Palm oil is a nutritional wonder. Its been used by human populations for at least 5000 years and today we’re finding out the technical details behind its benefits.
Why do we have a gallbladder, and what is so interesting about it? What does it feel like when it’s not healthy, and how does diet affect it? Why are low-fat diets bad for you in the long-run? Here I answer those questions and more in this fourth in an ongoing series of articles on oils, fats, and diet. Continue reading The Gallbladder and Fats
This is part one of an on-going serious of articles on oils and fats, with a focus on diet and health. In this oils and fats primer I talk about some of the basics: saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats, essential fatty acids, Omega-3s, and more. By the end of the article you will have a good idea of where they all fit together.
If all you want to know is what oils to eat and not eat, skip to the end of this article, else…
What is fat for?
Fats, including oils which are fats in a liquid state, are a crucial part of every diet.
- Fats in your body store energy, provide the raw materials for cell membranes, hormones, and more.
- Fats protect the organs, hold the organs in place, insulate and warm us.
- Fats are necessary for the assimilation of vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.
- Fats build tissues, enhance fluid metabolism, and direct nutrients into the nervous system.
Long story short: You need fats!
A diet high in the wrong types of fats and oils promotes obesity, heart disease, gall bladder and liver problems, tumors, arthritis, and many other degenerative conditions.
What are the right and wrong types of fats? First, lets go over the big picture of fats:
Note the following from the picture above:
- Fats consist of varying percentages of three types: Saturated Fats, Monounsaturated, and Polyunsaturated.
- Most of what your body needs, and in fact most of what its made from, is the saturated and monounsaturated fats.
- You do need a small percentage of polyunsaturated fats, these are called the ‘Essential Fatty Acids’.
- Omega-3s, Omega-6s, Omega-9, (and more…) are types of Essential Fatty Acids, which are types of polyunsaturated fats
- EPA & DHA are types of Omega-3s; LA, AA, & GLA are types of Omega-9s.
Now given these definitions, we can sum up the 2 biggest problems with the Western diet, especially related to oil and fat use:
- Most people are eating too high a percentage of Omega-6 rich fats compared to Omega-3s.
- Most people are eating too much polyunsaturated fats in general.
Remember that all fats consist of a combination of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Here is a quick reference for some common cooking oils and their breakdown into these three types – this will probably be more useful to you by the time you finish reading this whole article.
Some things to notice from the table:
- Olive oil has the highest ratio of monounsaturated, to poly and saturated.
- Canola oil has a low saturated fat ratio.
- Coconut oil has a very high saturated fat ratio.
- Palm Kernel oil has a high saturated fat content too. Palm oil is a different oil but also high in sat fats.
- Sesame oil is relatively close to Canola in its placing.
- Safflower oil has a high polyunsaturated ratio.
- Soy & Corn oils both have a pretty high polyunsaturated count too.
- Clarified butter has the least monounsaturated count and a high saturated count.
Saturated fats are usually solid and stable at room temperature, and have the least rancidity problems and maintain their integrity better than other cooking oils.
These fatty acids are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen – i.e., their carbons atoms are attached to hydrogen pairs (more on what this means in another article). Primarily from animal products (cheese, butter, eggs, meat) but also coconut, palm, peanut, and cottonseed oils contain a high percentage.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats
Usually these fats are oils: liquid at room temperature. These have a least one of their hydrogen atoms missing from their carbon chain. Monounsaturated fats do not easily become rancid like polyunsaturates. Polyunsaturated Fats are also required by the body, but in smaller amounts than saturated, or monounsaturated fats.
Essential Fatty Acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that your body needs and has to get from diet because it can’t produce them itself or convert from other fats. Some of the essential fatty acids are called Omega-3s, Omega-6s, and Omega-9s, and there are more. The correct balance of essential fatty acids is crucial for health.
EPA and DHA are types of Omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids encourage blood flow to tissues damaged by lack of circulation. DHA and EPA support each other in the function of vascular renewal. They reduce blood viscosity and clotting, lower lipid levels and blood pressure, and help prevent interruption of blood flow (strokes, heart attack, …). EPA and DHA also help to control inflammation in conditions like arthritis and asthma. EPA also helps clean the circulatory system of bad cholesterol and fat deposits.
All this stuff about polyunsaturates with EPA and DHA, Omega-6s sounds great so far. But here is where it gets complicated.
Polyunsaturated fatty acid problems
One of the problems with polyunsaturated fatty acids is that they are chemically unstable and easily degenerate.
All oils can go rancid through a process known as oxidization. This is also why most fish oil supplements have such a short shelf life. It’s much like when your oil gets rancid if it sits too long in the pantry. In the body, polyunsaturated fats undergo this process when exposed to byproducts of proteins and sugars, especially fructose.
The more polyunsaturated fats you eat, the more they are incorporated into your cell membranes. But these fats are unstable and prone to oxidization, leading to health problems such as inflammation, atherosclerosis…
Remember the two biggest problems with fats and the western diet:
- Our ratio of polyunsaturated dominant fats eaten compared to saturated and monounsaturated is too high
- Second, among the polyunsaturated portions that we eat, we are getting too high a ratio of Omega-6s compared to Omega-3s.
One reason for getting unhealthy high levels of polyunsaturated fats in our diet is that we are choosing the wrong oils to cook with. The other big reason is that when we go out to eat, the food is essentially ALWAYS prepared with the wrong oils.
Many studies over decades have shown that vegetable oils do not decrease atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease. In fact, they have shown that vegetable oils actually increase risk of cancer and heart disease!
The latest research shows that atherosclerosis is the process of oxidization of polyunsaturated fatty acids in your LDL.
More on this in a later article.
More on Omega-3s
Many people are supplementing with Omega-3 in the form of fish oil or flax seed oil. The information above can help you understand some of the reason for that. There are many recent studies showing the huge benefits of Omega-3s against inflammation which is present in all sorts of diseases.
Specifically in the case of the heart, a diet rich in EPA (a type of Omega-3) has been shown to lower lipid and triglyceride levels in blood, decrease blood viscosity, reduce the likelihood of a clot, counteract or prevent arrhythmia and prevent thrombosis.
So what oils should I eat and cook with ?
This article doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to fully answer that question – but you’ve already learned quite a bit about how to approach the subject. Avoid all trans-fats, avoid over-processed oils like Canola, and make sure you put oils with high saturated fat content in your diet.
Most oil used in traditional cultures are healthy if you get them from an unrefined source. This brings us to another issue that should be mentioned in an oils and fats primer:
Refined Oils – very dangerous
The majority of vegetable oils are highly refined as a result of the oil extraction process they go through. The bland taste and unclouded look of these oils that we’ve come to expect are good clues as to how much processing they’ve gone through.
There are two types of refined oils: solvent extracted and expeller extracted.
Both types have been depleted of vital nutrients and the temperatures used can transform unsaturated fatty acids into a synthetic fat called “trans-fatty acids“. Trans-fatty acids prevent transformation of fats in the body into healthfully fatty acids; furthermore, they raise cholesterol in the arteries and increase the likelihood of a variety of disorders such as heart disease, arthritis and cancer.
Eating margarine and shortening is a sure way of poisonous trans-fatty acid consumption. Even if you never buy them directly, the big problem is trans-fatty acids are in most oils that are in almost anything you buy in a box or a can at the supermarket! You have to make sure to read the labels.
Be careful of the current trend food manufacturers are using to fool you: If you read that there is no trans-fats in the product, the truth is that there still probably is. You HAVE to read the ingredients label. The problem is that legally they can make those kinds of claims if their levels are below a certain amount – but it doesn’t literally mean there isn’t trans-fats in there. Devious, isn’t it?
Last but not least, research suggests the process of turning rape-seed oil into so-called Canola oil introduces trans-fatty acids into Canola! Another major reason that in of itself is enough to tell you that Canola is not an oil you want to consume!
Expeller-pressed and Cold-pressed Oils
These are confusing terms and its hard to know whether the oil was treated ok or over-processed. The less heat and processing that goes into the extraction process of an oil/fat, the better. Some brands label their products as expeller-pressed and/or cold-pressed for marketing purposes, and you still don’t really know what temperatures the oil went through, or how much processing.
Only a small percentage of “expeller-pressed” oils are completely unrefined. Some companies now use “cold pressed” to mean that the oil was extracted at temperatures not higher than 100 degrees F; the label will probably mention that as a selling point.
Unrefined basically means mechanically pressed under low heat and sometimes filtered to remove residue. They retain their taste, aroma, color, nutrients, and are therefore sometimes cloudy. Don’t be scared.
Unrefined oils also retain their Vitamin E content which preserves the oil from rancidity and reduces free-radical damage to the body that can occur from consumption of the polyunsaturated portion of any oil.
Oils and Fats primer on deciding what oils to consume!
There is more to know about oils and fats in order to make wise decisions as a consumer and for your diet. In this article you’ve gained some valuable general knowledge that will go far to help you decide what to buy and eat. In summary:
1. Get the oil as unrefined as possible. If it doesn’t say unrefined on the label its guaranteed to be refined. If it does say ‘unrefined’, there is no guarantee that it is! If its clear and light like water, chances are its refined.
