The fat of the land

Did anybody see this front page of the Daily Express a couple of weeks ago? I know, it's not exactly my regular newspaper either, but I got so excited about the front page that I just had to get a copy because it is saying something that I have said myself for quite some time now.

When my cooking calls for heated fats – such as in frying and baking – I always opt for saturated fats such as coconut oil or butter. I am often met with “Saturated fats? But aren’t they bad for you?” and it is time to settle this once and for all.

Firstly, what are we talking about when we mean saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats? A quick chemistry lesson for you:
Fats consist of carbon atoms that can be linked with a double or a single bond. If the carbon atoms have a double bond, they can break off one bond and attach it to a hydrogen atom. When this happens we can say that the fat is then saturated with hydrogen and that is why these fats are called saturated fats.
This fat is a stable fat, because all of its bonds are attached to something and it does not need to go around looking for other atoms to hang out with. Its happy just the way it is! These fats are recognisable as they solidify in cold temperatures, but go soft in room temperature.

 

An unsaturated fat however, is of course not saturated with hydrogen.
It is a fatty acid which can consist of single and double bonds and is always in liquid form.
A monounsaturated fatty acid contains just one double bond, whereas a polyunsaturated fatty acid contains more than one double bond.
These fats are unstable as one of these double bonds may break off to mingle with something else. When these fats are warmed, their bonds break up and start seeking something to attach to: we say that the fat oxidises and the atoms in the fat becomes free radicals.
As these oils are unstable, the temperature at which these fats oxidise is very low and can react to the heat changes in a grocery store or the heat of the human body.


 

When you eat these oxidised oils, the unpaired atoms (free radicals) will want to bond with molecules inside your body.
If this happens, the molecule that loses its bond to a free radical will then want to form with another molecule and thus starts a chain reaction of disruption. Once this process starts it can damage the cells inside your body which will lead to organ damage.

Antioxidants can stop this chain reactions as these happily donate one of their own bonds to the electron-seeking free radical and end the chain reaction. But if there are too many free radicals in the body, not all the antioxidants in the world may be able to stop them. Free radicals in the body have been liked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, tumours and infertility and trigger mutations in tissue, blood vessels and the skin.

Many unsaturated fats are unstable before they enter your body as vegetable oils. If you think about it this makes sense: is impossible to just squeeze the oil out of for instance sunflower seeds, grape seeds and sesame seeds! So in order to extract these oils the product has to be treated on high heat or under very high pressure. After this, most oils must have chemicals added to them in order to adjust colour, flavour and viscosity and to prolong their shelf life.
Then the oils are most likely subjected to high heat when travelling and the lastly they are heated up again in millions of homes and restaurants for frying and baking. By this point the oils are highly unstable.

In a world without machines, vegetable oils are impossible to get to for humans and it is thus not a natural food.
As vegetable oils were marketed as the healthy option from the 1950s and butter consumption fell, overall consumption of polyunsaturated fats skyrocketed and today the average person consumes 30 kilos of vegetable oil per year.
What will a food that was previously non-existent in our diet to to our health? As we look at the increase of polyunsaturated fat consumption we can see how diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes – diseases which were rare in a time when butter was our main fat source – follow the same curve.

The fat content of the human body consists of 97% saturated fat and 3% polyunsaturated fats.
In order to function properly, the body needs the right building blocks and that is saturated fat: Saturated fat is the building blocks for hormones which controls fertility, mood and in part metabolism; the brain consists mostly of saturated fat and cholesterol; the lining of the lungs is 100% saturated fatty acids; the liver is protected from alcohol and pain medications by saturated fat; saturated fat is required by the bones for them to incorporate calcium; white blood cells function better with sufficient saturated fatty acids.

 Unpasteurised butter: a healthy fat

Unpasteurised butter: a healthy fat

Meanwhile, in addition to the free radical formation polyunsaturated fatty acids overburden the liver, age the skin and can damage the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin thus making the body prone to diabetes type 2.

