This article was originally published in Dot Connector magazine issue No.13, 2011.
Probably More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Fat and Thought You Already Knew, But Didn’t
Ideas seem to have a way of ingraining themselves in mass consciousness such that it is difficult, if not impossible, to uproot them. Get enough people behind an idea and the idea becomes “truth”, even if it has no basis in objective reality. Like some kind of weed that grows in the gardens of people’s imaginations, ideas, even if they’re wrong, can be quite persistent. Gardeners of truth may work hard in the garden of the mind to remove these weeds, yet their deep roots may often evade the well-intentioned gardener. Tireless efforts often seem successful, only for the same tired idea to poke its head up through the undergrowth once more. This brings the stark realization that the weed was never gone at all, but its roots were merely hidden from view, growing ever more expansive beneath the surface.
After nearly a century of the ‘fat is evil’ weed, gardeners of truth may finally be making some headway in the garden of the collective mind. Since the inception of the ‘lipid hypothesis’, researchers, nutritionists and journalists alike have been pulling up this weed, exposing the logical inconsistencies of tying natural fats to disease.
Decades of low-fat diets have failed to slow a rising obesity epidemic or stem the tide of widespread chronic disease. In fact, new research presented at the American Dietetic Association’s Annual Food and Nutrition Conference in Boston shows that a low-fat diet is actually dangerous. Swapping out natural high-fat foods for their processed counterparts leads to a diet high in refined carbohydrates (sugar), additives and other dangerous ingredients that are probably the actual culprits in our growing epidemic of poor health. Thankfully, some of the more aware among us are beginning to realize that the dietary recommendations given to us by our governments, our doctors and our dietitians over the past 3 generations simply do not work.
Yet the roots of the weeds are still present. Never in the history of human nutritional science has one macronutrient been so maligned, so misunderstood and so falsely accused as fat has been post-World War II. The idea that fat not only makes you fat, but blocks up your arteries, raises your cholesterol to dangerous levels, gives you diabetes and heart disease, and causes strokes and all sorts of cancers is not easy to vanquish. Even when presented with the science, the logical arguments that show eating the right fat is neither dangerous nor unhealthy (and mightily delicious at that), people are still extremely tentative in their consumption and experts are still ultra-conservative in their recommendations.
In the days of our great-grandparents, before obesity epidemics and plagues of chronic disease, fat consumption was abundant. Animal fats were valued for their ability to withstand high temperatures and add delectable flavor and texture to meals. It wasn’t until the rise of seed oils – oils much less fit for human consumption in large quantities and removed from their original whole source – that our health began to fail. The advertising of these seed oils propagated then, and still to this day, tries to convince us that they are the healthy alternative to ‘dangerous’ animal fats. And yet, as their consumption increases, so too do chronic disease rates.
Recommendations from the ‘experts’, firmly entrenched in this seemingly unmovable meme, have continued to demonize animal fats in favor of vegetable oils. If you’re getting sick, you’re obviously not following these recommendations to the letter. And if you are, then it’s time to make the recommendations even more stringent, allowing for less animal fat; indeed, less fat altogether.
As time has worn on in this anti-fat regime, ‘health foods’ have become more and more bland in favor of lower target numbers of fat on nutrition labels. Every chef knows that fat equals flavor. To replace these natural flavorful nutrients, it’s necessary to fool our tongues with something. Thus these flavor-enhancing chemicals, particularly monosodium glutamate, have become a necessity for anyone to actually moderately enjoy what essentially amounts to low-calorie, low-fat cardboard. Sugar, or, more likely, high-fructose corn syrup, now saturates every processed food on the grocery store shelf. All in the name of your ‘health’, of course.
