For years, experts have advised limiting saturated fat intake. However, it's a disservice to consider vegetable and animal dietary fatty acids as a group as opposed to considering individuals sources, since the fatty acid composition is very different from each source.
Saturated fatty acids are not a single family of fats but comprise three subgroups: short- (C2-C6), medium- (C8-C12) and long- (C14-C24) chain fatty acids. A specific villain in this tale of saturated fats has been coconut oil. Coconut oil is made up of about 90% saturated fats and 9% unsaturated fats. However, the saturated fats in it differ from saturated fats in animal fats. Over 50% of the fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids, such as lauric acid (12:0). Coconut oil is the highest natural source of lauric acid. Lauric acid and its derivative monolaurin constitute around 50% of coconut fat-derived lipid (Heliyon. 2020;6:e03411). The shorter chain length influences absorption such that medium-chain fatty acids are absorbed intact and go directly to the liver. Because of this characteristic, they have been used since the 1960s in clinical formulas for adult and infant patients who have issues with absorption of longer-chain fats, and for sports nutrition products when quicker absorption is desirable. This significant difference between the subgroups of saturated fats warrants consideration.
All natural oils and fats are composed of varying proportions of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. For example, relatively little overlap exists between the types of saturated fatty acids in coconut oil versus animal fat such as lard. Each specific fatty acid has unique properties. However, when fatty acids are blended together to make other whole fats and oils, one cannot extrapolate from studies of individual fatty acids that a whole fat or oil will retain all of the characteristics of each fatty acid, or that it will have the same metabolic effects as a solitary fatty acid contained within it. The metabolic effects of a whole oil or fat may also be influenced by the other foods with which it is eaten.
To read this article in its entirety, check out the Innovating with healthy fats and oils – digital magazine.
Traci Kantowski is the communications director for Trust Transparency Center, a strategy and insights firm serving the natural products industry. She leads the organization’s communications efforts surrounding trust transparency and its single ingredient stewardship programs. Kantowski is a fitness enthusiast and is a certified health coach, certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor.