‘Tis the season to eat butter

Fa la la la la. … etc.

Nothing says holiday baking like butter.  Nothing can touch it for taste or texture or the chemistry that happens in cookies or cakes or, yes, fruitcake.  Oil won’t work as a substitute.  Coconut fat needs to be thinned a bit with oil to work, but lacks the distinctive flavor.  Margarine — gah!  No!  The Christmas season needs butter.  The rest of the year, not so much.

Except as some self-appointed nutrition experts would have it, it’s always the season to eat butter.  Butter is primarily saturated fat, the kind health experts warn against because it is linked to heart disease.  But never mind; experts are so misguided.  The self-appointed diet gurus have decided that saturated fat is healthy and we need more of it, not less.  Put it in your coffee.  Serve eggs swimming in a puddle of butter.  Use it to fry vegetables.  Thanks to the Paleo diet and newly resurrected ketogenic diet, butter is now a health food.

Just in time to burst our butter bubble, along comes a high tech study showing that saturated fats aren’t so great for cell membrane structure.  Cell membranes are made up of fatty acids.  Cell membranes let molecules in and out of cells, by way of specialized receptor and signaling sites on the membrane.  Proteins incorporated into these fluid-like membranes can shape-shift in response to molecular signals.  A flexible membrane structure is critical to functionality.

The researchers at Columbia University created saturated fat molecules that were labeled with “hot” hydrogen atoms that show up on special scanning equipment.  These labeled fats were were absorbed by living cells, and those cells were scanned to see where the saturated fats ended up and how the resulting cell membranes behaved.  They behaved badly.  The saturated fatty acids clustered together and locked together (sort of like Legos), and the membranes developed hardened patches that were rigid and “frozen”, not functional at all.  The membranes became increasingly inflexible.  Receptor proteins couldn’t change shape.  The cells couldn’t absorb or release molecules.

One of the most troubling findings: the cells just kept adding saturated fatty acids to the cell membranes.  The solidified patches of membrane kept growing.  The entire cell ended up damaged.  Imagine this happening on a grand scale inside your blood vessels or in your brain or heart.  If your diet is high in saturated fats, this is the reality of what’s happening, regardless of your belief in the alleged health properties of saturated fat.  So we knew there was a link between saturated fat and chronic diseases; now we have visual evidence of why that happens.  A very cool study.

The solution is not to overload on saturated fats, whether from butter or beef or coconut fat or cheese.  Ideally cell membranes are composed primarily of unsaturated fats, which create the proper fluidity, allowing the membrane to function as it should.  Fortunately, as new cells are created and cell membranes are renewed, shifting the supply of fatty acid building blocks from saturated to unsaturated can restore membrane structure.

So what does this say about butter and holiday baking?  Don’t overdo it.  We may indulge in delicious treats during holiday celebrations, but for the rest of the year, most of our (moderate) fat intake should be from vegetable oils, olive oil being one of the preferred choices.  The next time you hear some diet guru touting the wonders of saturated fats, plug your ears and sing “Fa la la la la la la la……” until the noise goes away.  Your cell membranes will thank you.

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