Are Saturated Fats Healthy?

The story of saturated fats is rich and complex.

Much like the fats themselves.

Saturated Fats - Too Rich For Your Blood?

Saturated fats have been condemned for much of recent history.

Since the 1950s, saturated fat has been officially decried as a putative causative factor in cardiovascular disease.

For more than a half-century, cardiovascular research and prevention have been dominated by this lipid hypothesis - despite the fact that "the number of contradictory studies may exceed those that are supportive."

In unofficial circles, however, such demonization of saturated fat may be even older.

Nowhere is this demonization as evident - and literal - as in the century-old distinction between the fat-free Angel Food Cake and its buttery counterpart Devil's Food Cake.

Similarly, the similarly-aged idiom "too rich for my blood" suggests that popular association between fat and cardiovascular disease predates the lipid hypothesis.

And because, historically, the majority of dietary fat in Western cultures was derived from animal sources, "dietary fat" was equivocated to "animal fat" until at least the industrial revolution.

And, of course, "animal fat" = "saturated fat".

Or does it?

Saturated Fat Does Not Equal Animal Fat

"Saturated fat" absolutely does not equal "animal fat".

"Saturated fat" is, in fact, a complete misnomer.

"Saturated Fat" Doesn't Even Exist

Or, more precisely, no completely-saturated fat exists.

Saturated fatty acids, though, most definitely exist.

Each dietary fat is itself chiefly composed of a complex of fatty acids.

A complex which - for natural fat sources - varies with the environment and diet of the animal or plant from which that fat is derived.

"Saturated Fat" = "Solid @ Room Temperature"

When such saturated fatty acids comprise the majority of fatty acids, this fat is solid at room temperature.

Leading to the artificial, umbrella categorization of all such fats as "saturated".

Saturated Fat - Animal vs. Botanical

Many saturated fats are derived from animal sources.

But this is hardly exclusive.

Numerous plant-derived fats are considered saturated, including:

Such plant-derived saturated fats are widely reputed for their health benefits.

In direct contrast to the popular demonization of saturated fat in general.

So what makes plant-derived saturated fats different?

Solid At Room Temperature vs. Solid At Body Temperature

So any fat solid at room temperature is considered saturated.

But this is an artificial, arbitrary categorization.

After all, what's so special about "room temperature"?

It tells us nothing about how the fat will behave in the body.

A more useful division is based on body temperature.

Solid in the Body = Clotted in the Body

Dietary fats are not absorbed whole by the intestine, but are metabolised into free fatty acids and monoglyerides.

That notwithstanding, however, if a dietary saturated fat is solid at body temperature - at approximately 37°C (98.6°F) - it will tend to produce solid, saturated fatty acids in the body.

And solid = clotted.

The following tables summarize the melting points of several common plant-derived, animal-derived, and artificial saturated fats:

Natural Plant-Derived Saturated Fats
Fat Melting Point (°C)
Coconut Butter 24
Palm Kernel Oil 24
Mowrah Butter 24 - 28
Murumuru Butter 25 - 37
Illipe Butter 28 - 37
Shea Butter 31 - 38
Cocoa Butter 34 - 36
Sal Butter 34 - 38
Palm Oil 35
Kokum Butter 34 - 40
Natural Animal-Derived Saturated Fats
Fat Melting Point (°C)
Butter 32 - 35
Beef Tallow 35 - 40
Lard 35 - 45
Mutton Tallow 42 - 49
Suet 45 - 50
Cheese, Brie 51
Cheese, Mozzarella 57
Cheese, Cheddar 65
Cheese, Parmesan 82
Artificial Saturated Fats
Fat Melting Point (°C)
Margarine 34 - 43
Shortening 46 - 48

This data suggests an intriguing, elegantly-simple trend:

  1. Natural plant-derived saturated fats tend to be liquid at body temperature.
  2. Natural animal-derived saturated fats tend to be solid at body temperature.
  3. Artificial saturated "frankenfats" are solid at body temperature.

Not All Saturated Fat Is Created Equal

Now, other mechanisms - such as the high medium-chain triglyceride content of coconut butter and palm kernel oil - may certainly explain some of the health benefits of plant-based saturated fats.

Likewise, other mechanisms - such as a generally-high ratio of pro-inflammatory omega-6 to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids - may underlie some of the negative health effects of animal-based saturated fats.

And there are no shortage of other mechanisms compounding the health dangers of trans-fat laden, artificial "frankenfats".

Yet, this simple divide - whether a saturated fat is solid or liquid at body temperature - beautifully mirrors the division between the noted health benefits of plant-derived saturated fats, and the health dangers associated with many animal-derived and artificial saturated fats.

Food for Thought

Too simple to be true?

Or the elegant simplicity of Occam's Razor?

Is this association truly solid and robust ?

Or - like the fats it describes - does it only appear to be solid under certain conditions?

Either way, this basic divide - whether a saturated fat is solid or liquid at body temperature - provides a practical, elegantly-simple tool for understanding and even predicting the health effects of a given saturated fat in vivo.

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