In the EPIC-InterAct Study, a team of researchers led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge set out to examine the relationship between blood levels of nine different saturated fatty acids and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in later life.
The researchers looked at 12,403 people who developed type 2 diabetes from among a group of 340,234 adults across eight European countries. Using a sophisticated method of high-speed blood analysis, they determined the proportion of each of the nine fatty acids in blood samples from the study participants and related this to later incidence of type 2 diabetes.
They found that saturated fatty acids with an even number of carbon atoms in their chain (14, 16 and 18 carbon atoms) were associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, while saturated fatty acids with an odd number (15 and 17) were associated with a lower risk. Therefore, individual saturated fatty acids are not all the same.
Odd-chain saturated fatty acids are well-established markers of eating dairy fats, which is consistent with several recent studies, including a study from the same team, that has indicated a protective effect against type 2 diabetes from eating yogurt and other dairy products. In contrast, the situation for even-chain saturated fatty acids is more complex.
As well as being present in fatty diets, these blood fatty acids can also be made within the body through a process which is stimulated by the intake of carbohydrates and alcohol.