We’ve all heard that saturated fats are bad. It clogs our arteries, it makes us gain weight, it has bad cholesterol and the list of terrible things seems to go on and on. We watch TV and every other commercial is about low fat yogurt or some such thing. But, there is a new movement emerging out there, quietly mind you, since low fat diets are a huge market now, and it’s saying that saturated fats are not only not bad for us, they’re actually quite healthy. When I think about it, it makes sense: our ancestors ate a lot of animal fat, the traditional Inuits pretty much have a diet of blubber and are real healthy tough cookies, and what about the fact that our own body produces saturated fats to store energy?
Don’t rejoice too quickly though. Even if saturated fats are part of a healthy diet, there are other fats out there we want to avoid. Typically, on food labels, you will see saturated fats, transfats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. So what does it even all mean?
Saturated fats: these are found in animal tissue and tropical oils, like coconut or palm. They help our body absorb many important minerals and vitamins (which are fat soluble). They also protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins and help enhance the immune system.
Monounsaturated fats: these are found in olive oil, avocadoes, almonds, pecans, cashews and peanuts in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats are stable and do not go rancid easily, unlike polyunsaturated fats. Our body produces and uses monounsaturated fats for many different functions.
Polyunsaturated fats: this is a tricky one. Polyunsaturated fats contain the essential omega-3s and omega-6s, which the body cannot make on its own, that’s why they are called essential. Even so, it does not make polyunsaturated fats healthy, since they go rancid when heated. Rancid oils are characterized by free radicals, which attack cells and causes damage in DNA/NRA strands. What? That translates to things like wrinkles, premature aging, tumors, plaque and autoimmune diseases. Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, canola), which is in almost all packaged and processed food. Our diet today can contain as much as 30% of calories from polyunsaturated fats, but research indicates that a healthy number should be 4%, just like our ancestors consumed.
Another big problem with commercial vegetable oils is that they have much more Omega-6 than Omega-3. Too much Omega-6 is linked with blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer and weight gain. Not enough Omega-3 is linked with asthma, learning defficiencies and heart disease. This is an imbalance that is extremely hard to fix, because vegetable oils are everywhere and good sources of Omega-3 are becoming more and more scarce. Did you know that eggs used to contain a ration of 1:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but commercial supermarket eggs can contain as much as nineteen more times Omega-6.
Transfats: these are hydrogenated oils. Avoid them like the plague. Basically, hydrogenated oils are polyunsaturated fats (so cheap oils, like corn or soy), already rancid from the extraction process, which are mixed with metal particles like nickel oxide. Then comes the high pressure, high temperature, and emulsifiers and starches are added. Did you know margarine is naturally grey? So after all that, the hydrogenated oils are bleached to make them more appealing (somehow, it’s not working for me). Partially hydrogenated oils are much worse than fully hydrogenated oils, but I suggest staying away from both. Which, one more time, can be hard to do, because if a product has less than 0.5g of transfat, it will be listed as 0 transfat. Just read the ingredients and stay away from hydrogenated oils.
So now that you know more about fats, here is how to choose oils. First, it’s important to know that oils all have a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, just in different quantities. Good oils will be rich in saturated/monounsaturated fats and the ones you want to stay away from will have more polyunsaturated and transfats.
What do I use?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: I love the taste, I enjoy it a lot in salads and it’s a healthy, useful oil to keep in the pantry.
High Oleic Sunflower Oil: If you must have a seed oil… well this is probably the healthiest out there. Make sure it’s not plain sunflower oil, but the high oleic one. It’s very rich in monounsatured fats and barely has any polyunsaturated fats. I’ve never found this at the grocery store (don’t confuse it with high oleic safflower oil, the ratio of mono to poly isn’t as healthy) but I know some places sell it, just not in my area. It’s easy enough to buy online though.
Coconut Oil: This is a great oil for baking. It does have a strong coconut taste though. You can find this in any Whole Foods. Note that it is semi-solid at room temperature.
Red Palm Oil: I use it for deep frying. This oil is also rich in betacarotene, which is what gives it its rich red color. It’s an oil that’s impossible to find in grocery store… I heard it used to be very popular and after the whole deal with “saturated fats are terrible!”, it got a bad reputation. I buy mine online in bulk and even though it’s a bit pricier, since I use it mainly for frying, it lasts a very long time.
Butter: I love butter. I use it to sautee onions, garlic, mushrooms. I also use it all the time for baked goods. If any recipe requires oil, I try and substitute butter as much as I can.
Lard: I’ve never actually cooked with it, but the rare times I buy chips at the grocery store, I always pick ones that were fried in lard.
No, I did not make all of this stuff up. I’ve been reading a lot on fats lately and these are the articles that spoke to me the most. They’re all backed up with actual studies and they are an absolute must read if you want to be on the right path to healthy eating.