I Shan't Get No Saturation

While it is always a good idea to remain within shouting distance of the recommended ideal weight for your body type and height, don’t get fooled into believing that slim ‘n’ trim necessarily corresponds to fit and healthy. You could resemble that stick figure loving etched by Caveman Caravaggio in his prehistoric cave all those years ago, and yet have copious amounts of cholesterol sloshing around in your bloodstream, clogging up your arteries, until you suddenly drop dead one fine day in May as a consequence of the blockages.

Not too long ago, nutritionists believed that fats in the diet needed to be minimised or, in some extreme cases even eliminated, for optimum heart health. Subsequent research revealed that this approach was incorrect, counterproductive and potentially even dangerous. Fats come in several shapes and sizes, some of which are desirable and can actually enhance cardiovascular health. In the bloodstream, fats and cholesterol move around as minute protein-covered particles called lipoproteins. Depending on their size, density and structure they may be of various types; the important ones are LDL (low density lipoprotein, which carries cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body), HDL (high density lipoprotein), and triglycerides.

Types of fats

Saturated fats (so-called because carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms in the chemical structure of these fats) are less healthy because they increase the levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol – it is excess LDL that forms the plaque that attaches to arterial walls and causes blockages). Saturated fats, mostly of animal origin (meat and dairy), are usually solid at room temperature. Many foods high in saturated fats are also high in cholesterol – however this dietary cholesterol is not as dangerous as once thought to be, as it contributes very little to increasing total cholesterol levels in most people (thus, foods such as prawns, high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat, are not so bad after all). Saturated fats are found in meats, some seafood, skin of poultry, whole-milk products such as cheese, butter, milk, cream and ice cream, and some plant oils. Red meats and whole-milk dairy are the main contributors of undesirable saturated fats in most people’s diets.

Unsaturated fats are healthier to consume. These can be either monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), based on their chemical structure. And you need to MUFA and PUFA to blow your bad cholesterol away! Of course if you overdo it, you can forget about weight control, as all fats, saturated or otherwise, still contain nine calories per gram. Unsaturated fats also increase the levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol, which acts like a trash collector and picks up excess cholesterol from the blood, LDL and artery walls and carries it to the liver for processing and eventual disposal. Unsaturated fats are found mainly in plant foods such as nuts seeds and vegetable oils, usually in liquid form at room temperature.

Monounsaturated fats are found in olive, canola and groundnut oils. Almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds are also rich in MUFAs.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in soyabean, sunflower, corn and flaxseed oils, as well as in fatty fish and nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flax seeds. The human body is incapable of producing polyunsaturated fats (including the celebrated Omega-3 fats) so they must be sourced from foods.

Trans Fats

While unsaturated fats are good and saturated fats not so good in excess, trans fats are now considered to be absolute anathema. Trans fats are synthetically produced by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils under pressure. This process solidifies the oils, ensures a longer shelf-life, and enables the oils to withstand repeated heating at higher temperatures. It is now categorically established that trans fats contribute to heart disease by lowering HDL and increasing LDL, and have other bad effects such as enhancing inflammation and a host of other problems. Although regulation now requires packaged goods to state the content of trans fats, until recently these were passed off under the guise of “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “vegetable shortening”. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are often used for baking and also in restaurants, fast food chains and by street vendors, as they are inexpensive, more stable, can be heated repeatedly, and are also easy to store and transport without spoiling.

Storage and Usage of Oils

In order to derive the maximum health benefit from unsaturated oils, it’s important to know a few things about their properties. Most important is the “smoke point” of an oil, the temperature at which the oil begins to break up into free fatty acids and glycerol, which further breaks down into a substance known as acrolein (released as thick, bluish smoke) – if this happens the food being fried will taste terrible and any nutritional value of the oil will be lost; worse, a toxin known as HNE can form when unsaturated oils are reheated repeatedly.

The optimal temperature for frying is 180-190 degrees C. The oil being used for frying should definitely have a smoke point that’s much higher than that. Groundnut oil, soyabean oil and rice bran oil all have high smoke points, and can safely be used in all types of cooking. While the smoke point of olive oil is high enough to withstand degradation during frying, it would be silly to use this expensive oil for deep frying. If you must, then the pomace variety of olive oil is most suitable for deep frying; extra virgin olive oil is best utilised as a flavoring post-cooking in order to derive maximum benefit from both a taste as well as a health perspective.

Polyunsaturated fats being the least stable are more prone to oxidation with exposure to light, repeated heating, and long-term storage. Store all oils in air-tight, opaque containers (dark bottles, tins or plastic cans), away from light. Expensive oils are best kept in the fridge. It is not true that reheating of unsaturated oils generates trans fats, but degradation is bound to occur if the oil is brought to smoke point or thereabouts and repeatedly used for deep frying all day long – that cauldron of oil bubbling away at the vada pav stall sure doesn’t inspire any confidence at all!

Conclusions and Recommendations

The information on what constitutes good and bad fats is rather confusing and there are a lot of conflicting studies. After reading through reams of reports and articles from credible and authoritative medical sources, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • Saturated fat is bad when you get too much of it. It’s a good idea to limit consumption of red meat and whole-milk dairy products to once or twice a week at best. If you must, go in for fish, poultry and remove all visible fat and skin from non-vegetarian foods before consumption. Skimmed milk and low-fat dairy taste almost as good as the full-fat versions. But don’t deny yourself the pleasure of pigging out once in a while.
  • Dietary cholesterol is not the ogre it was once thought to be. So eggs, butter and other such treats can be consumed guiltlessly in moderation, but be aware that the calories still keep adding up rapidly with all such foods.
  • Trans fats need to be avoided as far as possible. Stay far away from all partially hydrogenated fats, including vanaspati. Read the nutrition labels on all packaged foods and choose those which categorically claim to be trans-fat-free. Unfortunately, the bigger risk is when buying unpackaged foods (such as at a bakery, the farsan store and the mithaiwala), eating out at restaurants or indulging in street food. You can’t keep on enquiring about the medium of cooking (anyway, it’s most likely to be partially hydrogenated soya or groundnut oil – trans fats!), so it’s advisable to keep such culinary adventures to the minimum if health is your concern.
  • Olive oil is undoubtedly the best medium for cooking. But it’s also horrendously expensive, more so in India because of high import duties. After checking out the composition of various oils, smoke points and other properties, my recommendation is that rice bran oil, soyabean oil and perhaps groundnut oil are quite acceptable alternatives, providing almost as much nutritional value as olive oil at a small fraction of the cost. Use olive oil if you have money to burn (literally!), but if you instead channel that money towards some other worthy cause, the satisfaction you derive from such gestures would probably be far better for your heart than olive oil could ever be!

What about coconut oil and pure ghee then? And all the brouhaha about omega-3 and omega-6? Well, those are the topics for my next posts.

- Val Souza

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3 comments to I Shan’t Get No Saturation

  • this book was supposed to have been for gaihertng recipes but the only thing i gathered from it was whoever wrote it was very wealthy b/c the recipes were too expensive for this girl to fix and a lot of the ingredients i have never heard of so much for the AMA cookbooks. needless to say i wont be ordering anything else they put out.i gave it to the public library.however i did get good information from the paperback book THE NEW 8-WEEK CHOLESTEROL CURE by Robert E. Kowalski and the book was a lot less money. I bought it at the same time from Amazon.and that book is still gracing my shelf. LOVE IT. thanx Amazon.

  • [...] and contain a lot of interesting and useful information – the ones I’m referring to are I Shan’t Get No Saturation, Coconut Oil and Pure Ghee: Good or Bad? and  The ABC of Omega-3 and Omega-6. Also don’t miss [...]

  • [...] harmful. [After extensive reading, I documented some of my conclusions in the earlier posts titled I Shan’t Get No Saturation and Coconut Oil and Pure Ghee: Good or [...]

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