensitivity, compared to long-chain fatty acids (33).
- Anti-seizure effects: MCFAs, especially capric acid, may have anti-seizure effects, especially when combined with a ketogenic diet (34, 35, 36).
Because of their potential health benefits, MCFAs are sold as supplements, known as MCT oils. These oils usually consist primarily of capric acid and caprylic acid.
Capric acid is the most common of these. It constitutes around 5 percent of palm kernel oil and 4 percent of coconut oil. Smaller amounts are found in animal fat. Otherwise, it is rare in foods.
Bottom Line: Capric, caprylic and caproic acid are medium-chain fatty acids with unique properties. They may promote weight loss, increase insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of seizures in certain epileptic patients.
8–10. Short-Chain Fatty Acids
Saturated fatty acids that contain fewer than six carbon atoms in their chains are known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
The most important SCFAs are:
- Butyric acid: 4 carbon atoms long
- Propionic acid: 3 carbon atoms long
- Acetic acid: 2 carbon atoms long
SCFAs are formed when beneficial gut bacteria ferment fiber in the colon.
Their dietary intake is minimal compared to the amounts of SCFAs produced in the colon. They are uncommon in food and only found in small amounts in dairy fat and certain fermented food products.
SCFAs are responsible for many of the health benefits associated with fiber intake. For instance, butyric acid is an important source of nutrition for the cells lining the colon (37).
For more information on the potential health benefits of SCFAs, read this article.
Bottom Line: The smallest saturated fatty acids are known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are formed when friendly bacteria ferment fiber in the colon. They have many potential health benefits.
Take Home Message
Not all saturated fat is the same. Its health effects vary depending on the type.
Although certain types of long-chain saturated fat may raise your levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, no strong evidence proves any of them cause heart disease.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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