A Big, Fat Oily Mess

1 05 2012

I have searched the internet for articles and information on oils and have read many articles. Trying to filter out what is right, what is wrong, what is good, and what is bad is truly an “oily mess.” It would be easy to just say virgin coconut oil is the best or never eat margarine, and that would be that. But there is so much more to understand about fats in oil, cooking with oil, uses of different oils and your health. So, sorry to say, this will be a slightly exhaustive look at fat and oils. I will try to keep it as short and sweet as possible and provide lots of links so you can read further on your own. I want to say upfront that I copied big parts liberally from Dr. Ben Kim (see link below). Here we go!

The Basics of Fat

Fat that is found in food is composed mainly of fatty acids. Fatty acids are classified into three major groups: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. All fatty acids are made up of a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms filling in the spaces around each carbon atom.

Saturated Fatty Acids: When the spaces surrounding each carbon atom are filled, or saturated with hydrogen atoms, you have a saturated fatty acid. Because each carbon atom is completely surrounded by hydrogen atoms, saturated fatty acids are compact and extremely stable, even under high temperatures. Saturated fatty acids are usually solid at room temperature and are found mainly in animal fats such as butter, other dairy, red meat, and tropical oils. Your body makes some of its saturated fatty acids from carbohydrates in your diet.

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids: When a fatty acid is missing two hydrogen atoms, it has a double bond between two of its carbon atoms. This type of fatty acid is called a monounsaturated fatty acid, mono, because there is only one double bond, and unsaturated because the two carbon atoms that share a double bond are not saturated with hydrogen atoms. Monounsaturated fatty acids are usually liquid at room temperature are relatively stable, even when exposed to some heat. The most common type of monounsaturated fatty acid found in food is called oleic acid. Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in olive oil, avocados, peanuts, almonds, pecans, and cashews. Your body can also make monounsaturated fatty acids out of saturated fatty acids.

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: When a fatty acid chain is missing several hydrogen atoms, it has two or more double bonds. These fatty acids are called polyunsaturated fatty acids, poly, because there is more than one double bond. Because each double bond represents a kink in the fatty acid chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more kinks, and therefore are less saturated, and remain liquid even in the refrigerator. The most common polyunsaturated fatty acids found in foods are omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are considered to be essential fatty acids, because your body cannot make them – they must be obtained through your diet. See more discussion below.

Oils high in polyunsaturated oil include corn oil, soy oil, grape seed oil, regular safflower and sunflower oils (i.e., not “high oleic” oil – more on this below), and cottonseed oil and are highly unstable, and go bad quite easily when exposed to heat and light. You don’t want to cook with them. When polyunsaturated fatty acids go bad, free radicals are created. Free radicals are compounds that travel around in your blood, causing damage to just about everything that they come into contact with. Consistent exposure to free radicals has been strongly linked to the development of tumors, cardiovascular disease, premature aging, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and cataracts.

The Dangers of Polyunsaturates – An Excerpt: From Enig and Fallon’s important paper on The Oiling of America: (see link below): “Because polyunsaturates are highly subject to rancidity, they increase the body’s need for vitamin E and other antioxidants. Excess consumption of vegetable oils is especially damaging to the reproductive organs and the lungs—both of which are sites for huge increases in cancer in the US. In test animals, diets high in polyunsaturates from vegetable oils inhibit the ability to learn, especially under conditions of stress; they are toxic to the liver; they compromise the integrity of the immune system; they depress the mental and physical growth of infants; they increase levels of uric acid in the blood; they cause abnormal fatty acid profiles in the adipose tissues; they have been linked to mental decline and chromosomal damage; they accelerate aging. Excess consumption of polyunsaturates is associated with increasing rates of cancer, heart disease and weight gain; excess use of commercial vegetable oils interferes with the production of prostaglandins leading to an array of complaints ranging from autoimmune disease to PMS. Disruption of prostaglandin production leads to an increased tendency to form blood clots, and hence myocardial infarction, which has reached epidemic levels in America.”

The Importance of the Omega-6 and Omega-3 Ratio in Polyunsaturates

One of the essential keys to excellent health is to maintain a good balance between the two most common polyunsaturated fatty acids – omega-6 and omega-3. An optimal ratio is about 1:1. Vegetable oils like safflower, corn, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed all contain at least 50 percent omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and very little amounts of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, putting their omega-6 to omega-3 ratios as high as 20:1 which is why you want to avoid them.

Why is this ratio so critical to your health? If you have too much omega-6 compared to omega-3, you will have imbalances at a cellular level that will contribute to generalized inflammation, high blood pressure, digestive passageway disturbances, depressed immune function, sterility, weight gain, increased tendency to form blood clots, and even cancer. The excerpt above from Enig and Fallon’s article supports this.

How can you get a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids?  The best way is to eat a well balanced diet of whole, relatively unprocessed foods. A diet that is abundant in vegetables with smaller amounts of fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and organic or wild animal products including cold-water fish will very likely result in a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. If you prefer not to use animal products, or are unable to locate organic or wild sources of animal products, you should consider using a high quality cod liver oil. Cod liver oil has an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. Without supplementation, it is extremely difficult for strict vegans to obtain adequate quantities of DHA from only plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids like flax seeds and walnuts. This nutrient is particularly important for those with cardiovascular disease, any condition that is accompanied by chronic inflammation, and women of child-bearing status, as DHA is critical for proper development of the nervous system. Cutler and I have been taking cod liver oil and DHA since I discovered Dr. Sherry Rogers in November. I order ours from Carlson Labs (www. carlsonlabs.com).

An Oil Primer

Now we get to the nitty gritty and the original purpose of this post! All fats and oils from animal and plant sources are made up of a combination of all three types of fatty acids. In general, animal fats such as butter and fat found in beef and chicken have around 40-60 percent saturated fatty acids. Vegetable oils from low temperature climates tend to have a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetable oils from warmer climates, like coconut oil and red palm oil, have high percentages of saturated fats because the saturated fats impart necessary stiffness to the leaves of plants in tropical climates. The following is a quick review from Dr. Kim’s guide to oils (http://drbenkim.com/articles-oils.html). Oils are listed starting from best to use and go down to those to avoid completely.

Coconut Oil: 91.9% saturated, 6.2% monounsaturated, 1.9% polyunsaturated. This is the healthiest cooking oil. Also great for skin care. Learn more about coconut oil here:
I have ordered some Garden of Life organic coconut oil from Amazon and am going to give it a try. (Read the reviews.)

Palm Oil: 51.6% saturated, 38.7% monounsaturated, 9.7% polyunsaturated. Excellent for cooking because it remains stable, but apparently may have a “different” taste and odor. It’s common in peanut butter and microwave popcorn.

Olive Oil: 13.8% saturated, 75.9% monounsaturated, 10.3% polyunsaturated. Olive oil is a case where there are competing “facts”. It is definitely better than vegetable oils, but it’s not necessarily as healthy as we want to believe. Because its monounsaturated fats are prone to being stored as fat, heavy use of olive oil can make it difficult to lose weight. Actually, butter is less likely to cause weight gain than olive oil (it all has to do with lengths of fatty acid chains). Interestingly, about 11 years ago, I gave up butter for a year and substituted olive oil – zero change in my cholesterol or weight. Personally, I love all my different flavored olive oils and love to use them in cooking! Hopefully the cod liver oil is keeping things right. Learn more about olive oil here:  http://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/oils/health-benefits-of-olive-oil.html

Avocado Oil: 12.1% saturated, 73.8% monounsaturated, 14.1% polyunsaturated. Generally not used for cooking, excellent for skin moisturizing, but more expensive than coconut oil.

Peanut Oil: 18% saturated, 48% monounsaturated, 34% polyunsaturated. Relatively stable when exposed to heat, but should be used sparingly because of high calorie content.

Sesame Oil: 14.9% saturated, 41.5% monounsaturated, 43.6% polyunsaturated. Because it’s pretty even in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, it shouldn’t be used for cooking on a regular basis and should be used raw only on occasion.

Canola Oil: 7.4% saturated, 61.6% monounsaturated, 31% polyunsaturated. Canola oil (short for Canada Oil, Low Acid) does not come from the canola plant (no such thing), but is highly processed from the rapeseed. Although canola oil contains a large percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids, it should be avoided because it has a high sulfur content and goes bad very easily. It  is also highly susceptible to developing trans fatty acids during processing, making it similar to margarine and shortening. You do not want to use or buy products with canola oil whenever possible! Here is a link that will give you all the facts you need to know about canola oil.
http://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/2009/09/25/the-inconvenient-truth-about-canola-oil/ Spectrum (see link below), a maker of various oils, will refute these claims and asserts, along with others, that canola oil is perfectly safe and healthy. Personally, based on what I’ve been reading, I am staying away from it for cooking, but you must decide for yourself.

