Quantcast

Is Saturated Fat Healthy?

Health + Wellness

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.

Evidence suggests they do not cause heart disease, although their exact role is still being debated and investigated (1, 2).

However, replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats, such as omega-3s, may reduce the risk of heart attacks (3, 4).

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 instance, saturated fats raise the levels of large LDL cholesterol particles, which are not as strongly associated with heart disease as those that are smaller and denser (6, 7).

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.

However, not all LDL cholesterol is created equal. More accurate markers of heart disease are the presence of a large number of LDL particles and of small, dense LDL particles (15, 16, 17).

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).

Palmitic acid may also affect other aspects of metabolism. Studies in both mice and humans indicate that a high-palmitic-acid diet may adversely affect mood and reduce physical activity (20, 21).

Several human studies suggest that eating higher amounts of palmitic acid reduces the amounts of calories burned, compared to eating more unsaturated fats, such as oleic acid (22, 23, 24).

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).

Types of fiber that promote the formation of short-chain fatty acids are known as prebiotics. They include resistant starch, pectin, inulin and arabinoxylan (38, 39).

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Plateau Creek near De Beque, Colorado, where land has been leased for oil and gas production. Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post / Getty Images

By Randi Spivak

Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.

Read More Show Less
Global SO2 Emission Hotspot Database / Greenpeace

A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
Gina Lopez, the Philippine secretary of the environment, at a meeting with residents affected by a mine tailing disaster. Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez, a former Philippine environment secretary, philanthropist and eco-warrior, died on Aug. 19 from brain cancer. She was 65.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Trump speaks to contractors at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on Aug. 13 in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Thousands of union members at a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant outside of Pittsburgh were given a choice last week: Stand and wait for a speech by Donald Trump or take the day off without pay.

Read More Show Less
Regis Lagrange / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Ariane Lang, BSc, MBA

Lemon (Citrus limon) is a common citrus fruit, alongside grapefruits, limes, and oranges (1).

Read More Show Less
A zero-emission electric car in Vail, Colorado on July 31. Sharon Hahn Darlin / CC BY 2.0

By Simon Mui

States across the country are stepping up to make clean cars cheaper and easier to find. Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) voted Friday to adopt a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program that will increase the availability of electric vehicles in the state, improve air quality and increase transportation affordability.

Read More Show Less