Key Takeaways (expand)
- Stearic acid is a long-chain fatty acid, and the second most abundant saturated fat in the American diet (the first being palmitic acid).
- As with other non-essential fats, excess stearic acid gets stored in adipose tissue in the body, where it can later be burned for energy.
- Some stearic acid (about 14%) can also get partially converted to a monounsaturated fat, oleic acid.
- Stearic acid can serve as a signaling molecule, including triggering processes that help control the structure and function of the mitochondria—potentially giving it a protective role in nervous system diseases, muscular disorders, and even aging.
- Stearic acid also triggers an increase in fatty acid beta-oxidation, suggesting a signaling role that primes the body for lipid handling.
- Unlike most other saturated fats, stearic acid doesn’t raise LDL cholesterol, and may even slightly lower it.
- Stearic acid may improve additional cardiovascular risk factors, including reducing levels of coagulation factor VII (a protein that induces blood clotting).
- Stearic acid behaves similarly to unsaturated fats when it comes to affecting C-reactive protein, glucose levels, insulin, and triglycerides.
- Stearic acid possesses potential anti-cancer properties, especially for breast cancer cells—including inducing apoptosis (programmed death) and preventing proliferation; however, research on stearic acid and cancer risk in humans is inconsistent.
- Stearic acid may have a protective role in neurodegenerative diseases, due to its role as a signaling molecule (helping prevent mitochondrial dysfunction), its partial conversion to oleic acid (impacting mitochondrial respiration and function), and protecting brain tissue from injury.
- Stearic acid is abundant in meat, some saturated vegetable fats (particularly cocoa butter and shea butter), egg yolks, and animal-based fats such as lard, butter, and tallow.
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Stearic acid, or octadecanoic acid in IUPAC nomenclature, is a long-chain fatty acid (referring to the “long” 18-carbon chain in its molecular structure). It’s the second most abundant saturated fat in the American diet, right behind palmitic acid! It was first described in 1823 by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who isolated and named a number of fatty acids during his studies of animal fats. Chevreul even patented a novel candle-making process using crude stearic acid instead of the tallow that was traditionally used at the time, due to stearic acid’s ability to form hard, odorless candles that allow for very bright burning. (Even today, the unique physical properties of stearic acid—including its ability to act as an emulsifier, emollient, lubricant, and surfactant—make it a common ingredient for soaps, shampoos, lotions, cleansers, and various other skin care products.)
Notably, stearic acid is unique among the long-chain saturated fats in that it doesn’t raise LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, between the 1970s and 1990s, when nutrition labelling for saturated fats began (and fears around the cardiovascular risks of saturated fat were becoming widespread), there was some petitioning to remove stearic acid from the definition of “saturated fatty acid” altogether, because it didn’t seem to behave in line with other fats in this category. (Of course, the requests were unsuccessful, and stearic acid is definitely still considered a saturated fat!)
Stearic acid is abundant in meat, some saturated vegetable fats (particularly cocoa butter and shea butter), egg yolks, and animal-based fats such as lard, butter, and tallow (in fact, the word “stearic” derives from the Greek stéar, which means tallow!). It’s also found in peanut butter and egg yolks.
The Biological Roles of Stearic Acid
As with other non-essential fats, stearic acid serves as source of energy, with excess stored in adipose tissue. Stearic acid can also get partially converted to oleic acid (a “heart-healthy” monounsaturated fat famously found in olive oil); up to about 14% of the stearic acid we eat undergoes this conversion. In terms of biosynthesis, it can be produced from carbohydrates through the condensation of acetyl-CoA in the mitochondria of cells.
Stearic acid has some other lesser-known functions that contribute to its unique health effects, too. For example, experiments have shown that stearic acid is sensed by the body as a signaling molecule, and its consumption triggers physiological processes that help control the structure and function of the mitochondria (the all-important powerhouse of cells!). More specifically, after stearic acid is ingested, a mechanism involving the transferrin receptor (which binds stearic acid) causes rapid mitochondrial fusion (that is, the merging of the membranes from two initially distinct mitochondria). Although the full implications of this are unknown, it suggests a role of stearic acid in mitochondrial control that could ultimately affect diseases of the nervous system, muscular disorders, and even symptoms of aging.
