The myths of oils and fats

Oils and fats are a much misunderstood area of our modern diet.  We moved away from cooking with saturated fats (e.g. meat fats, dairy fats) as we were told they were causing us too many problems.  We jumped straight from the sizzling frying pan into the fire…

Types of oils and fats

Oils and fats are members of the same family, the only difference is that, at room temperature, fats are solid and oils are liquid.  Coconut oil is liquid (oil) in its native climate but solid (fat) here in the UK.  There are two natural forms of fats and oils – saturated and unsaturated.  With modern manufacturing methods, we also now have some unnatural forms of fats called hydrogenated fats and trans fats.

  Saturated Unsaturated Hydrogenated / Trans fats
Processing Natural, very little processing Natural, some processing Unnatural, extensive  processing
Naturally occurring in… Animal tallow (fat from meat, e.g. goose fat)Dairy fats (butter, ghee)Coconut Seeds and nut oils e.g.sunflower, sesame, corn, soya, rapeseed, hemp, flax, walnut Nothing!These don’t occur naturally, they are artificially produced.
Properties Stable, heavy fats Unstable, light oils Stable, heavy fats (but with different structures to natural saturated fats)
Visualise… Saturated FatDense, heavy, square Unsaturated Fat
Light, circle
Trans fatDense, heavy, square with jagged edge
Best for… cooking adding to food at lower temperatures avoiding completely

 

Which fats and oils are good for us?

All natural fats are good for us in moderation.

Saturated fats are best for cooking

Saturated FatSaturated fats are good in moderation; with the levels of meat and dairy in most of our diets, we generally get plenty of these.

We became very scared of cooking with these fats because as a society, we used too much of them and caused ourselves health problems such as obesity. However, as saturated fats are heat- and light-stable, these are the best fats to cook with.  They can be heated to high temperatures and they don’t change their form or shape or disintegrate into harmful substances.

Unsaturated fats are best for adding to food at low temperatures

Unsaturated FatAs people moved away from saturated fats, they started cooking with vegetable oils (unsaturated fats).  Vegetable oils are very beneficial to the body if used unprocessed and cold; helping to reduce blood pressure, develop and promote a healthy brain and prevent arthritis.  Some of them are essential in our diets (i.e. our bodies can not make them).

Cell walls and natural fats

If we eat saturated fats and untreated unsaturated oils, the body recognises their shapes and sizes, and uses them as building blocks for cells in our bodies.

 

If we cook with these oils, however, we are exposing them to high levels of heat.  They then form free radicals – toxic, aging molecules.  These toxic chemicals break down essential structures in the body (it is to combat these that we take anti-oxidants such as vitamin C).

Free radicals

Pour these lovely vegetable oils on your meals and use them for dressings but don’t cook with them!

 

A note on which oils to buy:

To make these unsaturated vegetable oils easier to extract and able to sit on supermarket shelves in clear plastic bottles, manufacturers use intense treatment processes, including heat, to treat these oils.  This can produce free radicals and also hydrogenated or trans fats (see below).  Therefore only buy virgin, cold pressed oils which are in dark bottles (protection from light).  Don’t buy standard vegetable oils you find in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves.

 

Hydrogenated and trans fats are best for … avoiding completely

Trans fatSaturated fats such as butter are versatile and stable but expensive.  To create cheaper fats, companies started making artificial saturated fats by processing unsaturated fats (vegetable and nut oils).  These processes form hydrogenated fats and trans fats.  These fats look and feel quite similar to natural fats but with some important differences in shape.  The body thinks they are same as the natural fats and uses them for the same jobs.  Given that they are actually different, they don’t work and our systems, such as cell messaging, fail to work properly.  This has large knock-on effects on the body.

Cell walls and trans fats

You can imagine trans fats have strange jagged edges.  The body thinks it recognises them and uses them in places where similar shaped fats go.  They have jagged edges however and so although they have been placed in the body, they don’t work properly.  They effectively stop that function of the body.

Do not eat anything with hydrogenated or trans fats in them – this will include many processed foods and commercially baked goods such as biscuits and cakes.   Margarine can also contain these.

In summary

COOK WITH

  • Saturated fats.  These are very heat-stable and do not become toxic on heating.  These include ghee (clarified butter), butter, coconut oil and animal fats such as duck and goose fat.  The best amongst these is ghee as it contains beneficial nutrients (vitamin A, D, E & K, linoleic acid) and is the only fat which stimulates the digestive fire (capability).  Recipe for ghee is here.  Use saturated fats in moderation and never deep-fry.
  • Virgin olive oil is a more heat-stable than other unsaturated fats and thus can be used for some cooking.  It can only be used if there is minimal frying followed by addition of watery ingredients which cools down the temperature (for example, in a pasta sauce).  Make sure the olive oil is kept in a dark bottle, away from sunlight. Be very careful; don’t expose the oil to too high or prolonged heat.

POUR COLD ONTO FOOD

  • Unsaturated oils such as flax, hemp, sesame and walnut all have fabulous health benefits.

AVOID

  • Heat processed oils, hydrogenated and trans fats.

Author: Kate Siraj, Ayurvedic Practitioner, BSc Ayurveda, MChem (Oxon), MAPA.

© The Ayurveda Practice

Further information:

  1. Mann, J and Truswell, S (ed) (2002): Essentials of Human Nutrition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition.
  2. Fox, BA and Cameron, AG (1995). Food Science, Nutrition and Health. London: Edward Arnold. 6th edition.
  3. Erasmus, U (1993): Fats that heal, Fats that kill. Canada: Alive Books

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