Saturated fats have a reputation for being bad for you, but is this fair? Are there any benefits to eating saturated fats?
The answer is: yes. One of the common benefits of saturated fats is that they are very stable and unreactive, and therefore are less prone to creating damaging free radicals in your body. This is good news because free radical damage can go on to cause a cascade of destruction in the body that eventually increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer amongst other conditions. This stability of saturated fats makes saturated fats the best choice of cooking fat, because it is during the application of heat that less stable fats are most prone to free radical production. Taking this into consideration, using a small amount of Coconut Oil or butter in your cooking is definitely preferable to any other unsaturated oils which are more likely to undergo free radical production.
As to the further benefits or dangers of saturated fats, it depends on which particular saturated fat you are talking about. As discussed in “Part 1: What is saturated fat?” of this 4-part article series , saturated fats are a group of fats that can vary in chain-length from 2-carbon-long fatty acid chains, to over 20-carbon-long fatty acid chains, and the effects on health differ greatly depending on the chain length.
It’s always unfair (not to mention untrue!) to generalize and lump all saturated fats together, saying they are all bad for you, or good for you. For this reason, I’ll be discussing the benefits of the individual saturated fats in your food.
Benefits of Short-chain saturated fatty acids
Short-chain and very short-chain saturated fatty acids are those that contain 2-6 carbons in their chains.
- Benefits of Acetic acid (2 carbons, ie 2:0)
Acetic acid is the shortest chain saturated fatty acid with only 2 carbons in its chain, and it is commonly found in high amounts in vinegar, produced from the fermentation of alcohol. About 4-10% of most vinegars is acetic acid.
Acetic acid has the following benefits to health:
- Boosts energy: It can be used as a source of energy. Many of our cells in the gut get their energy from short fatty acids like acetic acid. The energy boost acetic acid gives the gut’s cells helps circulate blood in the gut to aid absorption of food and fluids into our bodies.1
- May aid absorption of our food: Acetic acid may help boost absorption of fluids, calcium and magnesium in our gut.1,5
- May be beneficial for cardiovascular health: Studies2,3 have shown that acetic acid can help eliminate cholesterol3,9, and lower blood triglyceride levels3, as well as lowering blood pressure by inhibiting an enzyme which raises blood pressure, ACE.2 All these suggest that acetic acid may be beneficial for heart health.
- May reduce blood sugar levels and therefore be helpful in management of diabetes and in people with insulin resistance. Studies have found that acetic acid inhibits the enzymatic breakdown of complex sugars into simple sugars, thus reducing the sugar hit from a meal.2,4
- May increase feelings of satiety and fullness after a meal4 thereby helping to prevent overeating and aiding with weight management.
- May have mild antimicrobial activity: Since antiquity vinegar has been used to preserve foods, and this is because it has slight antimicrobial activity against bacteria and yeasts.6
- Benefits of Propionic acid (3 carbons ie 3:0)
Propionic acid isn’t found in many foods, but is found in fermented foods (e.g. fermented cheeses, particularly Swiss and Emmental cheese and fermented fish sauce); and as an additive (E-number E280) in some foods where it functions as a preservative. 6,12 It is part of what gives fermented foods their characteristic sharp, sweet smell. If you aren’t familiar with this smell, a similar smell is that of feet and sweat because the presence of propionic acid is partly responsible for these aromas too. Propionic acid isn’t really found in most traditionally considered “high saturated fat foods”, aside from small amounts in some fermented cheeses. Here are some of the benefits of propionic acid:
- Antimicrobial: Propionic acid has some antimicrobial activity against molds and certain bacteria which is why it is used as a preservative additive in foods, however it is used in small amounts because of its unappealing smell.
- May aid absorption and gut movement of our food: Like acetic acid, propionic acid feeds the gut cells to give them energy to work, and aids in the absorption of some food molecules.1,5 It also encourages the muscles of the gut to contract to help food move along and relieve constipation.1,7
- May be beneficial for cardiovascular health via the following mechanisms:
a.) May reduce blood cholesterol: Propionic acid inhibits the body’s production of cholesterol.8,9,10,11
b.) May reduce triglyceride level in the blood: Propionic acid appears to be an effective inhibitor of fatty acid synthesis, thus having the potential to reduce blood triglyceride levels.8,11
- Benefits of Butyric acid (4 carbons ie 4:0)
Butyric acid is found predominantly in dairy products, especially butter (hence the name, BUTyric acid) and cheeses. Butyric acid is also the substance responsible for the smell of vomit and the not too dissimilar smell of Parmesan cheese. Butyric acid need not only be obtained through the diet because it can be made by the body. Eating fibre helps the body make its own butyric acid because gut bacteria break down fibre into butyric acid. The same is also true of propionic acid and acetic acid. In spite of its unfortunate smell, butyric acid does have several benefits to health:
- Helps in absorption of certain food molecules: Like propionic and acetic acid, butyric acid may also play a role in helping to ensure good absorption of food particles.