The question is, can we go back to a time when fats were valued for what they are – delicious, nutritious, nutrient-dense components of our diets? There is abundant research showing the benefit of fats, saturated fats from animal sources in particular. Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, Know Your Fats by Dr. Mary G. Enig, ‘The Whole Health Source‘ blog done by Stephan Guyenet, a number of articles by Dr. Joseph Mercola on www.mercola.com, along with thousands of other books, blogs and articles, present the well-reasoned, scientifically-grounded arguments for abundant fat consumption. These arguments are reaching millions. And still, we hesitate.
In a way, this hesitation is understandable. We’re still surrounded on all sides by half-truths and misrepresentations when it comes to the topic of fats. Advertising copy, rumors and hearsay make up most of the sources of information on health and nutrition in the modern landscape. On the other hand, we have doctors untrained in nutrition and articles written by journalists with only a peripheral understanding of this complex topic. Most information heard in the media is simply a retreading of previously-heard information, while little critical thought or analysis is added to the debate. Indeed, no critical debate seems to exist.
But the word is getting out. Some have switched back from margarine to natural healthy butter. Some have even gone so far as to ditch the highly-refined vegetable oils supposedly good for cooking in favor of coconut oil (gasp, a saturated fat!). Some experts are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. to remove the total fat counts from nutritional labels.
Yet few have truly embraced the new fat renaissance. You still have to search far and wide in North America for preservative-free, non-hydrogenated lard, for instance. Ask your butcher for beef tallow and he’s likely to raise a brow before ‘seeing what he can do’. Animal fats, while available by the quart in France for example, are only found in high-end food stores here in North America, in small quantities and for high prices. Because seed oils are still the norm, it just can’t be imagined that someone would want to use animal fats for anything other than the most indulgent treat on the rarest of occasions, despite the fact that grandma used to use it for everything from frying taters to making pie crust.
Know Your Fats
Despite an increasing appreciation for dietary fat, using fats in the wrong way can, indeed, lead to ill health and damage the body. There are fats out there that can have all the negative effects which fat as a whole has been accused of having for the past several decades. Likewise, healthy fats treated in the wrong way can be as equally damaging. The fat revolution doesn’t imply that extra mayo should go on that BLT, and it certainly doesn’t suddenly transform fast food joint french fries into a health food.
Understand that the vast majority of what we hear about fat – in the media, from our friends, even from our doctors – is simply wrong. The ‘fat-is-evil’ weed is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that fat recommendations are still overcautious. Even alternative health professionals often hedge their recommendations with warnings about eating too much fat and it’s still rare to find an ‘expert’ recommending saturated fat consumption. Word is spreading, but it has yet to reach everyone and, unfortunately, the people with the loudest voice seem to be the last to get hip to the truth.
Thus, the first order in getting our society turned around on fat is education. To get a healthy relationship with fat, we need to have a healthy understanding of fat. Knowing the rules, and why the rules apply, means never being confused about which ‘health’ foods are actually healthy and which ‘junk’ foods are actually the ones to be eating. Seeing through the hype on fats is key.
Before we get into the technical details on why some fats are good and some are bad, here’s a quick rundown on how to identify certain fats and oils and how best to deal with them:
Polyunsaturated Fats – These are usually from nut and seed oils. You can tell whether an oil is mostly made up of polyunsaturated fats if it stays liquid even when it’s put in the fridge. They are often referred to as ‘essential fats’ or ‘essential fatty acids’ (EFAs) because they are needed for the proper functioning of our bodies, but they cannot be created from other fats. You also hear them referred to as omega-3s or omega-6s. However, polyunsaturated fats should never be used for cooking or otherwise heated. These fats are quite delicate and can easily go rancid, turning them into harmful oils which promote disease. As such, they need to be protected from heat, light and even air. Polyunsaturated oils should be sold in a dark bottle, only be ‘cold pressed’ (i.e. no heat is used in the extraction process) and should never be used as a cooking oil. Unfortunately, the oils from the grocery store sold in clear plastic bottles for the express purpose of cooking are all polyunsaturated oils!
