The quick answer: On the subject of fat, once much maligned, mounting evidence attests that the fats found in nature (minimally processed) are healthy and necessary. The fats produced in factories aren’t. It’s that simple. Warning: This post is longer that usual, but it's important information.
The Fate of the Edible Oil Industry
I know the subject of the week is exercise, but the public perception of fats is at a turning point and that’s a good thing. So here’s a visit to the supermarket fat/oil aisle, a new look at an old study, and a summary of a video that defends saturated fat.
Behind the vegetable oil giants like Unilever (Best Foods), ConAgra (Wesson Oil), Mazola Oil, and Kraft Foods, there’s a $55 billion industry largely out of sight—the edible oil producers. These companies refine and hydrogenate vegetable oils for Food Inc.
A handful of companies like Archers Daniels Midland and Cargill Foods dominate. Their major products include vegetable oils and shortening, corn syrup sweeteners, and by-products sold as fillers for processed foods or fed to livestock.
These valuable companies face a conundrum: If nutrition reformers (like you and me) prevail—they have no future.
Instead of eating factory oils, people will return to eating natural oils like butter and olive oil. There will still be a place for tropical oils (coconut oil or palm oil) but these are minimally processed and is best done offshore, where the fruit is grown.
The issue is these healthier oils come from the flesh, not the seed, so can be minimally processed. Think of the ancient tradition of crushing olives (not the seeds) for their oil. Seed oils (including soybeans, a legume) require more extensive processing, including solvent distillation, deodorization, and bleaching.
The Fat/Oil Aisle
The space given to food groups in a grocery store says a lot. In my grocery store, mayonnaise and vegetable oils (pictured above) each got 6 feet of aisle space. In contrast, olive oil got 9 feet, as did salad dressing. We’ll talk about the salad dressings in a future post.
The vegetable oils are mainly soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, and peanut oil. They used to come in blended mixtures but they’re now mostly sold alone. Notice the oil sprays on the top shelf? I found EVOO in a spray so took some home. See what’s in the very top right corner?—coconut oil. Coconut oil is getting a bit of shelf space respect.
The Misguided War Against Saturated Fat
The edible oil industry grew rapidly after WWII, driven by the false idea that polyunsaturated oils (typically hydrogenated) were healthier than saturated oils. The truth is we need all forms of fat (saturated and unsaturated) but we need it from natural, minimally processed sources. How did we come to falsely fear saturated fats?
Back in the ‘60s scientists struggled to understand the cause of heart disease, which had become our #1 killer. The politically correct theory said heart disease was caused by saturated fats, which are natural, and that the answer was to eat polyunsaturated factory-made fats.
This theory was examined in the Sydney Diet Heart Study done 1966-1973, which had the test group avoid traditional saturated fats in favor of polyunsaturated fats (including factory oil products like margarine). The control group ate their normal diet, which wasn’t all that healthy.
The result of the test was a surprise—the group eating the polyunsaturated (factory-processed) fats didn’t have less heart disease . . . they had more. In fact they had 55% more heart-related deaths! This should have caused an intense study to find what caused these additional deaths (plus sending some flowers to the families of the deceased volunteers) but because the finding was politically incorrect, it was ignored. Stuff like that happens in the food business.
Recently NIH researcher Dr. C. Ramden reexamined the Sydney data. Ramden concluded that the culprit was the higher level of omega-6 fat in the form of linoleic acid, an 18-carbon fat. To better understand, look at the forms of 18-carbon fats:
- Saturated form: The saturated 18-carbon fatty acid is called stearic acid. This is a good fat that has many uses in humans. Studies show, for example, that it reduces our “bad” LDL cholesterol. Animal fats are about 30% stearic acid.
- 1 carbon unsaturated (monounsaturated): This is called oleic acid, the principle fat in olive oil and avocados. Benefits include improving the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol, and, it’s thought, reducing high blood pressure.
- 2-carbon unsaturated: This is called linoleic acid, an omega-6 fat, and predominates in corn oil and safflower oil. The body needs linoleic acid; it’s the source of an essential fat, but generally we eat too much.
- 3-carbon unsaturated: Alpha-linolenic, an omega-3 fatty acid, is abundant in plants and is beneficial to humans. The long-chain forms found in pastured animal fats, but especially is cold-water fish, are essential to life.
This quick look at the various 18-carbon fats shows benefits of each but suggests that the ratio in our diet is critical to health. For example, a 10-year Harvard study of 50,000 women found significant relief from depression for women who ate more omega-3 combined with fewer omega-6 fats.
In Defense of Saturated Fats
To learn more about the benefit of the much-maligned saturated fats, see the YouTube video, Enjoy Eating Saturated Fats: They’re Good for You. Dr. Miller is a heart surgeon and U. of Washington professor. He gives an excellent history of how a healthy traditional fat was wrongly accused of causing obesity and heart disease but is now more and more recognized as healthy. Unfortunately, Dr. Miller, who once backed the low-fat Ornish Diet, now favors the high-fat diet hunter-gatherer Paleo diet. While it’s true that certain indigenous tribes thrive on this diet, it’s a shame Dr. Miller hasn’t tried the Word of Wisdom diet—a variety of natural foods for modern man.
How To Eat Healthy Fats (and Oils)
Typically, if it’s solid, it’s fat and if it’s liquid, it’s oil. Whatever the form traditional fats, minimally and properly processed, are essential to life:
- Saturated fats found in animal products, especially if the animals are pastured, are good for you. Enjoy your eggs, butter, and meat sparingly.
- The tropical oils are healthy if carefully processed. So coconut oil and palm oil, though more saturated, can be good for you.
- Likewise the mono unsaturated fats found in olive oil and avocados are healthy.
- Finally, the polyunsaturated fats found in fish (especially cold-water fish), are particularly healthy because they are richer in omega-3 fats (of the long chain type).
- Plants, unprocessed, are also a source of omega-3 (short-chain) and other healthy fats. The oils found in nuts are quite healthy. Edible seeds, as in the germ of wheat, contain a blend of healthy oils.
Please comment: How is your understanding of dietary fats evolving? Do you still cringe at the taste of full fat milk? Is you husband enjoying cream on his oatmeal? What do you use for salad dressing? Salad dressing makes the fat-soluble nutrients in salads more bio-available. So they’re good, but not all types are healthy. There’s an idea being promoted that more fat in your diet can mean less fat on your body. Does this make sense? Share your thoughts on fat.