Corn Oil: 13.6% saturated, 29% monounsaturated, 57.4% polyunsaturated; Sunflower Oil: 10.8% saturated, 20.4% monounsaturated, 68.7% polyunsaturated; Safflower Oil: 6.5% saturated, 15.1% monounsaturated, 78.4% polyunsaturated; Cottonseed Oil: 27.1% saturated, 18.6% monounsaturated, 54.3% polyunsaturated. All of these oils should be avoided because of their high percentages of polyunsaturated fats and high concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids.

Soybean Oil: 15.6% saturated, 22.8% monounsaturated, 57.7% polyunsaturated. The only way to avoid consuming soybean oil is to quit eating processed foods. As pointed out below in the excerpt from Enig and Fallon’s article, soybean oil has replaced natural fats in food processing. For example, a quick look in my cupboard shows that Wheat Thins and Girl Scout cookies are made with soybean oil or partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Another reason to try to avoid the middle aisles of the grocery store! More on diet recommendations from Dr. Kim below.

Hemp (10% saturated, 12.5% monounsaturated, 77.5% polyunsaturated) and Flaxseed Oils (9.8% saturated, 21.1% monounsaturated, 69.1% polyunsaturated): These oils are not recommended for cooking. Better to just eat the seeds (ground or whole).

Grape Seed Oil: 10% saturated, 16.8% monounsaturated, 73.2% polyunsaturated. Interestingly, because this oil has a high smoke point, you’ll find many websites recommending it for healthy cooking. I actually bought some based on these claims – it’s going in the trash. The high percentage of polyunsaturated fats will produce a significant amount of free radicals when exposed to heat, so you don’t want to use this oil.

90’s See the Nation Well-Oiled – An Excerpt

From Enig and Fallon’s important paper on The Oiling of America: (see link below): “By the nineties the operators had succeeded, by slick manipulation of the press and of scientific research, in transforming America into a nation that was well and truly oiled. Consumption of butter had bottomed out at about 5 grams per person per day, down from almost 18 at the turn of the century. Use of lard and tallow had been reduced by two-thirds. Margarine consumption had jumped from less than 2 grams per person per day in 1909 to about 11 in 1960. Since then consumption figures had changed little, remaining at about 11 grams per person per day—perhaps because knowledge of margarine’s dangers had been slowly seeping out to the public. However, most of the trans fats in the current American diet come not from margarine but from shortening used in fried and fabricated foods. American shortening consumption of 10 grams per person per day held steady until the 1960’s, although the content of that shortening had changed from mostly lard, tallow and coconut oil—all natural fats—to partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Then shortening consumption shot up and by 1993 had tripled to over 30 grams per person per day.

But the most dramatic overall change in the American diet was the huge increase in the consumption of liquid vegetable oils, from slightly less than 2 grams per person per day in 1909 to over 30 in 1993—a fifteen fold increase.”

Trans Fats and Hydrogenated Oils

Hydrogenation is a process that converts polyunsaturated fatty acids – which are normally liquid at room temperature – into solid fats at room temperature. The most common example is the conversion of vegetable oils into margarine and shortening. In case you’re curious, this is done because hydrogenated vegetable oils don’t go bad nearly as quickly as regular vegetable oils do, prolonging the shelf life of whatever product they are in. Remember that the large concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids in most vegetable oils are harmful to begin with, as their inherent instability leads to formation of free radicals. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are even worse. This is because the process of hydrogenation changes the configuration of hydrogen atoms in polyunsaturated fatty acids to a formation called “trans”.

The trans formation is a huge problem for your tissues, as trans fatty acids are incorporated into your cell membranes and cause serious problems in cell metabolism. More specifically, trans fats are known to cause immune system depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, sterility, birth defects, decreased ability to produce breast milk, loss of vision, and weakening of your bones and muscles. And margarine, loaded with its trans fatty acids, is promoted as a health food?

The most concentrated sources of trans fats in the North American diet are margarine, shortening, French fries, fried chicken, doughnuts, cookies, crackers, and pastries. To give you some numbers, french fries typically have 40 percent trans fatty acids, while many popular cookies have anywhere from 30 to 50 percent trans fatty acids. Doughnuts usually have between 35 to 40 percent trans fatty acids. Sad to say but french fries and doughnuts are probably two of the worst foods for your health. Not all commercial cookies are harmful – read the labels. The reason food companies use trans fats is because the food stays fresh longer and preserves flavor.

Trans Fats – Are They Still in Our Processed Foods?

I would say the answer is yes. For one thing, a serving that contains less than .5 grams of trans fat, can be listed as 0 grams by the FDA. WebMD has a great article that reveals the top ten foods with trans fats. http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/top-10-foods-with-trans-fats And another reason to read the label? Many companies have switched from trans fats to canola oil – that’s not an improvement. Some cities are trying to regulate the restaurant industry and ban them from using trans fats in their kitchens. I’m not going to get bogged down in that discussion.

High Oleic Oil is Replacing Hydrogenated Trans Fat Oils in Processed Foods

The food processing industry is also trying a new type of oil called “high oleic”. Sunflower and safflower oils have been bred to be high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated and polyunsaturated fats, and have no trans fat so they can be used in products that need a longer shelf life. Many companies, fast food chains, and restaurants have switched to these oils. If you’re going to buy packaged, processed foods then look for the term “high oleic sunflower (or other) oil” in the ingredients list.  Are they “healthy”? They’re definitely better than other oils used in processed foods, but the more you stick to whole, fresh foods, the better.

Why Do We Love Fat?

I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning why we love foods with fat and why they give us so much pleasure. There are studies out there that call our cravings for fatty foods a low-grade addiction, not dissimilar to drug addiction. Yummy fat food triggers pleasure receptors in the brain. The more often you eat fat, the less the pleasure receptors respond, so you eat more and more fat to gain that feeling of pleasure from food. Forks Over Knives has a great section that illustrates this cycle. It’s only five minutes – give it a look-see! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhriVF7L3m0 It certainly begins to explain obesity in America. I’m sure this could be an article all on its own.

Some Conclusions and Diet Do’s and Don’ts*

1. The very best oil for you to cook with is virgin coconut oil.

2. Olive, peanut, and sesame oil can withstand some exposure to heat without becoming harmful, but Dr. Kim says it is best to avoid using these oils for cooking on a regular basis. Olive oil is best eaten raw or added to your food after it is off the stove. (This could be difficult for me.)

3. Avoid the following polyunsaturated vegetable oils: safflower, corn, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed and canola.

4. Never eat margarine or shortening and foods that contain them.

5. For people who use butter, it is important to use organic butter. Rich, dark yellow colored butter represents great nutritional density.

6. Avoid all deep fried foods, unless they have been deep fried in virgin coconut oil or red palm oil. You can safely bet that very few restaurants in Canada or the States use these two tropical oils to deep fry.

7. Avoid anything that is made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. This includes French fries, onion rings, tempura, doughnuts, and most processed, commercially prepared baked foods like, crackers, potato chips, cookies, chocolate bars, muffins, cakes, and pastries.

8. Avoid nuts and seeds roasted in oil.

9. Excellent, concentrated sources of fat from plant foods include: avocado, raw nuts, raw seeds, unsweetened coconut, coconut milk, virgin coconut oil, and raw olive oil. Most people should limit their intake of raw nuts and seeds to approximately one to two handfuls per day.

10. Excellent, concentrated sources of fat from animal foods include: cod liver oil, organic eggs from free-range birds, cold-water fish, organic chicken, grass-fed red meat (beef, buffalo, and lamb), and wild game. (As with all of the foods that you eat, it is important to observe your body’s feedback in order to determine which healthy foods are in fact healthy for your unique biochemistry.)

11. Processed foods are obviously difficult to avoid and who doesn’t like eating out? Based on what I’ve read, it seems to me that regular doses of cod liver oil will help you keep the right ratio between Omega 6  and Omega 3 fats, and help mitigate the effects of oils and fats you can’t control.

12. One last note: Oils (and butter) are high calorie foods so not only is it important to choose the right fats to consume, but also to limit the intake.

*Most Do’s and Don’ts are from Dr. Kim (link below)

The End! 🙂


I liberally copied and edited from Dr. Ben Kim’s article, “A Guide to Choosing Healthy Oils” http://drbenkim.com/articles-lipid.html

Dr. Kim’s article references an exhaustive research article, “The Oiling of America”, by Dr. Mary G. Enig, PhD and Sally Fallon. http://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats/the-oiling-of-america This detailed research paper will give you whole history of oil and fat in America.

Other links: