Fats and oils have been given a bad rap over the years. This is unsurprising given the worldwide obesity epidemic and high rates of heart disease. It’s true that some fats can have devastating effects on health. But they are also one of the most nutritional food groups and it may surprise you to know that fats and oils can actually be extremely healthy, good for your heart and even aid in weight loss…
There is a wealth of misinformation and confusion out there when it comes to knowing which oils and fats to use for cooking and which to eat raw (and cold-pressed) as part of a healthy diet.
Fats have attracted a lot of bad press over the years; but if you think that they are categorically bad for you then you’re missing the fact that unrefined oils and whole fats are one of the most nutritional food groups around.
It is true that fats are high in calories and some – only some – fats can be bad for your health. But the truth is that many fats are not only an integral part of a balanced diet, but can be good for your heart, aid in weight loss and of course the most importantly of all, make your food taste absolutely delicious.
In fact fat molecules carry flavour like no other compound. And here is an important point – research has shown that the amount of calories in a food are not actually the only, or even most significant factor in weight gain. Eating a diet high in refined foods is the major culprit here. So don’t shun the fats from your diet. Learn and understand them so you can have scrumptious food and be healthy for good measure!
So which fats are good and which fats are bad? The topic can get complicated quite quickly. This is because it cannot simply be said that any one kind of oil is more healthy than any other. It depends how refined that oil is, whether it contains trans fats (this will be explained shortly), how fresh the oil is (many oils go rancid very quickly), how it has been extracted and how you intend to use it – heated or raw and what type of oil you are using for what purpose – saturated, unsaturated, long or medium chain, stearic, linoleic or oleic acids and so on? Confused?
To highlight the complexity of the topic let’s take the example of the French, who eat more saturated fats than almost any other nation on earth and yet enjoy the second lowest rate of heart disease in the world.
Also consider findings by The Harvard School of Public Health, which reported that in the 1960s ‘fats and oils supplied Americans with about 45% of calories; about 13% of adults were obese and under 1% had type 2 diabetes.’ Whereas today, ‘Americans take in less fat, getting about 33% of calories from fats and oils; yet 34% of adults are obese and 11% have diabetes, most with type 2 diabetes.‘ Something far more complicated than the “saturated fat = bad, unsaturated = good” mantra that has been espoused by government organizations throughout the world over the last few decades.
Learning more about fat
So if fat is not necessarily bad for your health and in fact can actually be quite the opposite, then how do we know what kinds of oils and fats we should be eating? And how has the word ‘fat’ become known as a dietary no-no?
Well in fact many of the reasons why fat has been given a bad wrap are to do with the fact that it is high in calories – people have made the (misinformed) logical leap that high calories alone must be a major factor in weight gain – and that saturated fats have been shown to increase cholesterol – yet another oversimplification.
We now know that the two worst things are trans fats and fats that have been heated beyond their smoke point (that is heated to a temperature where they start smoking – which causes the fat to break down and release free radicals which wreak havoc on your health). This fat couplet is the real reason that fats can be bad for your health – that and the fact that we tend to use the wrong kinds of fats for the wrong cooking purposes.
We also know that some (definitely not all) saturated fats in large quantities can be bad for our heart (which is what has given the word ‘saturated’ a bad name), but also that they stand up better to heat when used in cooking. And that eating raw and unrefined unsaturated oils is very good for our health in a wealth of ways.
Perhaps most interestingly of all is the fact that coconut oil – a saturated fat – is quite the opposite from what you may expect in terms of health. It is very beneficial for the heart, can help lower cholesterol and much, much more! Still Confused? The key is understanding a little bit more about which fats are good for you and which ones aren’t, and which fats to use for which purpose. But first you must understand what oils and fats actually are.
Saturated and unsaturated Fats
The first consideration is how many hydrogen atoms are attached to the backbone of carbon on the triglyceride (the scientific name for fat). Fats can be sorted into saturated, which means the fatty acids have hydrogen atoms attached to all of their bonds. Mono-unsaturated, which means one bond on the fatty acid is free of a hydrogen. And poly-unsaturated, which means more than one fatty acid bond are free of hydrogen.
Whether or not a fat is saturated or unsaturated (both mono or poly) means that an oil or fat will have different properties in terms of how you should use them in your cooking, as well as how they affect your health. However, here’s something you don’t tend to hear that often – no one oil is saturated, mono-unsatured or poly-unsaturated. In fact all oils and fats are a mixture of the three and are categorised as being either saturated, mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated by the dominant percentage of which each particular oil contains.
Short, medium and long chain fats
Fats can also be categorised by how the molecules of the fat fit together irregardless of whether they are saturated or unsaturated. They can be catorgorised into short, medium or long chains of triglycerides (or SCT, MCT and LCT respectively). Dairy fats tend to be short chains, coconut and palm kernal oil (not palm oil from the fruit however – and both are not particularly environmentally friendly with palm oil plantations being one of the main causes of rainforest deforestation worldwide) are both medium chains and all other oils including most vegetable oils and animal fats are long chain.
Medium chain triglycerides, coconut oil specifically, have been shown to not only decrease the risk of heart disease significantly but can also help aid in weight loss. Yes, you read that correctly, coconut oil – a saturated fat (more on this soon) – is good for your heart and can in fact help you lose weight because it is easy to digest; is full of energy and works to speed up your metabolism. It is also good for the immune system being anti-inflammatory; can be heated to high temperatures and is a fantastic anti-biotic. Put simply, coconut oil is nothing short of amazing.
Trans and cis fats
Then there are trans and cis fats which relate to the way atoms on the molecule face (think left and right handed) – these can be saturated, unsaturated, long, medium or short chain triglycerides.
Most natural fats are cis (think right handed). Trans fats can exist in smalls quantities naturally in sheep and cow fats (including butter and milk), but are most commonly created through the process of hydrogenation. Much of the naturally occurring trans fats take the form of conjugated linoleic acid (HLA) which are not thought to have the same affects (mentioned below) as commercially produced partially hydrogenated fats.
Hydrogenation is an industrial process which adds hydrogen atoms to an unsaturated oil in order to make it have a far longer shelf life and in some cases cause unsaturated fats behave like saturated (e.g. margarine). Many oils are only partially hydrogenated, which is actually worse in terms of your health, so you have to look at the label at the back of the product if you want to know if you are consuming trans fats. And even then, as we shall see you may not know.
It is now known that trans fats significantly raise the risk of heart disease by both increasing levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowering levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. They are implicated in a variety of bad health outcomes such as stroke, diabetes and other chronic heart conditions. In 2006 the FDA in the US introduced laws to ensure that all oils have to state their trans-fat content. However, there are currently no such rules in Australasia. Many companies have stopped using products containing trans fat in recognition of what a dangerous product it is. Unfortunately, it still exists in many processed foods, margarine and softened butters.
Historically speaking soy, canola and ‘vegetable’ oils – in particular, but others as well – have tended to be partially hydrogenated and therefore contain trans fats. So do many ‘cheaper’ brands of oil, in small quantities though.
Luckily levels of trans fats in our diet have significantly decreased over the last few years – about 0.55% is the average dietary intake of trans fat calories in Australasia. Unfortunately even small amounts of trans fats can have deleterious long term implications on your health.
According to The Harvard School of Public Health “For every extra 2 percent of calories from trans fat daily intake, the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent!” So be very wary of soy, canola and ‘vegetable’ oils, margarine and highly processed foods – even if they make the claim that they are cholesterol free, while they may not contain cholesterol they will raise the levels of bad and decrease the levels of good cholesterol.
Bear in mind that your own body makes cholesterol regardless of whether or not you eat it in your diet and that trans fats will cause the body to make the wrong type of cholesterol. Most foods are labeled so just look on the back of the packet and check. Although this is not a requirement in many countries. And remember that consuming trans fats is far worse for your health than consuming any kind of saturated fat, even in very very small quantities.
Ok so far we have managed to surmise that trans fats are very bad and should be avoided at all costs, quite literally as it is the cheaper brands that tend to contain them! So what about the much maligned saturated fats?
Another reason why saturated fats are not necessarily bad
Fats that are high in saturated oils include butter, ghee (clarified butter), lard, tallow, coconut oil and palm oil and tend to be solid at room temperature. They are also very stable when exposed to heat, light and air which is why saturated fats tend to have long shelf lives. This makes them behave much better when heated to high temperatures.
As previously mentioned, saturated fats can increase the bad cholesterol levels in your body, with the exception of coconut oil. Well there is actually another exception – stearic acids. It is now thought that stearic acids (a type of saturated fat) does not have the same bad effect on your heart. Incidentally, and quite luckily, stearic acids also tend to be the most stable when heated.
So oils high in stearic acid are the ones ideal for cooking with, have long shelf lives and don’t tend to go rancid easily. These include, beef tallow, lard, cacao butter and butter. Although Butter has the a shorter shelf life because it has other impurities such as milk solids in it – which is also why it is not stable when exposed to heat and burns at very low temperatures. This is why ghee is a preferred cooking medium for high temperatures, as it has the milk solids removed and has a long shelf life and can be heated to approx 250°C , which makes it fine for cooking at high temperatures, including deep frying.
Eating large amounts of saturated fats can increase the risk of heart disease by increasing the levels of LDL cholestrol in your bloodstream. Research has shown that replacing unsaturated fats (only if cold-pressed and unrefined) with saturated fats will significantly decrease the risk. However, seeing saturated fat as an evil food is incorrect. Saturated fats do have health benefits and are not bad for your health if eaten responsibly.
Research has shown that many people who try to cut out saturated fats tend to replace them with highly refined carbohydrates, which are far worse for your heart and health. Hence why you should try and replace saturated fats with unsaturated wherever possible. Also remember that so called ‘saturated’ fats are not in fact 100% saturated.
Lard (shortening), for example, is 39% saturated, 45% mono-unsaturated and 11% poly-unsaturated – which is what makes it (along with being high in stearic acid) both reasonably healthy and stable for heating and cooking with. It has high unsaturated fat content which is good for your heart (these are the omega 3-6-9’s) and high saturated fat content which makes it highly stable under intense heat.
Just remember that when it comes to animal fat it is quite important that you eat fat from healthy, preferably organic animals. Why? This is because fat tissue is essentially used as the junk yard of the body for both animals and humans. If the body has toxins that can’t be eliminated through the liver, then it will store them in fat cells to get them out of circulation in the bloodstream as quickly as possible.
Also consider those medium chain saturated fats such as coconut which both have over 85% saturated fat content which are not bad for your heart health and are in fact are very beneficial.
Unsaturated fats are one of the best things for your health
Mono-unsaturated fats such as olive oil, nut oils (almond, hazelnut, walnuts etc) and avocado oil tend to be prized for their unique (and delicious!) flavours and health benefits; but are not very stable due to the fact that it is very easy for free radicals to attach themselves to the available bond and cause the oil to go bad (rancid).
Unsaturated oil also do not stand up well to heat, light and oxidization and go rancid very quickly. So you want these oils to be cold-pressed, fresh, refrigerated and stored in a dark bottle. Quality over quantity is definitely the mantra here. These are the oils that you want to be lavishing on your salads and spattering over your food to give it a beautiful sheen and extra taste – if you use quality cold pressed extra virgin oils they are very healthy.
Poly-unsaturated oils such as peanut, safflower, flaxseed (or linseed), chia seed, fish, soybean and canola oil are even more volatile due to the fact they have more free bonds available. Some of the more commonly used ones like soy, canola and safflower also tend be mild in flavour – which is actually a slight misnomer. This is because poly-unsaturated oils are very very volatile when exposed to heat, light and oxidization, so they are nearly always heavily refined in order to hide the fact that they have gone completely rancid by the time they reach the shop shelves. This is not always true, however. Fats high omega-3 such as fish and flaxseed oils tend be flavourful and usually unrefined.
But be very wary of buying poly-unsaturated oils. Always look for quality brands and cold-pressed extracts. If the oil is light in flavour then it is almost definitely refined and should be avoided.
Summary of Healthy Fats and Oils
The refined oils can be heated to higher temperatures so can be good for frying etc. But remember that being refined they will have very little nutrients available and not be beneficial for your health – i.e. empty calories. Also refined oils are often partially hydrogenated (and therefore contain trans fats) – which should be avoided at all costs. Some of the poly-unsaturated oils are good for heating to high temperatures such as peanut and rice bran oil. For more info check out this deep frying article.
Fat is an essential part of our diet and carries flavour molecules about in our food in ways that nothing else can. This makes it an essential part of every cuisine and dietary need. Just remember that trans fats are very bad, unsaturated fats are indeed very beneficial for you health in numerous ways, but need to be unrefined, fresh and cold pressed – better to buy quality here. And finally, the much maligned saturated fats are not necessarily bad for you. Coconut oil is indeed very good for your health, while other saturated animal fats are more stable for heating to high temperatures but eat these responsibly.
If you buy the better quality oils, learn the proper cooking techniques you need not stress about limiting fat from your diet at every turn. In fact they are quite good for you health, not to mention the taste of your food!