You've doubtlessly heard nutritionists, doctors, medical professionals, alternative health practicioners and virtually everyone else (including me on this post: Butter vs. Margarine and here: Trans Fats & Colon Cancer) rail against trans-fatty acids and their inclusion in the modern diet, but did you know that there's actually naturally occurring trans-fatty acids? These trans-fats, unlike their manufactured counterparts, can actually benefit your health.
In a society where a dietary credo that eschews fat in almost all its forms prevails, it may be difficult to accept that fat is good for you - and even naturally occuring trans-fatty acids like Conjugated Linoleic Acid can be good for you. A far cry from modern trans-fatty acids manufactured by hydrogenating vegetable oils, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is something of a nutritional powerhouse.
CLA occurs naturally in a variety of animal foods particularly milk fat from cows grazing exclusively on pasture. Butter, cream, cheese, tallow, suet, grass-finished lamb and beef are all excellent sources of CLA. Excluding these foods from your diet might very well limit your intake of the powerful and beneficial fat.
Current research on conjugated linoleic acid and its benefits to health indicate that it can be effective in the fight against various cancers including breast cancer [1. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(1):114-22.] [2. BMC Cancer. 2008 Jul 24;8:208], intestinal cancer [3. Cell Prolif. 2008 Apr;41(2):279-91] and bone cancer [4. J Food Sci. 2008 Jan;73(1):T7-15]. Further, CLA has been shown in laboratory studies to increase HDL or "good" cholesterol [5. Atherosclerosis. 2006 Dec;189(2):282-7. Epub 2006 Feb 13]. In combination with omega-3 fatty acids, CLA was determined to increase insulin sensitivity while also preventing an increase in adipose tissue (belly fat) [6. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 May;16(5):1019-24. Epub 2008 Mar 6.].
By contrast, modern manufactured trans-fatty acids resulting from the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils is linked with disease: increase in weight especially around the belly[7. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007 Jul;15(7):1675-84], cardiovascular disease and inflammation[8. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007 Jul;15(7):1675-84] . One study estimates that a comprehensive strategy aimed at eliminating such modern fats from the diet would prevent tens of thousands of deaths each year.[10. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2008 Sep-Nov;79(3-5):147-52. Epub 2008 Nov 8].
While it is not a panacea for every health complaint to effect humans, conjugated linoleic acid does offer promise. Further, it's a reminder - at least to me - that natural foods that our ancestors evolved on like raw, full-fat cream from grass-fed animals and beef tallow still offer benefits to us in the way of better health. It is not trans-fatty acids in general that are linked with the diseases of civilization, but it is the use of modern, manufactured TFAs that contribute to disease.
So, eat and enjoy wholesome cream and butter.
Need some recipes using foods rich in CLA? Try these from the recipe archives: