Fats: Safer Choices for Your Frying Pan and Your Health
Several weeks ago I was shopping at my local co-op where I overheard a conversation taking place between two fellow co-op members regarding which fats and oils are safest for cooking. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop to observe their comments, for I am passionate about the subject of fats and have studied them extensively over the past four years. As I listened to the two individuals exchange recipe ideas and the fats/oils each uses to prepare them, I was alarmed by the types of fats they considered safe for cooking. This co-op conversation inspired me to write this article with hope that our loyal readers will understand the importance of choosing safer fats for their frying pans – and most importantly, their health!
For the past 60 or more years, Americans have been on low-fat and/or poor quality fat diets. It’s no surprise as to why we’re suffering from such a myriad of degenerative diseases. We are, without a doubt, a society extremely deficient in healthy fatty acids! For those who have not been on low-fat diets, chances are, the fats and oils you’ve been purchasing from your local grocer are denatured, refined, unstable and quite frankly, dangerous to consume. The processing methods these fats are exposed to render them poisonous to our bodies, prematurely robbing us of our health and vitality!
The low-fat/no-fat approach was first promoted in the 1950’s by nutrition researcher Nathan Pritikin. Initially, Pritikin advocated a no-fat diet, high in un-refined carbohydrates, but long-term research revealed to him that a no-fat diet led to many physiological imbalances including fatigue, mood disorders (especially depression), nutrient deficiencies (especially minerals), weight issues and more. Realizing that fatty acids were necessary for balanced health, Pritikin began promoting that a low-fat diet, including modest amounts of vegetable fats (from nuts and seeds), was actually more healthful than the no-fat diet approach. Hence, the low-fat diet was born and this dangerously flawed theory is still a core dietary recommendation among dieticians, clinical nutritionists, and doctors to date.
First, let us examine how healthy fats/oils of ALL KINDS BENEFIT our well-being:
- Fats satisfy our appetites.
- Fats aid in healthy hormone production in the body.
- Fats greatly enhance mineral absorption in the diet.
- Fats provide a long-burning source of energy – especially for the heart!
- Fats build healthy bile; a substance made by the liver, stored and released by the gallbladder to aid in optimal fat digestion and emulsification.
- Fats help to nourish every cell in our bodies by providing building blocks to maintain healthy cell membranes. (Nutrients in; Wastes out!)
- Fats aid in the formation of anti -inflammatory substances in the body (prostaglandins).
- Fats allow us to heal quickly and effectively (boosts the healing inflammatory processes).
Next, let us look at how fats are classified:
- Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA’s) – highly stable in nature; do not turn rancid easily - even at higher temperatures. Saturated fat molecules are straight and stack together tightly to form a solid or semi-solid fat at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA’s) – relatively stable; do not turn rancid easily. Liquid at room temperature, but semi-solid upon refrigeration. Monounsaturated fat molecules are shaped differently than saturated fat molecules. They have a slight bend, which allows them to stack closely, yet not as tightly as SFA’s. This is why MUFA’s are liquid at room temperature.
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA’s) – unstable at even room temperature; easily damaged by heat, light, moisture and oxygen exposure; refrigeration required; turn rancid quickly and easily. Polyunsaturated fat molecules have two bends, which will not allow them to stack together well at all. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids fall in this category.
Keep in mind that all fats are a combination of fatty acids. Their classification is determined by the highest percentage of saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fatty acids. For example, hemp oil has a fatty acid profile of 1g of saturated fat, 11g of polyunsaturated fat, and 2g of monounsaturated fat. It is classified as a PUFA because the polyunsaturated type of fatty acid is most abundant in hemp oil.
The MOST stable and healthful fats for cooking and occasional frying at higher temperatures/smoke points are certain animal fats and tropical oils, which belong to the saturated fat family. Saturated fats have been unfairly attacked since the medical and scientific so-called "experts" falsely linked the dietary intake of saturated fat and cholesterol to the increased incidence of heart disease. The study supporting this saturated fat scare, known as the "Lipid Hypothesis", was proposed in the 1950’s by American Physiologist, Dr. Ancel Keys. The fats used in this study were hydrogenated, processed fats, known to be extremely irritating to the body, particularly the vascular system. Cholesterol acts as a healing agent to repair and protect the arteries and veins. Therefore, the more irritation, the more cholesterol will mobilize to save the day!
Research now shows us that dietary cholesterol intake has VERY LITTLE to do with over all cholesterol levels, so this part of the theory was off target as well. Today, the Lipid Hypothesis continues to be promoted by most medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies, as well as the modern food processing giants, who profit from such flawed research. Saturated fatty acids from healthy sources nourish the vascular system, enhance immune function, protect the liver from certain toxins (including alcohol), aid in calcium absorption, and increase cellular membrane integrity. Keep in mind that heart disease was considered a rare condition before the 1920’s, but spiked dramatically from 1910 to 1970 as Americans began consuming less saturated animal fats and increasing amounts of vegetable fats in the form of margarine, shortening and adulterated, refined oils of all types. Our not-so-distant ancestors consumed healthy sources of saturated fats each and every day with no adverse health effects whatsoever!
The LEAST stable fats for cooking are from vegetable, nut, and seed sources. High in omega-6 and/or omega-3 fatty acids, these particular types of fat molecules are extremely delicate and reactive. They become damaged and rancid easily when exposed to mild to moderate temperatures, light, moisture or oxygen. They must remain refrigerated at all times, should NEVER be used for cooking, and should only be consumed in moderate amounts. I personally do not keep my omega-3/omega-6 oils any longer than six months – even when refrigerated in opaque, tightly sealed bottles. I also keep fatty acid supplements in the refrigerator at all times because they can turn rancid, too!
An important note about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids:
Omega 3s or Alpha-Linolenic Fatty Acids are essential to our health. The term essential applies because the human body cannot manufacture these types of fatty acids on its own. We must obtain them through diet. But please do not translate the essential status of omega-3 fatty acids as meaning that you need an abundance of them in your diet to be healthy. The opposite is true. A little goes a long way, so a modest amount (no more than 1 teaspoon per day) is sufficient. This principle also applies to omega-6 fatty acids (Linoleic Fatty Acids). They are classified as essential, but we do not need to consume much omega-6s. Only small amounts are needed.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) contains too many omega-6s and too little omega-3s, resulting in a grossly distorted omega fat ratio of nearly 19:1. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 1:1. An easy way to incorporate the proper amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids into your diet is to add them in small amounts to other healthy oils. For example, prepare a balanced fatty acid salad dressing using 4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil with no more than 1 teaspoon each of omega-6 (pumpkin or hemp oil) and omega-3 (flax oil) fatty acids, sea salt and organic, raw apple cider vinegar.
The easiest way to stay within the optimal 1:1 ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s is to avoid ALL processed foods, which are highest in rancid, denatured omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA’s. Prepare your foods at home as often as possible from fresh, local, and organic ingredients where YOU have control over the fats you cook with, or seek out a co-op or community kitchen preparing traditional foods with the correct fats if you have a busy schedule and cannot cook often. If you decide to dine out, take your oils (and sea salt, too) along with you! My local Thai restaurant is happy to cook my dinner with the virgin, organic coconut oil I bring in when dining there. In fact, now they keep my jar of coconut oil in a special place, so it is already there when I decide to dine at their establishment! Instead of BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) applying to alcohol alone, perhaps we can all start a healthy fatty acid revolution where BYOB will also mean "bring your own bottle OF OIL"!
Now, let’s review how fats and oils are processed and why we should avoid these toxic "frankenfats":
Before you add that bottle of commercially produced corn oil, vegetable oil, or tub of margarine or shortening to your shopping cart, first be sure you know how your oils of choice have been processed, so you may make an educated decision about the safest fats to consume to improve or maintain good health.
The ugly truth about commercially prepared oils: It’s not the oil! It’s the processing!
The first step of fatty acid processing is the EXTRACTION phase. Oils, naturally occurring in nuts and seeds, first need to be released for collection. To aid in the release of these oils, modern processing methods crush the nuts and seeds then expose them to heat in excess of 230 degrees! Next, the crushed nuts and seeds are pressed under great amounts of pressure to "squeeze out" the oils. The pounds of pressure used to force the oils generate additional heat, further damaging the fatty acid molecules. Next, a dangerous chemical solvent called hexane (a so-called "food grade solvent) is added to the crushed nuts and seeds to draw out the last bit of oil.
Hexane is a derivative of petroleum that may cause impaired infertility and central nervous system depression, among other serious health dangers. Edible oil processors then boil off the hexane solvent for the most part, but traces of it remain – nearly 100 parts per million – in the oil! If the nuts and seeds being processed are not from organic sources, solvents like hexane act as a magnet – capturing the pesticides sprayed on them before harvesting. These pesticide concentrations show up in the end product, which is now a rancid, refined oil!
Another popular method used to process oils is HYDROGENATION. Examples of hydrogenated PUFA’s are margarine and shortening. This process transforms PUFA’s, which are naturally liquid at room temperature, into solid at room temperature fats so they are stable for long periods of time. This is a big plus for the processed food industry because PUFA’s are cheap oils to extract in the first place. Extending their shelf-life through the hydrogenation process makes them even more economical. It’s the health of the public that pays the price!
The hydrogenation process usually begins with extracted, already rancid PUFA oils from the EXTRACTION phase. [Please be aware that MUFA’s may also be processed, as well as certain saturated fats - mainly tropical oils. Do not consume processed/refined MUFA’s or tropical oils! They are as damaging to the body as any other refined/hydrogenated PUFA oil!] Next, tiny particles of metal in the form of nickel oxide are added to the oil, so that when it is exposed to hydrogen gas in a high-heat, high-pressure reactor, the fat molecules will be forced to chemically change their structure from a natural PUFA structure (two bends in the molecule) to that of a saturated fatty acid structure (a straight molecule). These altered molecules are called TRANS FATS.
At this point, the oil has become thin and watery, as well as foul smelling – a by product of rancidity. To return the oil to a thicker, more viscous state, processors add in multiple fillers and thickeners. The odors are then removed through a steam-cleaning process, which subjects the oil to more heat, causing further molecular damage. Next, the oil is bleached to remove its dull gray color. This odorless, colorless white substance is now packaged as vegetable shortening. To produce margarine, artificial colors and flavors are added to make it resemble real butter. The end product is now a cheap PUFA oil acting as a stable saturated fat.
Nature did not intend for PUFA molecules to be arranged this way and the human body cannot recognize these kinds of fats as food! When we consume extracted and hydrogenated fats, we lose the ability to utilize healthy fats properly. Healthy fatty acids are displaced by the "franken-fatty acids" cascading the body into serious health problems such as cancer, diabetes, birth defects, sexual dysfunction, heart disease, and poor bone health, to name a few. A word of advice from fat experts Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, "Your best defense is to avoid partially hydrogenated fats like the plague!" I agree wholeheartedly!
Myth: Consuming a moderate amount of TRANS-FATS is considered safe.
Deceptive labeling practices are rampant among the processed food industry. Products containing extracted and hydrogenated fats are legally allowed to claim a "no trans fats" status, when in fact trans fats are indeed present in these products. How is this possible? Trans fatty acids are clearly a by-product of processing, but the FDA allows the food manufacturer to claim "zero trans-fats" on the label if the trans-fats content is under a certain "acceptable" amount per serving. FACT: NO AMOUNT of trans fatty acids is safe to consume! In the exact words of the National Academy of Sciences, "Trans fatty acids are not essential and provide no known benefit to human health!" We must avoid these unhealthy fatty acids at all costs if we wish to be truly healthy.
How to tell if an oil is chemically processed: SIMPLY READ THE LABEL!!
AVOID all fats, oils and the products that contain them if the following processing terms are listed ANYWHERE on ANY food label:
- Cold-PROCESSED (do not confuse this trick phrase with Cold-PRESSED)
INSTEAD, look for these safer processing terms on your fat/oil labels:
- First-cold pressed or Cold-Pressed
- Extra Virgin
Note: These "safer" processing techniques help to retain the antioxidant profile found in fats through low-temperature, low-light and low-oxygen extraction methods. Naturally occurring antioxidants protect fats from oxidizing (turning rancid) during extraction.
What exactly happens to PUFA’s when they are improperly processed?
When PUFA’s are exposed to the stressors of processing they become rancid or oxidized, forming free radicals. These chaotic, skewed fatty acid molecules, now in the form of free radicals, wreak havoc on the body attacking and damaging DNA and RNA, cell membranes, vascular walls, and red blood cells, all of which cascade into deeper physiological damage such as tumor formation, accelerated aging, arterial plaque accumulation, autoimmune imbalances, and more! Consuming PUFA’s in moderate amounts unprocessed or minimally processed through safer methods - is healthful, so please do not avoid PUFA’s altogether. Rotating them into the diet in small amounts along with a balance of healthy sources of mostly monounsaturated and saturated fats will provide you with a BALANCED, FULL-SPECTRUM FATTY ACID PROFILE that will undoubtedly serve your health in more ways that you can imagine!
Caroline Barringer, NTP, CHFS, FES
About the Author:
Caroline is the Lead NTA Instructor for the 2008-09 New York distance learning class www.nutritionaltherapy.com and conducts Certified Healing Food Specialist workshops nationwide. She can be contacted at 877-773-9229 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.immunitrition.com.
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon
Know Your Fats, by Mary G. Enig, PhD
www.westonaprice.org – Articles:"The Skinny on Fat" and "Fats and Oils FAQ’s", "The Great Con-ola", by Mary G. Enig, PhD and Sally Fallon
Nutritional Therapy Association, Inc., "Fatty Acids Module – NTT Curriculum
"The Big Fat Lie", by Colleen Dunseth, NTP, NTA Instructor
Safety Data for Hexane: http://msds.chem.ox.ac.uk/HE/hexane.html
National Academy of Sciences – Article: "Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids"
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser
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