Good fats, bad fats

By Louisa Enright | Jul 28, 2010
Photo by: Patrisha McLean

Since the late 1970s, Americans have been encouraged by nutritionists, doctors, the government and industry to eat less fat, especially the saturated fat once traditional in the American diet. Yet, according to Dr. Mary Enig, an expert in the chemistry of fats, and Sally Fallon, both of the Weston A. Price Foundation, saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50 percent of our cell membranes and are what give our cells necessary stiffness and integrity. Saturated fats, among their many benefits, play such an important role in the health of our bones that at least 50 percent of our dietary fats should be saturated.

The 1980 U.S. Department of Agriculture diet substituted carbohydrates for healthy fats, which has resulted in national obesity and chronic disease problems -- as many scientists of that era feared. The fats Americans now consume most often are denatured, highly refined, highly unstable and too rich in omega 6 fatty acids.

So what kinds of fats are healthy? Caroline Barringer, writing in the July/August 2010 issue of Well Being Journal and drawing on the work of Enig and Fallon, walks readers through the healthy fats terrain in a few short pages. You can buy a copy at Good Tern Natural Foods, Fresh Off the Farm or online. Or see Enig and Fallon's "The Skinny on Fats" and "The Oiling of America" at

Understanding the chemical structures of fats and what industrial processing does to those structures helps one begin to understand which fats are dangerous and why.

Saturated fatty acid molecules are straight so can stack together tightly, which is why they are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. The straight nature of SFA molecules makes them stable, even at high temperatures, and they do not turn rancid easily.

Monounsaturated fatty acid molecules have a slight bend. They can still stack closely, but not as tightly as saturated fatty acid molecules, which is why they are liquid at room temperature, but semi-solid when refrigerated. MUFAs are relatively stable and do not turn rancid easily.

Polyunsaturated fatty acid molecules have two bends. They cannot stack together well. They are unstable, even at room temperature, and are easily damaged by heat, light, moisture and exposure to oxygen. They require refrigeration and turn rancid quickly and easily. Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids are in the PUFA category. But consume only small amounts of some PUFAs and only if they are organic, unrefined, first cold pressed or cold pressed, or expeller pressed, or extra virgin.

Industrial processing methods affect radically the structure of fats. Traditionally, Barringer notes, seed and nut oils were extracted by pressing. Industry crushes the seeds/nuts; heats them to 230 degrees or more; presses them using heat-producing high-pressures to squeeze out all fats; and uses the dangerous, petroleum-derivative solvent hexane to extract the last bits of oil. Industry attempts to "boil off" the hexane, but some remains. If the seeds/nuts are not organic, the hexane acts as a magnet for chemical residues. So the final product is rancid, devoid of nutrients and poisoned.

Enig and Fallon explain that the damaged molecules form free radicals with edges like razor blades. Barringer notes that these free radicals "wreak havoc on the body, attacking and damaging DNA/RNA, cell membranes, vascular walls, and red blood cells, which, in turn, leads to further problems."

These highly processed oils, which are mostly PUFAs, next undergo hydrogenation, which transforms liquid oils to solids, which extends shelf life. Margarine and shortening, for instance, are hydrogenated PUFA oils.

Tiny particles of nickel oxide are added to the oil, then the mixture is exposed to hydrogen gas in a high-heat, high-pressure reactor, which chemically straightens any bends in the molecule. These altered molecules are trans fats. Now, the oil is thin, is watery and smells foul as it is rancid. Multiple thickeners and fillers are added, and the oil is steam cleaned (more heat) to remove the odor. Next, the gray-colored oil is bleached. The resulting substance is vegetable shortening. Artificial colors and flavors can be added to produce margarine.

Our bodies, Barringer explains, do not recognize these kinds of fats as foods. If we consume them regularly, "we lose the ability to utilize healthy fats properly." Further, when healthy fatty acids are displaced by these highly processed fake fats, our bodies become subject to cascading, serious health problems, like cancer, diabetes, birth defects, sexual dysfunction, heart disease and poor bone health.

Thus, Barringer warns, avoid trans fats "like the plague," which is not easy because the Food and Drug Administration allows industry to claim "zero trans fats" when trans fats are present. Read labels and look for hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats. Do not buy products where the following words appear on the label: refined, hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated or cold processed (which is not cold pressed).

The safest fats for cooking are lard (pork fat); ghee (melted butter with the milky solids skimmed); tallow (beef and lamb fat); chicken, duck, and goose fat; coconut oil (organic and virgin); and red palm oil or palm kernel oil (organic and virgin). You can also combine these fats. Barringer likes coconut oil combined with ghee or lard. Barringer says red palm oil has a "pungent, paprika-like flavor" that is "best suited for roasting root vegetables," like roasting red and white potatoes with red, yellow, and orange peppers, fresh garlic, and herbs.

Properly pressed olive oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil and sesame oil are good for stir-frying. Peanut oil should have limited use as it has a high percentage of omega 6 fatty acid.

The following oils, Barringer warns, are unsafe for any kind of heat exposure: vegetable/soybean oil, corn oil, flax oil, hemp oil, pine nut oil, pumpkin oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and grapeseed oil. These oils are almost 50 percent omega 6 fatty acids and should be consumed in moderation. It is hard to find unprocessed versions. Also, corn and soybean oil should be avoided as they are likely to be genetically modified and are grown with heavy pesticide levels.

Canola and cottonseed oil, warns Barringer, are unsafe to consume under any circumstances. Canola is a highly processed industrial oil and does not belong in the human digestive tract. Plus canola is almost entirely a genetically modified crop. Cotton is "one of the most genetically modified, pesticide-laden crops in America." And, asks Barringer, "when did cotton and its seed become a food?"

Organic, real butter, Barringer explains, is a cofactor that allows our bodies to use effectively calcium and other minerals we consume. Butter contains omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in small amounts in a healthful ratio. Butter contains conjugated linoleic fatty acids for better weight management, muscle growth and protection from cancer. Butter contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K that help us absorb the trace minerals it also contains, among them zinc, selenium, iodine, chromium and manganese. Butter contains butyric fatty acids that provide "proper inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses to help us heal effectively." And the fat in butter "enhances brain function and increases cell membrane integrity."

Eat organic butter! Eat lots of it every day, especially if you can find raw butter. (But not with a lot of bread, which is a carbohydrate.)






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