- Helps produce protective mucus in the gut: The gut wall is coated with mucus to protect it from abrasion with food particles, and from chemical corrosion from the acidic stomach contents. Where the gut is already inflamed and abraded from inflammatory bowel conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, butyric acid can help produce this protective layer to reduce irritation and inflammation.1, 13, 14, 15, Butyric acid may also alleviate gut inflammation through encouraging production of other anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body.16
The use of butyric acid in producing protective mucus can be beneficial for people with “leaky gut”, or intestinal permeability. By providing a protective mucus layer, it gives more time for the gut wall to heal if it has been abraded. Not only that, but butyric acid also encourages intestinal cell growth so that it helps them repair if there has been damage to the gut wall. Butyric acid is the main source of food and energy for gut cells.
Because of these beneficial uses, butyric acid is sold as a supplement by companies like Biotics Research (Product: Butyric-Cal-Mag), Pharmax (Product: Butyrate Complex) and BodyBio (Product: Cal Mag Butyrate).
- Helps protect against colon cancer: By maintaining good health of the gut cells, many studies have found that butyric acid helps reduce the risk of developing colon cancer significantly.17,18,19 Butyric acid promotes healthy intestinal cell growth whilst inhibiting the growth of cancerous cells in the gut.17
- May inhibit cholesterol production: Like its shorter chain cousins, butyric acid also decreases cholesterol levels in the body.9, 20
- Benefits of Caproic acid (6 carbons ie 6:0)
Caproic acid is found predominantly in butter, but also in smaller amounts in cheese, coconut fat and licorice. It smells a bit like a goat-shed and is found also in goat’s cheese, hence the name caproic acid, where “Capra” or “Caper” is the Latin name for goat. (It’s where the word “Capricorn” also comes from).
The benefits of caproic acid are not well studied.
Benefits of Medium-chain fatty acids
Medium-chain fatty acids generally contain between 8-12 carbons in their chains.
- Benefits of Caprylic acid (8 carbons ie 8:0)
Like caproic acid, caprylic acid is also named after the goat due to its smell and high prevalence in goat’s cheese. Aside from goat cheese, caprylic acid is also found in high amounts in coconut fat, palm kernel oil, butter, cheese, and some herbs like sage.
Benefits of caprylic acid:
- Antimicrobial: The most well-researched benefit of caprylic action is its use in eliminating certain bacteria, viruses, yeasts and fungi.21-27 There is no doubt that caprylic acid has antimicrobial effects, however the strength of these effects are under debate amongst researchers. Studies so far have produced varying results. In my opinion, it may be beneficial to include it alongside other antimicrobial protocols if you’re trying to get rid of some bugs in your system, to hit ‘em from all angles.
- Other possible benefits that require more research: Caprylic acid has also been used for other beneficial uses like dissolving gallstones28, affecting appetite and treating ulcerative colitis, but more studies need to be done in these areas.
- Benefits of Capric acid (10 carbons ie 10:0)
Capric acid shares with caprylic and caproic acid it’s goatish associations, and again, is found in high amounts in goat’s cheese, as well as in other cheeses, coconut oil, palm kernel oil and sage.
Benefits of capric acid:
- Antimicrobial: Like caprylic acid, capric acid is also a known antimicrobial, helping to fight fungi31,32 and other microorganisms33,34.
- Other possible benefits in need of more research: Some studies indicate capric acid may be good for cardiovascular health because it helps relax blood vessels29,30 but more research is needed to fully confirm this benefit.
- Benefits of Lauric acid (12 carbons ie 12:0)
Lauric acid is named after the laurel leaf (better known as the bay leaf) because this was the first plant from which this saturated fat was isolated. However, lauric acid is more abundant in palm kernel oil, coconut oil, butter and cheese than in bay leaves.
Benefits of lauric acid:
- Antimicrobial: There is a bit of a running theme amongst the medium-chain saturated fatty acids in that they all have antimicrobial action. Studies have found that lauric acid can fight bacteria35,36,, fungi37, and viruses38. This may be beneficial for a wide range of conditions including bacterial acne, overgrowth of gut pathogens, and ulcers caused by Helicobacter pylori.
