What are saturated fats and how are they different? We can consume 2 types of fats in our diets – saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids. The differences are found in the chemical bonds within the fats.
Saturated fatty acids have a molecular structure that is very stable because all of the available chemical bonds in the fatty acid molecule are fully saturated with hydrogen. This full saturation makes saturated fats very stable chemically speaking, and solid at room temperature. This stable chemical composition makes saturated fats very safe and healthy for several reasons. They burn cleanly, leaving only water as a residue, and they don’t break down or oxidize or spoil easily. Because of their stability, they can be used for frying at high temperatures without damage to their chemical composition.
The lack of oxidation is important for your health because fats that oxidize easily go rancid (spoil) easily. Oxidized and rancid fat is extremely inflammatory when eaten, and it has been theorized that oxidized fats are at the root of heart disease.
In contrast, polyunsaturated fats such as soybean, canola, safflower, and sunflower oil, are those fatty acids that are missing many hydrogen atoms, leaving many, open unstable chemical bonds. These fats are always liquid at room temperature. As you may remember from high school chemistry, atoms are always trying to stabilize themselves, and the open bonds of polyunsaturated fats are easily filled (oxidized) by the oxygen molecules in the air around them (a process called lipid peroxidation). When that happens, these oils become rancid and unhealthy to consume. Most vegetable oils are polyunsaturated and are very unstable (exceptions are coconut and palm oil which are saturated fats). This makes them unsuitable for high heat cooking and very susceptible to rancidity and hence not healthy for your arteries.
Monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocadoes) only have one unstable chemical bond, so they are less prone to oxidation. This makes them a healthier choice than polyunsaturated oils.
Which Foods Contain Saturated Fat?
Most saturated fats come from animal-based foods, such as butter, pork fat, meat, whole milk, cheese, and eggs. Note that these are real foods and full of good nutrition. Saturated fats can also be found in certain plant foods, such as coconut and palm oil, and cocoa butter, found in dark chocolate.
But Aren’t Fatty Foods Bad for You?
In America, and now around the world, there is a strong belief that consuming too much-saturated fats is bad for health, but the facts don’t support that belief.
The theory is that saturated fat is full of cholesterol, and cholesterol is supposed to cause coronary heart disease (CHD). But this meta-analysis shows this theory has no basis in fact.
In addition, this article discusses the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of a higher intake of saturated fat. In summary, the LOWER the levels of saturated fat consumed, the lower the levels of saturated fat (triglycerides) in the blood, the lower the risk of stroke, and hardening of the arteries.
These facts are also supported by history and time. Before about 1900, Americans did not die of heart disease or diabetes, and it was during that time, our consumption of whole animal-based foods like butter and beef was higher. In reality, the introduction of unstable polyunsaturated vegetable oils and elevated consumption of carbohydrates into the American diet has brought us to the increasing rates of disease we experience today. That wonderful tasting butter is innocent, so enjoy!
Just remember, if anyone asks you “what are saturated fats”, tell them they are the healthiest foods to eat.