Polyunsaturated Fats include – safflower oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, hemp seed oil, flaxseed oil, borage oil, fish oils
Best used for – cold applications only: salads, smoothies, supplements (as with flaxseed or fish oil)
Look for – dark bottles, sold in the refrigerated section, cold pressed, organic
Monounsaturated Fats – These fats are found in some vegetables, nuts and fruits and make up a good part of the fats found in meats. They are a little bit heartier than polyunsaturated oils and can be used for some light-heat applications like light sautéing or baking. The most common vegetable-sourced monounsaturated fat is olive oil. You can tell whether an oil is mostly monounsaturated fats because it becomes gelatinous and sludgy when put in the fridge but stays liquid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated Fats include – olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, hazelnut oil
Best used for – cold applications like salads, dips or pestos; light sautéing or some baking
Look for – dark glass bottles, cold pressed, organic
Saturated Fat – Don’t believe the hype – saturated fat is good for you! Despite almost a century of dietary recommendations against intake of saturated fat, the public is finally starting to catch up with what some researchers and holistic health professionals have known all along: that saturated fat consumption actually promotes health. Saturated fats are found in meats, some dairy products, and eggs, as well as some tropical vegetables. They are ideal for cooking as they can withstand much higher temperatures than other oils. You know a fat is saturated if it is solid or semi-solid at room temperature.
Saturated Fats include – duck fat, goose fat, beef tallow, butter, ghee, lard (pork fat), coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and red palm oil. Note: duck fat and lard actually have a higher content of monounsaturated fats than saturated fats but are grouped in with saturated fats since they make up a third or more of their total fat, and because everyone thinks that animal fats are entirely saturated; an unfortunate misconception.
Best used for – all high-heat applications including searing, frying, deep or shallow-frying, baking, etc.
Look for – organic
Fats to avoid at all costs – all polyunsaturated oils sold for cooking, anything sold in clear plastic bottles, margarines or other tub spreads, any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats, interesterified fats, vegetable shortening, ‘vegetable oil’, cottonseed oil, all genetically modified oils like canola oil, corn oil and soy oil.
There were, more than likely, a few surprises for the reader in the above outline. The truth about how to best use fats has been so subverted that we don’t recognize it when we see it. The vast majority of the fats and oils on my “No” list are the exact oils you find in 90% of processed foods on the market. We’re encouraged to cook with the fats that are most easily damaged by heat, thereby causing harm when consumed, while we’re told to avoid the fats that are actually good for cooking!
The remainder of this article is going to be looking at why the outline above is true. In order to do that, we first need to examine the chemistry of fats. The molecular structure of fats is what gives them their unique properties; what makes some right for cooking, others right for supplementing and others good for little more than oiling your bike chain.
Firstly, the nomenclature. Lipid is the scientific name for fat. The term fat generally refers to lipids that are relatively solid at room temperature, while those that are liquid at room temperature are called oils. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, however, as the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and the term fat is often used to denote any lipid.
On a microscopic level, fatty acids are bonded carbon chains connected to an acid group (carboxyl group). The carbon atoms in the chain are either bonded to other carbons or to hydrogen atoms. A carbon chain which has all available bonds taken up by hydrogen atoms is said to be saturated, because no more hydrogen could possibly be added to the chain. But, if some of the available bonds are used to form double bonds with carbon atoms in the chain, these fatty acids are said to be unsaturated, since more hydrogen atoms could potentially still fit in. A fatty acid with one double bond is called monounsaturated, while fatty acids with more than one double bond are polyunsaturated.
The position where the first double bond shows up in the chain determines how we name it. If the first double bond comes after the third carbon, it’s called an omega-3 fat (w3). If it’s in the sixth position, it’s an omega-6 (w6) and in the ninth, an omega-9 (w9). This isn’t just for labeling purposes – these fats have very different properties and need to be distinguished. Unsaturated fats can have as many as six double bonds in the chain. The more double bonds, the more delicate and unstable.
A fat molecule, as distinguished from individual fatty acids, is composed of three fatty acid molecules bonded to a glycerol molecule. This is called a triglyceride and it is generally the form in which you find fats in nature. When we digest fats, enzymes in our digestive tract break the fatty acids away from the glycerol molecule and the individual fatty acids are absorbed. Which fatty acids are present in a triglyceride molecule determines the fat’s characteristics, including its shape, its behavior and its stability.
Why am I going into this much detail, you may ask?! Because the molecular structure of the fatty acid dictates its characteristics – how it behaves when heated, when refrigerated, when exposed to light and, of course, what the body does with it when consumed. In a word, structure is everything. The key to understanding your fats and what to do with them lies in understanding their structure.
When double bonds are present in a fatty acid it is said to be unsaturated, since some of the bonds are doubled up between the carbon atoms and are therefore not occupied by hydrogen. These double bonds in the fatty acid chains make the chain bend. The more double bonds, the more kinky or bent the fatty acid is.
The double bonds make the properties of unsaturated fats quite different from saturated fats. Because the molecules are bent, they can’t stack. They therefore remain in a loose formation and are liquid on a macroscopic level. The double bonds also carry a slight negative charge, meaning the fatty acids repel each other slightly. The more unsaturated fatty acids present in a lipid, the more liquid it is. Monounsaturated fats, like the predominant fat in olive oil, oleic acid, have only one double bond. It’s therefore liquid at room temperature and gets sludgy when chilled. On the other hand, flaxseed oil, which is predominantly an omega-3 fat called alpha linolenic acid, has three double bonds. It’s therefore liquid at room temperature and in the fridge.
Double bonds are quite delicate and susceptible to oxidation. This can happen when they’re exposed to heat, or even light, in the presence of oxygen. Since heat-free, light-free, oxygen-free conditions are difficult to find here on the surface of our planet, Mother Nature was smart enough to pair these oils with antioxidant molecules for protection. For example, plant foods rich in unsaturated fats are often good sources of vitamin E, the fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin that can protect the fragile double bonds from free radical damage.
A damaged double bond means the fat is rancid. Rancid fats are actually quite dangerous to eat, causing free radical formation that can cause damage to cells. Damage to the DNA within the cell can cause mutations in the genetic structure and lead to cancer. Fortunately, we’ve been equipped with a means o detecting a rancid oil – our nose. Rancid oils smell spoiled. If you do end up eating one, they taste spoiled too.
Processing to extract polyunsaturated oils, usually from seeds, grains or nuts, inevitably damages the antioxidants, making the oils highly volatile and causing them to readily turn rancid. Some processors are mindful of this and use cold pressing and minimal refining processes to keep these oils from becoming damaged. These oils are usually only found in health food stores, and are sold in the refrigerator and in dark bottles to protect the oils.
However, such well-processed oils constitute the minority. Most polyunsaturated oils are processed extensively to maximize extraction. The seeds are heated, then distilled, refined, bleached and deodorized. This process damages the antioxidants and damages the oils themselves. A preservative chemical, such as the carcinogenic BHA or BHT, is generally added to replace the lost antioxidants and to prevent further spoilage. But make no mistake, these oils are rancid from the get-go. The only reason you can’t tell is because they have been deodorized and ultra-refined. They are not fit for human consumption!
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats are referred to as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). This is because our body is unable to make them from existing fats. Our bodies, for example, can create the w9 fat oleic acid by inserting a double bond into the ninth position of the saturated fat stearic acid. But our bodies are unable to insert a double bond at the w3 or w6 position. Therefore, it is essential that these fats be present in the diet.
There is some disagreement among researchers as to how much of these essential fats are needed in the diet. Bodily needs vary according to time of year, level of physical activity and other nutrients in the diet, among other confounding factors. Some say the ratio between w6 and w3 is equally important, perhaps more important, than the actual quantity in the diet. But even the ideal ratio is up for debate. Some researchers put the ratio anywhere from 5:1 up to 2:1 or 1:1 of w6 to w3.
As a general guideline, the Western diet tends to be extremely high in w6 consumption and extremely low in w3. The ratio is said to be as much as 20:1 or greater. Part of this can be blamed on the extensive use of processed vegetable oils which are high in w6 and low in, or completely void of, w3. Because w3 fats are more delicate, having more double bonds they turn rancid more easily. For this reason, they are often removed in the processing of vegetable oils.
Another reason for this disequilibrium in the EFA ratio could be the widely propagated recommendation to favor poultry instead of red meats. Chicken fat has a 20:1 ratio of w6 to w3, whereas beef is closer to 4:1. And fish consumption, which is very high in w3 fats, tends to be low in developed nations.
Whatever the reason, it is generally recommended that individuals supplement w3 fats and avoid supplementing w6 (enough is found in the diet that they do not need to be supplemented). Omega-6 fats convert to inflammatory prostaglandins in the body and, while some inflammation is necessary, too many inflammatory fats can lead to chronic inflammation. Conversely, w3 fats are converted to
anti-inflammatory prostaglandins in the body and are thus highly essential. Is it any wonder that widespread chronic inflammation has become epidemic in the last hundred years?
In order to balance this ratio, supplementation with w3s should be undertaken. While w3s from vegetable sources, like flaxseed oil or chia oil, are certainly beneficial, the body needs to convert these fats to the usable forms of EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively). While some researchers feel this conversion is not an issue for concern, other research has shown that relying solely on vegetable sources for w3 fatty acids will not provide enough of the important EPA and DHA. Because it is an excellent source of both EPA and DHA, it is highly recommended that fish oil be used as a supplement.
EPA and DHA keep blood platelets from becoming sticky, which results in blood becoming more prone to clotting. They have also been found to lower the necessity for repair proteins in the blood, a build-up of which leads to atherosclerosis (that’s right, fat is good for the heart!). EPA and DHA also lower levels of blood triglycerides, LDL and VLDL cholesterol, decreasing hypertension and the risk of strokes and heart attacks. In animal studies, w3 fish oils have also been found to inhibit the growth of tumors.
Saturated fats, being completely saturated with hydrogen atoms, are straight chains and are very stable. They don’t carry an electrical charge and are thus used mostly for energy and maintaining cell structure in the human body. Because they are straight lines, they stack quite easily, which is why they are solid even at room temperature.
The case against saturated fat has been showing kinks in its armor ever since it was dropped on the scene over half a century ago. Researcher Ancel Keys first proposed what would later be called ‘the lipid hypothesis’ with a study showing a strong correlation between heart disease and saturated fat consumption. As it happens, the study was a complete fraud; Keys chose not to include the abundant evidence that went against his tidy correlation. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the evidence; he just chose not to publish it.
Even at the time, a number of researchers spoke out against the lipid hypothesis, but they were drowned out by the din of food processors and seed oil manufacturers all advertising the benefits of their fats over “dangerous” saturated fats. Not only was margarine now cheaper, it was “healthier”.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition speaks volumes: “Our meta-analysis showed that there is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD,” writes Dr. Ronald Krauss, lead researcher from Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California. These researchers pooled data from 21 different studies, looking at almost 350,000 subjects and found no relationship between disease and saturated fat consumption.
Another study out of Japan, also published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, presented a startling blow to the lipid hypothesis. Subjects eating the most saturated fat in the study had no increased risk of death due to cardiac event or subarachnoid hemorrhage and had a 31% reduced risk of all types of stroke. Furthermore, those with the higher intakes of saturated fat had a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
The lipid hypothesis is responsible for huge changes in the foods we eat. Overall, the consumption of animal fat between 1910 and 1970 decreased by 21%, and yet heart disease rates increased exponentially. Meanwhile consumption of margarine has increased 800%, vegetable shortening 275% and salad and cooking oils increased 1,450% between 1909 and 1999. There is clearly something wrong with the lipid hypothesis.
While polyunsaturated oils are technically “heart healthy,” they are not needed in the massive quantities currently consumed. This is where a critical error in fat recommendations comes into play. Just because something is good for us, like w3 and w6 fats, does that mean we should consume lots of it?
If we consider the fact that the majority of polyunsaturates are consumed in the form of refined seed oils, as cooking oil, margarine spreads and in processed foods, we can see why we might be encountering our current health problems as a society (even leaving aside hydrogenation, which we’ll address below). Seed oils, without the aid of industrial processing, would only ever be consumed in minuscule amounts as part of an entire seed. It is only with industrialization, with the ability to process huge quantities of seeds in order to extract their oil, that we’ve begun to see mass consumption of these seed oils. Prior to this, most polyunsaturated oils came from meat consumption, in relatively small quantities compared to saturates and monounsaturates. If we allow that the epidemic of chronic disease is a modern phenomenon, perhaps it’s time to consider that this is the kind of fat consumption that most suits us as a species?
The case against saturated fat has always been weak. How can a macronutrient that has been a major component of the human food chain for hundreds of thousands of years be harmful? How, in all that time, did we not evolve to take this food in without doing harm to ourselves? The answer is simple – saturated fat is not harmful in the human diet. It does not require moderation or careful measurement. It can be eaten with abandon.
Stearic acid, the main saturated fat found in beef, lamb and other meats, is easily converted by the body into oleic acid, the much-hyped monounsaturated oil found in “heart healthy” olive oil. Lauric acid, the main saturated fat found in coconut oil, has antibacterial and antiviral properties that make it highly valuable in the diets of those who eat coconut regularly. Butyric acid, the saturated fat found in butter, is used as fuel for the cells of the colon and was found to increase mitochondrial activity (energy production), energy levels, lower blood triglyceride levels and to increase insulin sensitivity in studies of mice. It also suppresses inflammation in the gut and increases resistance to metabolic and physical stress. I could go on; the benefits of saturated fats go much further than this!
But this “fat-is-evil” weed just refuses to be pulled up. Western government agencies are steadfast in their recommendations to lower total fat consumption and saturated fat consumption in particular. The problem seems to be that a number of studies have linked the “Western diet” to greater heart disease risk. There is little doubt that this is true; however, these agencies seem to be oblivious to what the actual cause of the problem is — instead, they assume the problem lies with saturated fat. What is desperately needed are studies which separate out natural saturated fat consumption from other possible causes of heart disease, including refined carbohydrates like sugar and white bread, over-processed foods high in chemical additives, and especially trans fats.
Trans fats are unsaturated fats whose structure has been altered. Some are naturally-occurring, but the majority found in people’s diets are artificially created by a process called “hydrogenation,” whereby processors take an unsaturated oil, usually a cheap seed oil like soy or corn, subject it to intense pressure and heat, and then inject it with hydrogen gas. This process artificially saturates the fat, breaking the double bonds between carbons and allowing hydrogen atoms to attach. It also affects the double bonds that remain, “twisting” them into a shape quite different from that previously held.
Normally, the two remaining hydrogen atoms adjacent to a double bond occur on the same side of the molecule. Because the two hydrogen atoms have the same charge, they repel each other slightly, thus causing the characteristic bend in unsaturated fats. Having the two hydrogen atoms on the same side is called a “cis” configuration. But the pressure and heat from hydrogenation causes the remaining hydrogens at double bond points to move to opposite sides of the molecule. This is called the “trans” configuration.
Because the two hydrogens are now on opposite sides of the molecule, they no longer repel each other. This means that previously bent fatty acids become straight like saturated fats. Thus an oil like soy oil, which is normally liquid at room temperature, now becomes a more solid “saturate equivalent”, mimicking the properties of a saturated fat like butter. However, these fats are extremely dangerous to consume, being often referred to as “plastic” fats. Studies have shown that heart disease, diabetes, cancer, low birth-weight, obesity and immune dysfunction are highly correlated to trans fat consumption. Note that some of the hydrogenated fats used in processed foods, like margarines, vegetable shortenings and deep fryer shortenings, can be composed of as much as 50% trans fat.
On a physiological level, trans fats are an anomaly in the body. They have double bonds like an unsaturated fat, but they are structurally straight, like a saturated fat. Physically, the body doesn’t really know what to do with them. They have a different melting point, chemical activity, as well as enzyme and membrane fit. They take the place of cis- form fats, but cannot do the same work.
Trans fats disrupt cellular function by affecting many enzymes, thus preventing certain necessary conversions of essential fatty acids. In this way they can aggravate and intensify existing EFA deficiencies. As Mary G. Enig, PhD. points out in her book Know Your Fats, trans fats have also been found to: lower HDL cholesterol and raise LDL; raise Lp(a) levels, increasing incidence of atherosclerosis by two to three times (note that saturated fat consumption actually lowers Lp(a) levels); lower the quality of breast milk by decreasing cream volume, possibly contributing to malnourished infants; decrease visual acuity in infants fed on breast milk with trans fats present; correlate with low birth-weight; increase blood insulin response; lower the efficiency of immune cells; decrease testosterone levels and increase the amount of abnormal sperm; interfere with important enzymes needed for detoxification of carcinogens and medications; interfere with cell membrane fluidity, causing problems with nutrient transport into and out of the cells; cause increase in adipose (fat tissue) cell size; increase free radical formation; and precipitate asthma in children.
In short, avoid trans fats like the plague! But this begs the question: why would anyone want to do this to oils? Food industrialists, wishing to get away from using the shunned saturated fats, found that with hydrogenation they could use publicly accepted vegetable oils instead of animal fats and still come up with the consistency of a saturated fat. As Dr. Enig states,
“You can cream a cup of fat into a cup of sugar and two cups of flour, and the resulting dough can be baked into a well-shaped cookie. If you try to substitute a cup of oil for the fat, you will be disappointed with the greasy flat “cookie.” Foods that are fried in unrefined oil are also frequently greasy. The food industry knows that cookies and crackers, as well as cakes, pastries, and donuts have to be made with a fat at least as firm as a soft fat like lard or palm oil, so the industry changes the very liquid oils, such as soybean, corn, canola, cottonseed, and sometimes peanut oils and safflower oils, into fats by [partial hydrogenation].”
But cookie consistency isn’t the only reason. Hydrogenation also makes products more shelf-stable, lasting much longer than products made with unprocessed fats. This is partly because the solvents used in the extraction process for seed oils often destroy the protective antioxidants naturally present in the seeds. Without their protective antioxidant compounds, seed oils quickly turn rancid. By hydrogenating seed oils, this process is stayed and shelf-life is increased considerably.
Hydrogenated fats are also more resistant to oxidation, polymerization and heat damage. With higher heat points, the fast food industry loves them because they are more durable than vegetable oils in high-heat applications like deep fryers. When you get right down to it, none of this processing would be happening if it wasn’t cost-effective. The fact is, seed oils are cheap, and even when put through the hydrogenation process they still end up significantly cheaper than animal fats, or the pricey saturated vegetable fats which they’re attempting to mimic.
Ironically, it is believed by some researchers that much of the bad name given to saturated fats over the years is actually thanks to trans fats. When the early studies were being done on saturated fats, the effects of trans fats on human health were still unknown. It was believed that, since hydrogenation was artificially saturating the fatty acids, hydrogenated fats were the same thing as saturated fats. Thus, when studies found declining health in subjects eating these hydrogenated fats, it was assumed these properties applied to saturated fats. Much of this bad rap exists to this day.
