In our culture “fat” seems like a four-letter word, when in fact fat is essential to a healthy body. This post discusses several healthy fats from plants.
By Virginia George, Contributing Writer
For years we’ve been bombarded with messages that fat is bad. We invented margarine (which is pretty disgusting if you read the history), built ourselves a food pyramid, and spent millions of dollars on huge campaigns to promote “low fat” and “fat-free” foods. Research is beginning to surface that questions whether the “low fat” and “heart healthy” propaganda we’ve been fed these last 30 years is really accurate.
What is Fat?
When you think of the word “fat”, what comes to mind? A big tub of Crisco, a block of lard, or lumpy thighs? It’s likely the word “fat” doesn’t conjure up positive images. But what exactly is fat?
There are three terms that cover what we are talking about: fats, oils, and lipids. Fats are generally solid at room temperature, while oils are liquid. Lipid is a term that covers both. For the intent of this article, I will be referencing everything as fat.
Fat is, from the American Heritage dictionary:
- Any of various soft, solid, or semisolid organic compounds constituting the esters of glycerol and fatty acids, and their associated organic groups.
- A mixture of such compounds occurring widely in organic tissue, especially in the adipose (fatty) tissue of animals and in the seeds nuts, and fruits of plants.
To get even more technical, from Wikipedia, fats are triglycerides composed of glycerol and carbon chains. If you straightened a fat molecule out it would look much like the letter E. Fats are also a source of essential fatty acids. These are called “essential” because our bodies cannot manufacture them, they must be synthesized from our food. Essential fatty acids are things like omega-3, omega-6, and DHA, which has been in the news for infant brain development.
Why is Fat Important?
With all the negative attention fats get, it’s easy to think that perhaps we shouldn’t consume any at all. We have already talked about the importance of essential fatty acids in our diet, here are a few more fat facts:
- Fats store energy for your body, at just under 9kcal/gram.
- Fat insulates and protects your organs.
- Fat helps maintain your body temperature and promotes healthy cell function.
- When your body detects too high a level of something in your bloodstream, often a toxin, your body can isolate them into fat cells to clear out your bloodstream.
Additionally, several vitamins like A, D, E, and K are fat soluble. This means that when you eat foods with those vitamins in them without any fat, the vitamins aren’t absorbed into your body. They must essentially be dissolved into dietary fat to be carried to your cells.
Fats are essential to cellular function and the health of our bodies, and even mainstream nutritionists suggest that 10-30% of the average person’s daily calories should come from fat. The question becomes not if we should consume fats, but rather which ones and which to use in each application.
Choosing Your Fat
It’s important to choose your fat wisely. Consider the properties of your fat before cooking or baking to make the best culinary (or cosmetic) choice.
- Taste. Some fats have a strong flavor, while others are more milk. Consider what you are using it for and whether the taste of that particular oil would compliment the other ingredients or not.
- Rancidity and oxidation. The rate at which a fat or oil becomes rancid or oxidizes depends largely on the type of fat, but also on the method of storage. Saturated fats decay at a slower rate than unsaturated fats. Oxidation occurs when a fat is exposed to, yes, oxygen. Oxygen, heat, and sunlight begin to break down the fat, cause it to go rancid, and create free radicals. Storing your fat away from heat, in a dark container, and in the smallest container possible will help delay oxidation. (source) Rancidity occurs when oil is damaged, often due to oxygen or heat, and free radicals are created.
- Smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature at which the fat becomes unstable and begins to break down and burn. Perhaps you’ve been frying something and your pan was hot and began smoking. Your oil has exceeded the smoke point. All smoke points given here are approximate and can vary. (source)
Now that we know what fat is, why it’s important, and what to consider when choosing which fat to use, let’s take a look at several different kinds of fats and the health benefits of each.
Most fats from plants are considered oils, as they are liquid at room temperature. Many of these fats or oils are pressed from the seeds of the plant. Plant fats also tend to be higher in unsaturated fat than saturated fat, with the exception of coconut and palm oils.
