If you were to believe everything you read or hear in the media, you’d think that the pat of butter on your baked potato would take an immediate detour from your stomach to the walls of your arteries. We’re constantly told that all animal fat, especially butter, is bad for us because it is saturated. Butter is particularly vilified because it has more cholesterol than other fats, yet recent scientific studies show that its bad reputation is undeserved.
There is no such thing as a completely saturated or a completely unsaturated fat; every fat is a combination of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Butter, beef suet, and tallow are about 50% saturated, but all other animal fats are more unsaturated than they are saturated. Scientists now know that, except in rare individuals, dietary cholesterol does not influence blood cholesterol, and fat from ruminants (animals that chew their cud) contains valuable nutrients that maintain health and prevent disease.
It is important to remember that every cell in our body needs fat, and that dietary fat is a cornerstone of good health. Our brain and hormones rely on fat to function, and fat supports our immune system, fights disease, and protects our liver. Fat promotes clear skin and healthy hair, regulates our digestive system, and leaves us feeling sated after a meal. Fat is the body’s preferred fuel, providing us with more than twice the amount of energy as the same quantity of carbohydrates and protein. It helps the body absorb nutrients, calcium, and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Fat and protein are found together in nature because it’s the fat that helps us digest the protein. So, it makes good sense to eat a well-marbled steak, or a roast chicken with crispy skin. Because fat is digested slowly, eating it leaves us sated and less likely to snack between meals. When you eat a moderate amount of good fat, you’ll probably lose weight, but when you replace fat with sugar and carbohydrates, you’ll likely gain weight.
Another group of fats, trans fats, is being increasingly scrutinized. These man-made fats are created when liquid or polyunsaturated fats are made solid by adding hydrogen. These fats are difficult for our body to process, so it stores them. They adversely affect our cholesterol levels by increasing bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering good cholesterol (HDL), and they interfere with insulin production, promoting diabetes and obesity. As the dangers of these fats are being understood, efforts are underway to expose and remove them from our food. Food manufactures must declare their presence on food labels, and several cities have moved to ban them from restaurants – creating fierce debate in these communities. Caught up in this campaign against trans fat is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural trans fat found in butter and the fat from pasture-fed ruminants. This trans fat is beneficial to our health, credited with fighting cancer, and preventing weight gain and heart disease.
Humans have been eating butter and animal fat a lot longer than they have been abstaining from them. Good animal fat, like butter, plays an essential role in maintaining our health, as do quality ingredients and moderate consumption.
|Beef tallow and suet||50||42||4|
Note: Because fat contains both water and connective tissue, the numbers do not add up to 100 percent. Also, the numbers are approximate and will differ depending on an animal's breed and its diet. Source: "Fat," by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, 2008)
Food author Jennifer McLagan contributed this page to WebExhibits. Her book, "Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes" is published by Ten Speed Press.