What’s more, stearic acid consumption triggers an increase in fatty acid beta-oxidation—suggesting that one of it’s signaling roles is in activating a physiological response that primes the body for lipid handling. In other words, stearic acid communicates to the body that fats have been consumed, and it’s time to burn them for energy! These signaling effects aren’t seen with other long-chain saturated fats (like palmitic acid), which could partially explain why stearic acid appears more beneficial for health than other fatty acids in this group. For example, it would be expected that consuming palmitic acid would lead to greater fat accumulation in the body than stearic acid, due to providing lipids to the body without prompting the same mitochondrial response that stearic acid does.
Stearic Acid in Health and Disease
Stearic acid has some unique health benefits among the long-chain saturated fats—particularly when it comes to heart disease risk factors, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases!
Stearic Acid and Blood Lipids
Although saturated fats are often generalized as raising LDL cholesterol, one of stearic acid’s most noteworthy effects is how it impacts (or rather, doesn’t impact) blood lipids. Compared to other saturated fats—particularly lauric acid, myristic acid, and palmitic acid—stearic acid is consistently shown to have either a neutral effect on blood cholesterol, or a slight LDL-lowering effect.
The reason it behaves differently here than other long-chain saturated fats isn’t totally clear, but evidence suggests it may be due to inhibiting secondary bile acid synthesis in the intestine—in turn reducing the solubility of cholesterol and preventing it from getting absorbed. Other possible explanations are that stearic acid has slightly lower intestinal absorption than other saturated fats (94% versus 97 – 99%, respectively), that its partial conversion into oleic acid prevents any hypercholesterolemic effect (since oleic acid doesn’t significantly effect cholesterol levels), or that unlike most other saturated fats, stearic acid doesn’t suppress LDL receptor activity when dietary cholesterol is present. So, while stearic acid’s benign impact on cholesterol is well established, the “why” is still under study!
Importantly, stearic acid isn’t just cholesterol-neutral relative to other long-chain saturated fats: plenty of research has tested stearic acid against unsaturated fats and other macronutrients entirely, and the results tend to be consistently favorable. For example, a randomized trial using diets high in stearic acid, oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat), and linoleic acid (an essential polyunsaturated fat abundant in nuts and seeds) found no significant differences in each fat’s effects on LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, or lipoprotein particle size and subclass distributions. Likewise, a large meta-analysis of controlled trials found that when stearic acid replaces dietary carbohydrate, blood lipids and lipoprotein levels remain relatively unchanged. Collectively, these findings imply that stearic acid is comparable to both unsaturated fats and carbohydrates when it comes to impacting blood lipids.
A number of studies have been conducted specifically on the effects of stearic acid versus palmitic acid, given these two fats’ dietary abundance and the significant differences in how they affect blood cholesterol. Human trials have shown that when palmitic acid replaces stearic acid in the diet, fasting LDL levels go up, whereas when stearic acid replaces dietary palmitic acid, fasting LDL levels go down. One trial of postmenopausal women tested the effects of diets enriched with stearic acid, palmitic acid, or oleic acid, and found that stearic acid had similar effects as oleic acid when it came to fasting LDL levels, whereas palmitic acid had less favorable LDL-raising effects compared to the other two fatty acids.
What’s more, these fats also differentially impact the blood lipid landscape immediately after eating—a phase called the “postprandial period.” Given that we spend the majority of the day in a postprandial state rather than a fasted state (because each meal we eat leads to physiological changes lasting many hours, during which our bodies adapt to the influx of nutrients!), postprandial blood lipids can actually have a significant impact on cardiovascular risk, and are just as valuable to study as fasting blood lipids. One randomized crossover trial fed participants diets rich in stearic acid or palmitic acid for four weeks each, and found that participants’ post-meal triglyceride levels and apolipoprotein B48 levels (a marker of intestinal chylomicrons) were significantly lower after the stearic acid diet period than the palmitic acid diet period.
Although the reasons behind stearic acid’s effects on post-meal blood lipids aren’t fully understood, scientists have speculated that it could be due to the higher melting range of this fat—leading to the presence of more fat solids at normal human body temperature, and in turn delaying fat digestion and absorption. However, the mechanisms remain largely a question mark.
