Monday, May 25, 2009
What Is The Difference In Fats?
What is saturated fat? What's trans fat? Should I be using butter or margarine?
Oh, fat. What would we do without it?
Probably a whole lot more!
But seriously, what we're talking about is the fat you eat, whether for health, flavor or habit. Not all fats have the same effects, and it's important to use the best kinds in your cooking. Today we're going to look at the wonderful world of fat.
There are saturated fats, which come from animal sources like dairy, meat and eggs. These fats are so bad for the heart and arteries - and we love 'em. This is a large part of why Americans struggle so much with heart disease, obesity, and strokes.
Unsaturated fats are a better bet. They go by polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and plain old unsaturated. All of them are better by far than saturated fat. In fact, a little in the diet is a good thing. Examples include nuts, vegetable oils, avocados, and fish.
We do need fats, after all. Fat gives us energy, and it nourishes our cells and muscles. Fats keep our skin and hair looking supple and healthy.
Fats also do something else: they help us absorb vitamins and nutrients. Without fat, a lot of us would be crippled by vitamin deficiencies.
So fat is a friend - but you have to choose your friends wisely.
The best fats are Omega-3's. These fatty acids fight bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol, and stimulate the brain. They've become very well-known in the health community and anyone interested in a good diet or becoming healthier has probably heard of them. Hundreds of studies in the last year or two have shown that Omega-3's are really lacking in the American diet. That's a shame, because these fats actually help you think clearly. They play a role in things like memory and cognition, and they influence our moods, too. Examples include nuts, salmon, red tuna, avocados, flaxseeds, and olive oil.
I like olive oil. Is canola oil more or less healthy for you than olive oil?
Canola oil is fine. It is a rapeseed derivative, which makes some people oppose it because they're misinformed about the rapeseed plant. A common myth is that mustard gas is made from the same plant canola oil is made from. That's baloney.
Let's talk about the worst fats of all.
Isn't saturated fat the worst?
It's got nothing on trans fats. Trans fats are also called hydrogenated fats. These are chemically-treated, heat-blasted unsaturated fats. We say "trans fats," because they were transferred from one type of fat to another. They become structurally similar to saturated fat, but worse. Most prepared and packaged foods contain trans fats, which are linked to all the problems saturated fat is known for, in addition to diabetes, depression and mood swings. Examples include most packaged foods (especially ones with crusts, crackers, cakes, cookies or croutons), shortenings, margarines and spreads.
I know the safety level for saturated fat is just a few grams a day. What about trans-fat?
The U.S. government says no one should ever eat trans fats. Period. The safety level is zero. And yet, that's all that you see in just about every food imaginable!
I thought margarine was better than butter.
Absolutely not. Most margarine is just a blend of different hydrogenated fats. It's terrible for your body. But margarine was popular for decades because people thought butter was the bad guy.
Since it doesn't have cholesterol or saturated fat, it became an American staple. It was a good idea to find a substitute for saturated fat, but butter is actually less harmful than margarine.
So what do I use?
There are some great butter and margarine substitutes out there. One great example is Earth Balance, which is a delicious Omega-3 spread that is far healthier and tastier than margarine.