Saturated fats good for you?
Has this fat been declared innocent? An expert shares that not all saturated fats are the same.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Are you staying away from saturated fats to keep “healthy”? You can probably stop abstaining from foods containing saturated fats as emerging recent reports show that saturated fatty acid plays an important and specific biological role in the cell in our bodies.
Professor Philippe Legrand from the Agronomic University of Rennes, France, was in town recently and sheds some light on saturated fatty acid’s functionalities. He has over 30 years’ experience in research on fundamental aspects of fatty acid synthesis and metabolism, and since 1998, is the chairman of the French Guidelines Committees for the fatty acid dietary recommendations in the Food Safety Agency (ANSES):
Saturated fats have been linked with heart disease mortality as it raises total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. However, are you saying that what we know is false and that saturated fats have been wrongfully accused?
There has been too much emphasis on that, because it’s true that saturated fats have been linked to cardiovascular disease. However, this is only a relation in the case of excessive consumption of some of them. More specifically, three types of fatty acids – lauric, myristic and palmitic acids – are linked to cardiovascular disease, but only in cases of excessive consumption. They are essential nutrients. The question is the limit defining excess consumption.
What do you mean by “the limit defining excess consumption”?
The limit, referring to the French guidelines for instance, is eight percent of energy for the saturated fatty acids linked to cardiovascular disease. The rest can make up four percent of energy, bringing the total saturated fatty acid consumption limit to about 12 percent of energy. Ideally, in this 12 percent, not more than eight percent can be palmitic acid, for example.
What are the nutritional benefits of saturated fats and how often should they be included in one’s daily intake?
They are fuel, energy for life. They are useful in cell membranes and are required as a component of cell membranes. They also have specific functions like activation of proteins, for instance, myristic acid. They also have other special functions but those three mentioned above are the main ones.
About cell membranes, they are a condition of life. Cell membranes should have the right composition to ensure exchanges between cells – blood and cells, and division of cells.
For these functions, the membrane should have the right composition with some saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat to make sure that for example, iron and molecules can go through. There are also enzymes in the membrane. If the membrane does not have a good composition, the cell dies, along with the tissue. Trafficking in cells are controlled by the membrane.
Lipids should be consumed everyday, like carbohydrate, water and proteins.
I understand there are different kinds of saturated fats, some of which have at least a neutral effect on cholesterol. Can you explain this?
Some saturated fatty acids increase LDL cholesterol as their presence tends to diminish the clearance of LDL by the cells, as is the case of excess palmitic acid. But short- and middle-chain acids as well as stearic acid does not have this effect, thus they are not hypercholesterolemic.
More precisely, C8, or caprylic acid, has an inverse effect. It is hypocholesterolemic, diminishing LDL cholesterol. This is why we should not consider all saturated fatty acids as a homogeneous group but consider them separately. By considering them as a group is old-fashion.
Can you share the lowdown about the coconut?
Coconut lipids have an interesting composition in terms of saturated fatty acids. Coconut is not rich in polyunsatured fatty acids, so we should look for them in other foods. In terms of saturated fatty acids, the composition of coconut lipids is not that bad. For instance, there is a significant richness in middle-chain fatty acid like C8 (Caprylic acid) and C10 (Capric acid), which is good as these acids do no increase metabolic syndrome, neither do they increase cardiovascular disease. The two mentioned acids are also present in dairy products.
Coconut is also rich in lauric acid; usually palmitic acid is the more abundant acid in most foods. Even though both lauric and palmitic acid are hypercholesterolemic, lauric acid is less hypercholesterolemic. Excess consumption is still deleterious but, for example, it is still better to consume coconut milk than palm oil. Why? Because the composition of saturated fatty acids in coconut milk is rich in middle-chain acid and lauric acid, while palm oil is only rich in palmitic acid.
What specific saturated fats have gotten a bad reputation and should be relooked?
Lauric, myristic (found in palm kernel oil, butter fat and coconut oil) and palmitic acids. Palmitic (found in animals, plants and microorganisms) is not the best choice because it originates from many sources including carbohydrates.
(** PHOTO CREDIT: butter, bruno-free, stock.xchng)