It’s confusing about fats—what’s in, what’s out, and what’s okay today. Want some lasting advice? Eat what your great-grandmother ate. Butter, olive oil, and lard—that’s likely what she had in her pantry. For millennia butter was churned from the cream of pasture-fed cows. The French not only enjoyed rich buttery sauces, they also had low rates of heart disease. Butter makes everything taste better.
Olive oil, much mentioned in the scriptures, is another ancient food. Unlike vegetable oils, which are chemically extracted from seeds, olive oil is pressed from the flesh surrounding the seed. The trees that provide olives may live for centuries and a branch is traditionally used as sign of goodwill.
Lard is also a traditional cooking fat. After a century of slander, top chefs have rediscovered its merits especially as a shortening, and public interest is spreading. Maybe your great-grandmother left piecrust tips behind, or a recipe for her lard-roasted potatoes. Butter, olive oil, and lard—what more do you need?
In the last century each of these traditional fats fell from favor and then was rediscovered. How did we go so wrong? Well, when food becomes a big business, the consumer can get lost in the process. It makes me think of the bon mot, “’Every man for himself’, called the elephant as he danced among the chickens.”
Take soybean oil, for example. Soybean oil is our #1 food oil; it accounts for 2/3 of the vegetable-sourced oil we eat. It’s an ingredient in just about every processed food. We eat more than we think, about 25 lbs. a year, or an ounce each day. For years essentially all soybean oil was hydrogenated to remove the omega-3 fats, which extended shelf life. Hydrogenation creates trans fats and we all grew up unaware we were eating a toxic man-made fat (plus being deprived of needed omega-3s). Voices of protest were raised—the work of Dr. Mary Enig comes to mind—but they were ignored and even harassed.
The evidence against trans fat finally became so impossible to ignore that the FDA—rather than simply ban them as the Institute of Medicine advised—required the industry to disclose trans fats on the nutrition panel, effective 2006. (Though they gave them a little wiggle room by allowing food with less than 0.5 grams to be labeled as zero trans fats. So in the way that language is misused in advertising, we don’t actually know if zero really means zero without searching for the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredient list.)
Eliminating trans fats from our diet was the goal of our second Healthy Change. To remind, trans fats move LDL and HDL cholesterol and inflammation in the unhealthy direction and are a cause of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
The food industry, once the defender of trans fat, is now racing to replace them with some new man-made fat. Genetically modified soybeans with reduced polyunsaturated oils (less omega-3) have been introduced. If you check the chip aisle in your grocery store, you’ll find that most chips now claim, “zero trans fats”. Are these genetically modified oils healthy? We don’t know for sure. Concerned scientists have voiced concern but it will take time before any harm can be proven.
Likewise with margarine and shortenings, new methods of processing soybean oil are being developed. Hydrogenation is being replaced, for example, with the hard-to-pronounce process of interesterification. Are products with these new man-made fats healthy? Same answer: We don’t know for sure. It will take time before any long-term harm can be proven.
Here is a food rule to consider: Allow a century of use before assuming a new man-made food is healthy. All this brings us to this week’s change:
In a future post we’ll share what we learned on a walk through the butter and margarine aisle at the local grocery. Please share your experience with fats.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.