Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are fatty acids, or are comprised of fatty acids, that contain no double bonds on their hydrocarbon backbone. The length of the carbon chains of saturated fatty acids varies from 4 to 24 carbon atoms. The most common saturated fatty acids found in nature are lauric acid (12:0), myristic acid (14:0), palmitic acid (16:0), and stearic acid (18:0), ranging in chain length from 12 to 18 carbons, as indicated. Saturated fats mainly exist in a solid state at room temperature, with several exceptions, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil, which are liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats can exist naturally, or can be produced by a processing method called hydrogenation, creating a saturated fat from unsaturated fatty acids. The partially hydrogenated fats provide a desirable structure and texture, long shelf life, and stability during deep-frying in a variety of manufactured food products. However, health concerns have been raised over hydrogenation due to the by-product formation of trans fats, trans isomers of unsaturated fats, during this process. Studies have shown that trans fats increase the risk of coronary heart disease.2 Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered that, as of January 1, 2006, food manufacturers have to indicate the contents of trans fats in the nutrition labels for all conventional foods and supplements.

2.1.1.3 Cholesterol

Sterols are a class of lipids that consist of a steroid and an alcohol. The most physiologically abundant sterol in humans is cholesterol, which is an integral part of the plasma membranes, conferring the fluidity of the lipid bilayer. Due to its amphipathic nature, cholesterol is an important structural component of cell membranes and the outer layer of plasma lipoproteins. Cholesterol plays an essential role both in the structure of cells and as a precursor to corticosteroids, mineral corticoids, bile acids, vitamin D, and sex hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. As excess free cholesterol has cytotoxicity in cells, it is esterified to a fatty acid to become a cholesteryl ester, a neutral form of cholesterol. Cholesteryl esters can be stored in the lipid droplets of cells without cytotoxicity, and therefore cholesterol esterification is increased when free cholesterol content in cells becomes excessive.

While cholesterol is exclusively an animal sterol, over 40 plant sterols have been identified. Similar to cholesterol, plant sterols serve to maintain the structural integrity of a cell. The most abundant plant sterols are sitosterol, campesterol, and stigmasterol, which differ from cholesterol by the presence of an extra methyl or ethyl group within the sterol side chain. This addition of the methyl or ethyl group on the sterol side chain results in poor intestinal absorption of plant sterols in humans,3 with only 1.5 to 5.0% of sitosterol absorbed when typical amounts of sterols are consumed (240 to 320 mg).4 Clinical studies have demonstrated a direct role of dietary plant sterols in reducing cholesterol absorption.5 According to the FDA, ingestion of plant sterols (0.8 g/day) and plant sterol esters (1.3 g/day), along with a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

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