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Healthy Fats & Oils

 

Lipids (fats and oils) have acquired a bad reputation. Articles and news reports often associate fat consumption with weight gain and a host of medical problems. The emphasis in the media - and in people's minds - is on reducing fat intake. Fat free and low fat products crowd store shelves.

 

The result: After years of emphasis on cutting back on fat, North Americans are fatter than ever. This result, along with emerging information on the powerful benefits of essential fatty acids (EFAs), is finally awakening nutritionists, medical professionals and the media to the knowledge that eliminating fat from the diet is not the answer.

 

To be healthy, each of us needs fat -- just like we need protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Every single cell in the body requires healthy fats to function properly.

 

But not all fat is created equal. The human body metabolizes different fats differently. The state of our health is influenced less by the amount of fat than by the types of fat we eat. So, to be healthier, eat healthy fats and oils.

 

Which oil should you choose?

It depends largely on personal preference and what you're planning to do with the oil. A good rule of thumb is to choose the least-processed oil suitable for the application for which it will be used. It is better to use a refined oil than to use an unrefined oil at a heat level that is too high for the oil.

 

Some oils provide essential nutrients. Some oils hold up better to high heat or long storage. Some are more flavorful. Some contain no pesticide residues and are better for the environment. And yes, some are just plain bad for you.

 

Here is information to help you use each type of oil to its best advantage.

 

Some Oils Provide More Nutrients

Every food oil contains a unique assembly of fats in molecules called fatty acids that vary in shape, size and biological activity. You're probably familiar with the three naturally occurring types of fats:

 

1. saturated

2. monounsaturated

3. polyunsaturated

 

The saturated fats, easily obtained in the diet, primarily provide caloric value. Some saturated fats provide additional benefit; for instance, coconut oil, high in lauric acid and containing trace amounts of caprylic acid, has been shown to provide a number of benefits including antiviral properties, antifungal properties, and support of proper immune function.

 

Oils high in polyunsaturates are the most nutritious and are easily metabolized by the body. Polyunsaturated oils contain essential fatty acids -- nutrients your body needs and that you must get through your diet. These essential fatty acids (EFAs) are called omega-3 (alpha linolenic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid).

 

Monounsaturated oils, high in oleic acid (omega-9), are also important to your health. Recent research links these oils, such as canola and olive oils, to the management of cholesterol in the blood. In addition to laboratory studies, scientists note that while Mediterranean diets are high in fat because of all the olive oil consumed, populations in the region show a low incidence of heart disease when compared to North American populations.

 

One quick way to identify a saturated fat is by its consistency: saturated fats are firm at room temperature. Examples include butter, lard, animal fat, palm oil and coconut oil. Unsaturated fats are liquid, and monounsaturated fats get thick when they're chilled, but they return to fluidity at room temperature.

 

All of these fats are natural, but there is a fourth type of fat, a manufactured one, that's prevalent in the American diet. It is hydrogenated fat, produced by using a metal catalyst and high heat to saturate unsaturated fat molecules with hydrogen. This process changes the natural form of the fat (to make it like a saturated fat) and destroys its essential fatty acid nutrients. In fact, some researchers suspect that hydrogenated fats (common in margarine, peanut butter, cookies, and processed foods) are the leading cause of health problems associated with fats in the diet. But many food manufacturers like to use hydrogenated fats because of their thick texture, good mouth feel, and long shelf life.

 

Nutrition Guide

The most nutritious oils are the unrefined polyunsaturated oils, such as unrefined safflower, sesame, and flaxseed oils. These oils provide omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. Oils high in monounsaturates (canola, olive, and high-oleic safflower oils) help the body deal with the saturated and cholesterol-containing fats frequently used in cooking.

 

Some Oils Can Take the Heat

Some Oils Are Environmentally Sound

Conventionally processed oils are extracted from seed by chemical means using hexane, a petrochemical solvent. Hexane is highly efficient, pulling almost 100% of the oil from seed. Once its job is done, hexane is removed from the oil, so manufacturers are not required to declare its use on food labels. But some consumers are concerned about chemical residue, and hexane is notoriously harmful to the environment.

 

In contrast, natural oils are extracted from seed using a physical method - the crushing action of an expeller press. Not nearly as efficient as chemical extraction, expeller-pressing releases about 50 - 70% of oil from seed. Because natural methods are less efficient than conventional, expeller pressed oils are more expensive to produce than chemically extracted oils; more seed is required to produce a bottle of natural oil than the same size conventional oil. Extra virgin olive oils and natural nut oils are cold pressed, another physical method that involves crushing without employing petrochemicals.

 

Organic oils are those pressed from seeds, nuts, or beans grown without the use of commercial pesticides, fungicides, fertilizer, or herbicides, and produced through cold-pressing or expeller-pressing processes. By consuming organic foods you minimize your intake of non-natural chemicals and help support the health of the environment.

 

Some Oils are Just Plain Bad for You

Saturated fats are vilified by medical practitioners and nutritionists, but the fact is they are both good and bad. Your body actually requires some saturates. But it can manufacture what it needs, so there's no need to incorporate saturated fat into your diet. Because coconut oil and other oils high in saturates are very stable and heat tolerant, many people choose to use them for high heat cooking. Saturated fat also makes food taste good and provides great mouthfeel. But the reasons for limiting consumption of saturates, including a correlation between diets high in saturates and elevated cholesterol levels, are well documented.

 

There's some evidence that vegetable saturates (coconut oil, palm oil) behave differently in the body than animal saturates (butter, animal fat in meat). Lauric, caprylic and palmitic acids -- all of which are vegetable saturates -- are being extensively studied. More research will be necessary before conclusions can be drawn. For now, Spectrum recommends limiting consumption of all types of saturated fats.

 

Hydrogenated oils are the worst of the worst when it comes to health. Like saturates, they are stable, with a long shelf life, and they give great texture and mouth feel to foods. Because of these qualities and because they're cheap to produce, food processors love hydrogenated oils. But during processing hydrogenation creates trans fats. These fats have a different molecular configuration than the natural cis structure the human body recognizes. Enzymes that act as keys to unlock, break down and metabolize fats don't know how to deal with trans fats, and they tend to collect in our bodies.

 

The famous ongoing Harvard Nurses Study has followed the dietary habits of tens of thousands of nurses for more than 25 years. In a summary published in 1997, the head of the study, Walter Willett, wrote, "Processed [hydrogenated] fats were shown to be the most significant culprit in generating heart disease, cancer and diabetes. (Other culprits included smoking, lack of exercise, high stress jobs, and heredity.)" In its July 2002 report to the FDA, the National Academies of Sciences called trans fats unsafe to consume in any amount.

 

How prevalent are trans fats? They are hidden in hundreds and hundreds of processed foods including cookies, crackers, cakes, donuts, breads, salad dressings and more.

 

How can you tell whether a product contains trans fats? You won't find any specific reference on the label. Early in 2003, the Food and Drug Administration plans to publish a final rule requiring manufacturers to disclose trans fat content in the Nutrition Facts. Until enforcement occurs, read the ingredient list looking for the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, which signify presence of trans fats.

 

 

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