When there is not a sufficient amount of saturated fats around, the body will attempt to build and renew itself using the next best thing, which is polyunsaturated fats. Clearly, building yourself with the wrong material is not a great idea.

Then there is cholesterol. Scary, troublesome, misunderstood cholesterol.
Cholesterol is often the first thing that comes up in a discussion about saturated fats as cholesterol is regarded as Bad.
However, several studies have found that the idea that cholesterol leads to heart disease is a myth.  A 1994-study published in the Lancelet on elderly people shows that atherosclerosis, the culmination of plaque in artery walls that lead to heart disease, cannot be blamed on saturated fats as almost three quarts of the plaque in the arteries stems from unsaturated fat. The study concluded that “We have been unable to explain our results. These data cast doubt on the scientific justification for lowering cholesterol to very low concentrations in elderly people.” In fact, the reason that there is any saturated fat present in the plaque at all may be because the body uses cholesterol to repair injuries and irritations in the arterial wall.

Cholesterol is essential in a number of functions in the body: absorption of fat soluble vitamins, hormone production and cell regeneration. Discussing cholesterol is a large topic that is perhaps better saved for another post, but suffice to say that many, many studies on cholesterol and saturated fat found NO correlation between a high saturated fat intake and heart disease! (Need more studies? Here is a sample.)

The most dangerous fats one can eat are called trans-fats and are found in hydrogentated vegetable oils such as margarine. Sadly, these fats are markeded as the healthier option to unknowing consumers!

Trans-fats are created in the process of hydrogenation of vegetable oils in order to turn them from liquid in room temperature to solid (like for instance in margarine).
The vegetable oil is artificially saturated with hydrogen, but since this is done by humans and not by nature the final product ends up with an unnatural chemical structure and our bodies have trouble breaking them down.
As saturated fats are responsible for many vital organs and processes in our bodies they are the body’s preferred building blocks. However, when the body tries to build itself out of trans fats instead the trans fat is too rigid and are unable to perform the tasks fats have to do in bodies.
For example, cell walls made out of trans fats are unable to open and close to let nutrients in and waste out.
Trans fats also stop our cell receptors from functioning properly, which may be why trans fats contribute to diabetes type 2 (as this is a condition where the insulin receptors in the body are not responding).
Trans fats, not cholesterol, seem to be the reason for artery clogging and heart attacks according to many studies . The hydrogenation process also further oxidises the vegetable oils, creating more free radicals that damage the body.

We need fat in our diet in order to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D E and K. If there is not enough healthy fat in our diet, we can eat all the carrots we can muster to little effect.
Fat soluble vitamins are essential for life and support growth, immune system function, cell division and differentiation, they protect us from bone damage, regulate our sleep patterns, protect us from free radical damage and keep our blood functioning optimally.

 My two favourites: coconut oil and raw butter

My two favourites: coconut oil and raw butter

So what should you eat?

As I have mentioned before, the only fats to heat are saturated fats: coconut oil, butter, ghee, lard, other animal fats (from meat).
When making cold dishes such as salads we are free to experiment a little more. Oils from seeds can be extracted safely if they are extracted with minimal exposure to light and oxygen and under low temperatures. Organic oils labelled cold pressed and unrefined are key. Extra-virgin olive oil, for example, should be produced by crushing the olives between stone rollers.

Monounsaturated fatty acids are relatively stable and can be slightly heated without oxidising and are thus safe to use on warm food. This includes extra-virgin olive oil and oils from avocados, pecans and almonds. I prefer to cook my Italian-style foods in butter or coconut oil and then drizzle lots of olive oil onto the dish just before serving. Avocado-oil mostly consists of monounsaturated fats and is great on salads and in guacamole.

Good oils to use in cold dishes are flax seed oil (which should be refrigerated between uses), sesame oil (delicious in asian-style cold dishes or drizzled on soups), and macadamia nut oil (great for mayonnaise). When purchasing these oils, be absolutely sure that they are cold pressed and organic.

If I have not made myself clear and if you were to take only one thing from this post then let it be this: NEVER EAT MARGARINE!

 My favourite oils to use unheated.

My favourite oils to use unheated.