Fats: Which to Eat & Which to Ditch
I get a TON of questions regarding fats and oils. And rightfully so. There is a TON of confusing, conflicting and darn right misleading information out there about which are the healthy ones for us to consume. I tend to come back to my three basic decision-making questions regarding pretty much any food choices and those are:
- Did my great, great grandmother eat this? (Or somebody’s great, great grandmother in another country.)
How much processing is required for this food to go from the plant or animal to the item I’m about to eat?
Does it TASTE good? (Really, if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point?)
One of the reasons people get confused about fats and oils is that there are SO many out there on the grocery store shelves touting different qualities and with labels that hard-sell you on how wonderful they are for different cooking methods. In order to enlighten you on some of the important facts about fats and oils that you should know, I am going to share some excerpts from what I consider to be THE leading resource regarding this topic, Know Your Fats by Mary Enig, Ph. D. According to Dr. Enig: “Fats and oils (technically called lipids) are basically made up of collections of molecules called triglycerides. If the collection is liquid at ambient temperature, it’s called an oil; if it is solid, it’s called a fat.” Enig also goes on to explain that: “Whether these food lipids are called fats or oils sometimes depends on their ambient temperature where they originate. Palm oil and olive oils are fruit oils, and coconut oil is from a fruit, which is also a seed; they are liquids at the ambient temperature where they are produced.” And that: “The practice of calling animal fats “saturated” is not only misleading, it is just plain wrong. For example, beef fat is 54% unsaturated, lard is 60% unsaturated, and chicken fat is about 70% unsaturated. This makes these animal fats “less than half” saturated. Therefore, they should really be called unsaturated fats. In fact, none of the naturally occurring fats and oils is made up of only all saturated or unsaturated fatty acids; rather they are mixtures of different amounts of fatty acids.” Furthermore, when answering the question “Why are Animal Fats Called Saturated Fats?” Enig states that: “These fats are called ‘saturated’ because people have been misinformed and because they don’t understand what the term saturated means when it is applied to edible fats and oils. When fats are totally ‘saturated,’ they are usually as hard as wax and they are not digested. When fats are almost totally unsaturated they are well digested, but they are very uncommon in the natural food suplply. Totally unsaturated oils are nonexistant in the natural foods.” Tell ‘em, Mary! So, that’s the primer on fats and oils. Now, when we look at the concept of naturally occurring or minimally processed versions that are the most ideal to consume, this is when the confusion really kicks in. You can imagine how animal fats are “made” since typically you’re left with them after cooking meat. For example, you are left with pork fat after you cook bacon and it melts away from the meaty part. The same thing happens when you roast a chicken; liquid from the bird will fall to the bottom of the pan along with fat. You can make butter from cream with just a little elbow grease (pun intended). When you think about just how you get oil from something like a rapeseed (the type of seed used to make canola oil), however, the process is a bit less intuitive. I have already explained why I avoid canola oil specifically in a previous post. It’s important to note that MANY unsaturated fats are processed in a similar if not identical way.
I’ll abbreviate the process of getting oil from seeds here as Dr. Enig recaps it:
“Fats or oils from some seeds, such as sunflower, are extracted fresh from the seed by grinding of the seeds, followed by expeller pressing with or without a solvent such as hexane. Some seeds require precooking of the seeds before the grinding and the pressing. Rapeseed is such a seed. Mechanical extraction is considered to be a safe method, but because the recovery of oil by this method is less than the industry desires, most oils are extracted using a solvent… In this case, the oils are pressed from the seeds without the use of solvents, and without increased yield. These oils are usually more costly in the marketplace. The steps in commercial processing from the seed to the oil include crushing, extracting (by mechanical means or by use of solvents), degumming, neutralization, dewaxing, bleaching, filtration, and deodorization. Oils are frequently referred to as RBD, which stands for “refined, bleached and deodorized.” The process explained above does not apply to fruit oils such as olive, palm and coconut. Extracting oil from fruits doesn’t require as convoluted of a process and also does not involve the application of chemical solvents. Hence leaving us with a healthier oil. We could probably make these oils in our own kitchens if we had some simple tools and patience. We couldn’t, however, do the same from rapeseeds. Okay, so now that you understand the basics of how fats and oils are named and made, consider the one you’ve been using and refer back to my original three questions to decide whether or not you’ll continue to consume it. Well, you may still not be totally clear, so I’ve made a chart for you to use below. Click on the PDF icon to the right to download a printer-friendly version.
Enjoy & be well! Diane Sanfilippo BS, Certified Nutrition Educator, C.H.E.K. Holistic Lifestyle Coach San Francisco Nutritionist & Paleo Nutritionist serving the Bay Area and beyond via phone & Skype consultations. “Bacon is rad. Gluten is bad.” Sport it on a T-shirt.