Is coconut oil the cure for all that ails us? Is the Paleo diet, focused on higher-fat ingredients coming largely from animal sources, the healthiest way to eat? Should full-fat dairy be re-introduced to the school lunch program? All of these hot button nutrition topics can lead back to one previously sinister nutrient: saturated fat. Is it not really the nutritional “bad guy” it was previously made out to be?
Total fat can be split up into three types: unsaturated, saturated and trans. Those three categories have to do with how the fat molecules themselves are comprised. Unsaturated fat has a strong reputation of being a health-promoting nutrient, while trans fat has solidified itself on the other side of the spectrum as a nutrient that should be avoided at all costs. Saturated fat lies somewhere in the middle, with new, conflicting studies coming out that beg the questions, should we limit it in our diets, or is it okay in moderation?
Saturated fat is typically solid at room temperature and is found in animal products. The recommended daily value limit for saturated fat is set at 20 grams (for comparison, one cup of whole milk has 4.5 grams). The American Heart Association recommends replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats to lower blood cholesterol, and they recommend getting no more than 13 grams of saturated fat with a 2,000 calorie diet. However, in March of 2014 Mark Bittman, food journalist for The New York Times, wrote an article titled, “Butter is Back.” In it, he discusses a recent study that stated there was no real benefit found to limiting saturated fat in the diet. Many spokespeople of the health and wellness industry have taken up a similar attitude, including Dr. Oz, Dr. Mercola, Mark Sisson, and Dr. Loren Cordain.
One of the hottest topics that comes up in the saturated fat discussion is coconut. A tablespoon of coconut oil contains 120 calories and 12 grams of saturated fat (60% of the daily value). By comparison, a tablespoon of butter has 100 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat (35% of the daily value). So why has coconut oil received a health halo while butter stays on the blacklist? Proponents of the tropical oil say that it’s the length of the fatty acid chain that makes it so special, and that it can raise good cholesterol while lowering bad cholesterol, and contains antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients that aren’t found in other fat sources. However, leading health experts at groups such as the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association still say that limiting saturated fat, regardless of source, is important.
With such strong opinions on both side of this nutrient, a foodservice establishment could see a whole slew of requests coming from diners. Those eating a Paleo or low-carb diet will likely request a dis
h that is high in protein, sourced from animals, and may request that something other than vegetable oil be used to cook the food such as coconut oil or lard. Someone who received a strict low-fat diet from their heart surgeon, however, may be looking for lean proteins and would appreciate cooking oils that contain minimal saturated fat. If a restaurant or other foodservice establishment is concerned with the saturated fat content of their menu, the first step is to complete a full nutritional analysis to identify any recipes of concern. From there, products and cooking methods can be tweaked to achieve more desirable fat values.