2. Contrary to mainstream thought, you should eat plenty of saturated fat, relatively. Oils with a high polyunsaturated fat content should definitely not be the majority of oils and fats you eat. (because if you eat out, you’re probably getting way too much Omega-6s, and polyunsaturated fats are by nature unstable and prone to be rancid.)
3. Avoid cooking with corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, flax, walnut
a. These oils, if fresh & cold-pressed can be used in food though not heated, for example Omega-3 rich flax seeds, chia seed, hemp seed, pumpkin seed, soy, and walnut.
4. Olive and sesame have a long history of traditional safe use, can be easily extracted at low temperatures, and have a high ratio of monounsaturated fats. Use these as light alternatives to your saturated fat sources.
5. In high temperature cooking, one of the most stable oils is clarified butter. Also try palm, or coconut oils which are nutritional powerhouses. Their saturated fats are relatively stable. If you really must use peanut oil, make sure to get the organic variety. Coconut oil is very healthy, and probably the healthiest oil for those moving away from a low-fat diet to healthy fat diet (more on this in this article). Red Palm oil (not from the kernel but from the fruit) is quite wonderful too. I consider them staples.
The less saturated an oil, the more quickly it goes rancid. When oil starts to taste rank and bitter it should no longer be used. Air and heat both speed deterioration of oil, so keep oil in a closed container at low temperatures. Light will also quickly make an oil bad so store oils in a dark, non-plastic container.
People who eat mostly polyunsaturated oils, especially margarine and shortening, have a greater risk of heart attack and cancer. A lot of people, based on popular opinion, decided some years ago that butter was an enemy. The reasoning is that since its high in animal fat, switching to using refined vegetable oils and margarine, free of cholesterol and saturated fat will save them from clogged arteries and heart attacks. Studies show otherwise: they show that margarine is poison. Continue reading Margarine is Poison
I’m trying to blow the whistle on Canola oil but I want to give you some background first. Going into effect in the new year (2010) is the bill Governor Arnold signed in July ’08 to ban trans-fat containing cooking oils in restaurants. This is a good start but the problem is that trans-fats in Canola are not recognized by the mainstream – one consequence of which is that everybody is recommending Canola as a healthy oil to cook with.
Trans-fats are fats created through a chemical process of oil hydrogenation. It has been known for a while that they hurt the body’s ability to regulate cholesterol. By 2005, the FDA had ruled that package labels must indicate the presence of trans-fats.
A recent SFGate article (link below) does a good job reporting on how many restaurants and bakeries have long since abandoned those oils, even before they got wind of the new law. By the way, bakeries must have complied by 2011 to this law. The article leaves you feeling like the switch to other oils came for other reasons. I’d like to think those reasons were for health, but I wonder what the price of bulk oils for commercial use is these days? And what are the varieties available?
While its great that we can feel a little safer eating out, the problem still remains in the supermarkets, and at home! What are good fats/oils and where are unhealthy trans-fats found?
- So called Canola oil, derived from rapeseed, is always refined. Why? Because in its unrefined state it is extremely bitter and nobody would buy it. The process of refining it damages its much touted Omega-3 content and actually converts some of the Omega 3 into trans-fats! Some people who know this are ok with this oil because they say such a tiny percentage actually gets converted to the bad fats. Also, misinformed mainstream thinking still wrongly advocates oils with high polyunsaturated fats ratio as the healthiest. Another problem is Canola oil is used when making a lot of confections. When the manufacturers of everything canned, boxed, and frozen usually say ‘vegetable oil’ on the contents, they usually mean Canola oil. They might hydrogenate it, which creates trans-fats, or just plain heat it too much making it rancid. Also consider that canola oil use is new. Oils like olive oil and sesame oil have been around and used in traditional cultures for some time. Humans have had some generations of experience with them.
- The Frying Pan – High heat can cause small amounts of trans-fats over time. The problem is especially true when you re-use oils, as in the case of deep-fryers, or many restaurants practices. Definitely fast food chains are a culprit.
- Candy bars, cakes, biscuits – I think you can still find trans-fats in Mars, Twix, Milky Way, Snickers, …
- Margarineand Shortening contain hydrogenated polyunsaturated oils. Again, hydrogenation creates trans-fatties. Most margarines made from soy and safflower oils and marketed as “natural” are also hydrogenated. Margarine made from other processes are becoming available, but getting into manufactured oils is not the right direction to go. Here is more detail about your heart and margarine .
More than anything, I think the new law reflects the general understanding that trans-fatty oils are bad for us, but doesn’t seem to address the reality of its omni-presence.
Here is the link to the referenced SFGate article about the ban on trans-fats.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments.