What is tallow?
Tallow is a natural animal fat obtained from beef or mutton fat. The fat is rendered (purified by heating and removing impurities) then cooled to form a white fat that is solid at room temperature. Tallow is a stable fat which can be stored without refrigeration for extended periods, as long as it is stored in an airtight container to prevent it becoming rancid (due to oxidation).
The composition of tallow is typically:
Saturated fatty acids:
Palmitic acid (C16:0): 26%
Stearic acid (C18:0): 14%
Myristic acid (C14:0): 3%
Monounsaturated fatty acids:
Oleic acid (C18–1, ω-9): 47%
Palmitoleic acid (C16:1): 3%
Polyunsaturated fatty acids:
Linoleic acid: 3%
Linolenic acid: 1%
Other components: 3%
Are these fats unhealthy?
Let’s take a closer look at these fats more closely. 47% of tallow is oleic acid, currently considered by most researchers to be anti-inflammatory. 14% is stearic acid, also considered anti-inflammatory, and is partly metabolised into oleic acid in the body. Myristic acid (3%) is associated with healthy cholesterol levels. Studies indicate that palmitoleic acid (3%) is anti-inflammatory, and improves insulin sensitivity in liver and skeletal muscles, but more studies are required to establish its actions in humans. So this gives a combined total of 67% healthy fats.
The 26% palmitic acid is what is referred to as “saturated fat” when people advise against its consumption. However, it is yet to be proven that palmitic acid actually has a negative health effect beyond influencing associated health markers. The original study that formed the diet-heart hypothesis was based on flawed data analysis and manipulation by a man known as Ancel Keys, and further studies have been epidemiological (low quality evidence) studies, which do not account for other diet and lifestyle factors. New data is starting to emerge that palmitic acid is not harmful. However, even if you consider palmitic acid to be unhealthy, this may not be a reason to avoid tallow.
The last 4% of tallow’s composition is linoleic acid and linolenic acid, and they are generally assumed by the public to be healthy, but they actually have debatable health effects. Studies implicate them in ulcerative colitis and prostate cancer, as well as potentially causing a cascade of inflammatory diseases. Therefore we can suggest that beef tallow may be 67% beneficial, and 33% potentially harmful.
How do vegetable oils compare in composition?
The above might not sound great to you, so how does it compare with the recommended vegetable oils, aka seed oils? Soybean oil usually contains 51% linoleic acid, 23% oleic acid, 10% linolenic acid, 10% palmitic acid, and 4% stearic acid. That gives soybean oil a total of 27% beneficial content. Sunflower seed oil contains 59% linoleic acid, 30% oleic acid, 6% stearic acid, and 5% palmitic acid. This means a total of 36% beneficial content in sunflower oil. Finally, olive oil contains on average 69% oleic acid, 14% palmitic acid, 12% linoleic acid, 3% stearic acid, and 1% linolenic acid. A total of 72% beneficial content for olive oil. These figures seem to support the idea that olive fruit oil is healthier than soybean seed oil, and is supports the hypothesis that olive oil is part of why people eating the Mediterranean diet appear healthier than those eating the Standard American Diet.
Why has saturated fat been singled out?
If we now compare the two healthiest fats above, we can see that a figure of 67% for tallow is very close to a figure of 72% for olive oil. When you consider the reality that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that palmitic acid is harmful, it begs the question, why is palmitic acid still being singled out as the cause of heart disease? Not only that, but what evidence exists that is strong enough to recommend dramatically reducing it’s consumption by every human?
Seed oils, as we know and use them today, only emerged in the early 1900s. Animal fat has been consumed as part of our diet throughout our 18 million years of evolutionary history as hominids, 85 million years as ancestral primates, 256 million years as ancestral mammals, and even so far back as 700 million years as Echinoderm filter feeding on microscopic ocean life. In contrast, it has only been in the last 100 years that human have attempted to understand the optimal diet for human health via scientific inquiry, and the early attempts at this were clumsy and flawed in their approach due to the naivete regarding the complexity of the interplay between human biology and nutritional intake.
There is now a fast-growing community of ketogenic doctors and patients who have found that their health has vastly improved by removing seed oils from their diet, and replacing them with animal fats such as tallow. Some are even finding that eating a diet of only animal products has reversed their health maladies. Time will tell whether the growing body of evidence will continue to support the recommendations to eat the modern seed oils, of whether eating the fats which humans evolved alongside for millions of years will prove to be a safe and healthful source of energy.
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