Just because society at large has been programmed with the wrong information on fats doesn’t mean that you have to be. Armed with a little knowledge, your health can be put on the right track even while the rest of the populace is on the wrong track. It isn’t difficult to avoid becoming yet another chronic disease statistic, or to turn yourself around if you already are. But it does require the right knowledge about what to consume.
While you’re digesting my brief biochemistry lesson, here is a quick and easy list of “Fat Rules” to help guide your choices. Follow these rules and you’re on your way to a healthier diet and to rediscovering the joy of fat!
The Fat Rules
Eat a lot of fat. It is not going to make you fat, clog your arteries or give you cancer. The reason fat tastes so good is because your body needs it. Give your body what it needs.
Animal fats for high heat. Cook with animal fats. They are the most heat-stable and will thus be relatively undamaged even with high-heat applications. This may mean the majority of the fat you get will be saturated (although, note that animal fats like lard and duck fat are actually mostly monounsaturated). This is a good thing. Ghee, duck fat, lard and beef tallow are all good choices. Saturated vegetable oils like red palm oil or coconut oil will do in a pinch, but are second best.
Monounsaturates for moderate heat. Use these oils from vegetable sources for cold applications like salads, moderate heat applications like pouring over hot vegetables or, if you like, for light sautéing. They are relatively heat-stable, but you don’t want to heat them too much. Extra virgin olive oil is great, full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, but don’t waste it by using it where an animal fat would do a better job, like cooking at higher temperatures.
Polyunsaturates for cold. These oils are really best as supplements. You can add some to your salad dressing or smoothie if you want to, but it’s not really necessary. Take your fish oil or flax oil as a supplement and get the rest of these important fats from your diet.
Never heat polyunsaturated oils. Yes, they are sold as cooking oils in the supermarket and yes, every deep fryer in every restaurant you’ve ever been to is filled with polyunsaturated oil (usually hydrogenated), but these oils are very delicate and will be damaged by heat (or by light or air exposure). There is no good reason to buy vegetable oils that are sold for cooking.
Don’t supplement omega-6. Although w6s are essential, they do not need to be supplemented. We get tons of w6 fats in our diets from nuts, seeds, vegetables and meats. Keeping the ratio of w3 to w6 in its proper proportion is vital, and supplementing with w6 will throw this balance out completely.
Do supplement omega-3. The w3 fats are the ones that we’re generally short on. Supplementing these will help to push out any plastic fats that have accumulated in the tissues and will maintain the w3:w6 ratio. Fish oil is the best source with flaxseed or chia seed a good secondary source.
Avoid hydrogenated fats outright. Check food labels diligently. Even if the product says “0g trans fats,” it still, by law, can contain up to 0.5 grams per serving (and considering the fact that food processors can designate serving size any way they like, these numbers are truly meaningless). Look for the word “hydrogenated” on ingredients lists. If it’s there, this food is plastic. Don’t eat plastic.
Skip spreads. Since saturated fats are not harmful, there’s no reason to buy processed vegetable spreads that employ different tricks to imitate the properties of the real stuff. Hydrogenation, interesterification, and the use of thickeners and blending fats and oils are all employed to make something inherently unspreadable into something apparently spreadable. Just go for the real thing – butter. Better yet, boil the butter to make it into ‘ghee’ – it’s more stable, is free of dairy proteins and lasts outside of the fridge for months.
Names are more for convenience. Remember that no fat is entirely saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Every fat source is a mixed bag of all these types. We refer to animal fats as “saturated” and vegetable oils as “polyunsaturated” as a kind of shorthand. But lard and duck fat actually have more monounsaturated than saturated fats. Even olive oil contains some saturated fat and you can get omega-3s from butter. Remember not to take these labels as gospel.
Good fat is good, bad fat is bad. This article should not be taken as free license to load up on processed junk foods and fatty meats and dairy products from factory-farmed animals. There is still the need to be vigilant in what we eat, including avoidance of over-processed, nutrient-depleted faux foods and meat and dairy from sick animals. Choose fresh, choose organic and choose local. Avoid processed anything.