Some evidence suggests stearic acid can improve other parameters of cardiovascular risk, too. For example, in healthy young men, three weeks of eating a high stearic acid diet was shown to lower fasting levels of coagulation factor VII (a protein that induces blood clotting) by up to 18% compared to diets high in the other long-chain saturated fats (palmitic, myristic, and lauric acids). Meals high in stearic acid also resulted in a lower immediate increase in factor VII compared to meals high in monounsaturated fatty acids, reinforcing the idea that stearic acid isn’t likely to contribute to cardiovascular disease by increasing thrombosis (which has been a concern with other types of saturated fat). Similarly, a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials determined that stearic acid behaves similarly to unsaturated fats when it comes to cardiovascular and metabolic risk factors beyond just cholesterol, including apo-B, C-reactive protein, triglycerides, HDL, glucose, and insulin.
Stearic Acid and Cardiovascular Disease
Despite so many promising findings on cardiovascular risk factors, there’s relatively little research in humans on stearic acid intake and actual cardiovascular outcomes—and what does exist has been somewhat contradictory. Several prospective studies, two based in Europe and one based in Iran, found no association between stearic acid intake and increased risk of ischemic heart disease or heart attacks. Yet, two prospective cohort studies in the US found the opposite—including the Nurse’s Health Study, which encompassed over 80,000 women and found that every 1% increase of energy consumed in the form of stearic acid raised coronary heart disease risk by 19%. Given the observational nature of these studies, it’s possible the results were confounded by other factors like cholesterol-lowering drugs, trans fat intake, other diet or lifestyle features unique to each population. So, while stearic acid would be expected to be benign or beneficial for cardiovascular health based on how it impacts blood lipids, it’s not fully clear how this contributes to actual disease risk in humans.
Stearic Acid and Cancer
Interestingly, stearic acid also possesses some potential anti-cancer properties. Experiments show that stearic acid preferentially induces apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancerous versus non-cancerous breast cancer cells, as well as stops breast cancer cells from proliferating by inhibiting key check points within the cell cycle. Other research shows that stearic acid can inhibit the proliferation of epithelial breast cancer cells through an effect on the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor, can inhibit the adhesion and invasion of fibrosarcoma cells (a type of malignancy originating in connective fibrous tissues at the ends of arm and leg bones), and induces apoptosis of an aggressive triple-negative breast cancer cell line. In rodent models of spontaneous carcinogenesis, stearic acid also appears to reduce the incidence and development of breast tumors. And in a meta-analysis of human cohort studies, higher body levels of stearic acid (as measured in the blood, fat tissue, and red blood cell membranes) were associated with a lower risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
That being said, research in humans hasn’t been consistent (and, in general, is in short supply on this topic!); a case-control study of women in China, for instance, found only a neutral relationship between markers of stearic acid intake and breast cancer risk. And, even the results of experimental studies are dependent on the type of cell and the concentration of stearic acid being used—which sometimes falls within physiologically realistic levels, and sometimes far exceeds that. So, while stearic acid does have some compelling mechanisms for being cancer-protective, much more research is needed in humans to test how this plays out in the real world!
Stearic Acid and Neurodegenerative Disease
Lastly, while the research here is still in its infancy, stearic acid may play a protective role in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. For example, via its activity as a signaling molecule, stearic acid helps prevent mitochondrial dysfunction (a feature of Parkinson’s disease) by promoting mitochondrial fusion. Likewise, through its partial conversion to oleic acid, stearic acid could theoretically improve mitochondrial respiration and function by binding to leaky mitochondrial membranes and improving the health of the cell. In vivo experiments have shown that stearic acid can protect brain tissue from injury induced by oxygen-glucose deprivation and glutamate toxicity, lending more support for a neuroprotective role of this fat. So far, promising results have been found in animal models (including flies and rodents), but human research is lacking.
Health Effects of Stearic Acid Deficiency
Because stearic acid isn’t an essential fat, there are no symptoms or deficiency diseases associated with a low intake. Among adults, average consumption is estimated to be about 8 – 8.5% of total fat (5.7 g daily for women and 7.2 g daily for men), and this intake appears to neither worsen or improve any disease risk.
That being said, diets low in stearic acid but higher in other long-chain saturated fatty acids like palmitic, myristic, or lauric acid may be expected to be less favorable for cardiovascular health—although given the lack of precise studies on this topic, this is mostly theoretical!
How Much Stearic Acid Do We Need?
No recommended dietary intake nor tolerable upper intake levels have been determined for stearic acid. As a non-essential fat, the body produces enough to meet its needs.
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