- Raises HDL: Upon first glance, it appears that lauric acid increases cholesterol levels. A closer look at the data reveals that although it does increase cholesterol, it increases the “good cholesterol”, HDL as well as the “bad cholesterol”, LDL. Some studies have suggested that lauric acid may help reduce cardiovascular risk through its HDL boosting effects.39, 40,41 This benefit of lauric acid is slightly controversial because of concurrent LDL boosting.
Benefits of Long-chain fatty acids
The long-chain fatty acids are generally 14 or more carbons long. They nearly always make up the largest proportion of saturated fat in food, with one or two exceptions (coconut oil being one such exception where the medium-length fatty acid, lauric acid is the main saturated fat). Here are the benefits of each of the long-chain fatty acids.
- Benefits of myristic acid (14 carbons, ie 14:0): Myristic acid which is found largely in coconut oil, fish oil, cheese, butter, nut oils and meat, has general uses in maintaining cell function and increases the good cholesterol, HDL, slightly, although it also increases the bad cholesterol, LDL (and it raises LDL more than it raises HDL, so overall it’s not advantageous for someone with high cholesterol).
- Benefits of palmitic acid (16 carbons, ie 16:0): Palmitic acid is the number 1 most abundant saturated fat in foods, and is found in palm oil, cocoa butter, dairy butter, cheese, nuts, coconuts, seed oils, nut oils, olive oil, sunflower oil and margarine to name but a few.
Palmitic acid has a structural role in cells, forming part of cell membranes and acting as the precursor to other fats and fatty molecules that are made by the body. Perhaps due to its very functional role, it is usually the dominant saturated fatty acid in food, making up 60-70% of the saturated fat composition of animal fats and about 40% of the saturated fat composition of dairy fats.
Palmitic acid is also one of the body’s “energy storage” molecules which is useful in times of famine and starvation.
Although it appears that these functions are beneficial, other fatty acids can be converted into palmitic acid, so much like the other saturated fats it’s not essential to eat it, although it is impossible to avoid due to its high prevalence.
- Benefits of stearic acid and longer saturated fats (18+ carbons): These are found in lard, animal fats, cocoa, cocoa butter, butter, margarine, various vegetable oils, fish, nut and seed oils, and nuts. Cocoa products are one food group where stearic acid (18:0) makes up the dominant saturated fat component.
These long-chain saturated fatty acids have some functional uses in the body’s metabolism, including the production of all sorts of fatty molecules that the body needs to build cell membranes and various biochemicals. Stearic acid also helps form a fat energy storage for times of famine and starvation.
Like palmitic acid, these longer chain fatty acids can be made by the body from shorter chain fatty acids if necessary so are not essential in the diet. These long saturated fatty acids don’t really have many benefits aside from their mundane body functions.
The long-chain saturated fatty acids are better known for their negative side effects than their positive ones. The negative side effects of the saturated fatty acids will be discussed in the next article: Saturated fats: Why saturated fats are bad.
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- Ogawa et al 2000. Acetic acid suppresses the increase in disaccharidase activity that occurs during culture of caco-2 cells. Journal of Nutrition. 130(3):507-513
- Fushimi et al. 2006. Dietary acetic acid reduces serum cholesterol and triacylglycerols in rats feda cholesterol-rich diet. British Journal of Nutrition. 95(5):916-924.
- Ostman et al. 2005. Vinegar supplementation lowers glucose and insulin responses and increases satiety after a bread meal in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr.
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- Demigne et al. 1995. Effect of propionate on fatty acid and cholesterol synthesis and on acetate metabolism in isolated rat hepatocytes. Br J Nutr. 74(2):209-219
- Hara et al. 1999. Short-chain fatty acids suppress cholesterol synthesis in rat liver and intestine. Journal of Nutrition. 129(5):942-948
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- Scheppach, et al. 1992. Effect of butyrate enemas on the colonic mucosa in distal ulcerative colitis. Gastroenterology. 103(1):51-56
- Scheppach. 1996. Treatment of distal ulcerative colitis with short-chain fatty acid enemas. A placebo-controlled trial. German-Austrian SCFA Study Group. Dig Dis Sci. 41(11):2254-2259.
- Head et al. 2004. Inflammatory bowel disease. Part II: Crohn’s disease – pathophysiology and conventional and alternative treatment options. Alternative Medicine Review. 9(4):360-401
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- Vanhoutvin et al. 2009. Butyrate-induced transcriptional changes in human colonic mucosa. PloS one 4 (8): e6759
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- Hinnebusch et al. 2002. The effects of short-chain fatty acids on human colon cancer cell phenotype are associated with histone hyperacetylation. Journal of Nutrition. 132(5):1012-1017
- Han et al. 2003. Resistant starches of beans reduce the serum cholesterol concentration in rats. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol. 49(4):281-286
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