Coconut oil has gotten a bad rap because 92% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. (source) While this is true, coconut oil is a great source of medium chain fatty acids, which are different than animal-based saturated fats. These medium chain fatty acids can be used directly by your body to produce energy.
There are a lot of different sources and kinds of coconut oil out there. I get mine from Wilderness Family Naturals, and all the processing information comes from their website. I cannot verify how other companies process their oil, but I firmly believe Wilderness Family Naturals oils are the best out there. They take great care in processing and are a pleasure to work with.
Coconut oil’s flavor and properties are influenced significantly by the way they are processed. All forms of coconut oil are extremely stable at room temperature and will not likely become rancid before you can use them up.
- Expeller Pressed: Expeller pressed coconut oil is flavorless and works well when you need a healthy oil without the coconut taste. It is also less expensive than the cold pressed oil, so it’s easier on the wallet to use in large quantities. Expeller pressed oil also has a higher smoke point, around 375*F, which makes it a great choice for frying.
- Cold Pressed: Cold pressed oil is made from dehydrated flakes of coconut. The flakes are then pressed, and the oil is extracted. It is then placed in a centrifuge to spin out any fine particles. The cold pressed oil from Wilderness Family Naturals is raw. The oil is not heated during processing, which leaves additional nutrients intact. Because cold pressed coconut oil can contain tiny coconut solids, the smoke point is lower, around 300-350*F. It is generally safe for baking, however, if your oil is raw, temperatures exceeding 104*F will begin to break down the living nutrients, making it not raw anymore.
- Centrifuge Extracted: Centrifuge extracted oil is made from the flesh and milk of the coconut. The coconut is gently expeller pressed, then the flesh and milk run through a series of 6 centrifuges to separate the oil from the water components. The result is a light, slightly coconutty flavored oil. Wilderness Family Naturals centrifuge extracted oil is also raw and has a smoke point of around 375*F.
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has been found to have more health benefits than I could possibly discuss in this article, but I will touch on a few things here.
Cholesterol. Virgin coconut oil has been found to lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, LDL, and VLDL cholesterol levels and increase HDL cholesterol in rats. (source)
Cholesterol and weight loss. Another study compared women with abdominal obesity and had them take a supplement of either 30mL of soybean oil or 30mL of coconut oil over a 12 week period. At the end of the study, the group that received the soybean oil supplement had a decreased BMI, but their cholesterol levels had increased. The group who supplemented with the coconut oil increased their HDL, decreased their LDL, and noticed a reduction in their waist circumference. (source)
Acne. A study was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in April 2009 that found that lauric acid was effective to counter the growth of acne-forming bacteria at a concentration of 15x less than benzoyl peroxide, the active ingredient in some acne medications. It also shows no sign of damage to cells.
Lauric Acid. Almost 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid, which is anti-bacterial according to the above mentioned study. Another study showed that lauric acid is effective in killing Group A Strep and Group B Strep. (source) Lauric acid is also relatively effective in deactivating the chlamydia virus. (source)
Polyphenols. The polyphenols in coconut oil lend to its anti-inflammatory effect. For this reason, you will see it as an ingredient in several balms and lotions, though some people find coconut oil drying to their skin. This may be because the coconut oil penetrates the skin to nourish instead of staying on top of the skin and providing a moisture barrier.
Olive oil is made from… olives! They are picked from the tree, crushed, mixed with water, and centrifuged. (source) There are many factors that affect the final product, including when and how the olives were picked, from what part of the world they were grown, how long between picking and pressing, and what further filtration and purification the oil has gone through.
Olive oil has a distinct flavor, so consider this when choosing your fat. Light olive oil has been run through more filtration to remove more of the color and flavor of the oil, it is not “light” as in “less fat”. The flavor of the oil is determined partly by where the olives were grown, from Spain’s fruity, nutty oil to France’s pale, mild oil. You may find a flavor profile you prefer, based on the region the olives were grown in!
Olive oil should be stored carefully, away from heat, light, and oxygen. Olive oil can become rancid even before you can smell it, creating free radicals that use up some of those amazing antioxidants you’re ingesting. Choose a dark glass bottle to store your oil in, or a nonreactive metal container, like stainless steel. Some metals can react with olive oil and create toxic compounds. Also, avoid plastic as olive oil can leach dangerous chemicals from the plastic.
Store your oil away from heat, so above the stove is not a good idea (ahem, I used to keep mine there). Cool, dry, and dark are your best bets.
The quality of your olive oil will affect the smoke point. Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of around 375*F. Depending on the acidity and purity of the oil, the smoke point may be higher. Virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point than extra virgin. With a high smoke point, olive oil is a good choice for frying.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive oil has been in the news for a long time because it is high in omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to the omega-3s, olive oil is high in vitamin E, an antioxidant possibly responsible for reducing damage to the eyes in age-related macular degeneration, heart disease, and cancer prevention.
Olive oil is thought to protect against a myriad of ailments from osteoporosis to cardiovascular health to diabetes to depression (source). These health benefits, unfortunately, diminish over time.
In a study that appeared in the May 2004 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, Spanish researchers tested virgin olive oil that had been stored for 12 months under perfect conditions.
What they found was quite surprising: After 12 months, many of the oil’s prime healing substances had practically vanished. All the vitamin E was gone, as much as 30 percent of the chlorophyll had deteriorated, and 40 percent of the beta-carotene had disintegrated. Phenol levels had dropped dramatically, too. (source)
Sourcing quality, fresh olive oil is important. Not only to avoid the free radicals from rancid oil but also to be sure all the health-promoting substances are still intact.
Olive oil also is high in polyphenols. Polyphenols are anti-inflammatory. One study suggests that consuming high-phenol olive oil could reduce the risk for colon and other bowel diseases (source), while another found that the polyphenols in olive oil reduced blood pressure in young women with high-normal blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension (source).
The polyphenols in olive oil are also antimicrobial. In fact, one study about food safety showed that olive oil (and vinegar) killed the most strains of bacteria in food and suggested that olive oil would be a good alternative to other oils in helping to prevent foodborne illness.
Because olive oil is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, it is a good choice for salves and balms. We use it to treat ear infections, and it is also a good carrier oil when using essential oils topically.
Flaxseed oil is made from the seeds of the flax plant. It is a very sensitive oil and goes rancid easily, so keep that in mind when choosing where to store your flaxseed oil. (source)
Flaxseed oil has a relatively low smoke point at only 225*F so it isn’t recommended for cooking. It has a nutty flavor and makes a great addition to salad dressing and smoothies.
Health Benefits of Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil has the natural foods community divided. Some believe it is a healthful oil and should be added to our diets, others disagree and won’t come anywhere near it.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid. Flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. Alpha-linolenic acid may help reduce blood pressure and decrease lung inflammation for those with asthma. (source)
Lignans. Flaxseed oil is also a good source of lignans. Lignans are a phytoestrogen that help regulate hormones and support the immune system. (source)
Flaxseed oil may cause diarrhea for some, and enhance the effect of blood thinning medications. If you are on blood thinning medications, speak with your doctor before consuming flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil may suppress free radical production, but one study showed it didn’t improve lipid levels. (source) while another concluded that flaxseed oil lowered the blood pressure of people who already have high blood lipid levels.
The last time I was at the store looking through the oils they had on hand, I picked up a bottle of vegetable oil to see what the ingredients were. It made me laugh because this “vegetable oil” was made from soybeans, which are legumes!
Vegetable oil is a light, mild oil that has been refined. It has a very high smoke point, 466*F if it’s soybean oil.
Health Benefits of Vegetable Oil
It’s difficult to ascertain the health benefits of any commercial vegetable oil unless you know which kind of oil is being used to make the vegetable oil.
There are many more oils to explore, like peanut oil, sweet almond oil, and avocado oil. It is my desire that you will try new things, and no longer shy away from the word “fat”. It’s time we embrace the beautiful healthful fats we have available to us instead of feeling guilty for “indulging” in these tasty additions to our diet.