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FATS & OILS – WHAT ARE THEY EXACTLY?

When we talk about ‘Fats’ we are actually talking about ‘fatty acids’.

Fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to them. Each fatty acid chain can attach to a varying number of hydrogen atoms, and this is what makes the difference between saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids.

SATURATED FATTY ACIDS carry the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms on their carbon chains. They are very stable, less susceptible to going rancid, and they also have higher smoking points than unsaturated fats.

UNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS do not carry the maximum number of hydrogen atoms and are divided into two sub-groups, mono-unsaturated fatty acids [MUFA] and poly-unsaturated fatty acids [PUFA]:

  1. Mono-unsaturated fatty acids carry all but 2 of the maximum possible hydrogen atoms;
  2. Poly-unsaturated fatty acids are ‘missing’ more than 2 hydrogen atoms.

Unsaturated fatty acids become rancid very readily, especially the polyunsaturated fatty acids; this means that the unsaturated fatty acids also have a lower smoke point than saturated fatty acids.

SO SHOULD YOU EAT SATURATED OR UNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS?

A common belief about fats is that animal fats are largely saturated and are unhealthy and that plant fats are largely unsaturated and are healthy. Both statements are incorrect and misrepresent where different types of fatty acids are found.  Most foods which contain fatty acids have a combination of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids as you can see in the table below.

Fatty acid foods which are predominantly comprised of saturated fatty acids tend to be solid at room temperature and we refer to them simply as FATS, e.g. butter, beef fat, lard, while foods predominantly comprised of unsaturated fatty acids tend to be liquid at room temperature and we call them OILS.

Lets talk about ANIMAL FATS.

Firstly, we’ll take what is probably considered to be the most insidious of all fats, lard. Lard is rendered pork fat. Many people believe that lard is the worst sort of fatty acid and is the stuff that heart disease is made of. However, lard is 60% unsaturated fatty acid, predominantly monounsaturated fatty acid, the same fatty acid which makes up the majority of olive oil!

LARD: Saturated fatty acid 40%

Monounsaturated fatty acid 48%

Polyunsaturated fatty acid 12%

If pork fat is mostly unsaturated fat, then surely beef with all that solid white fat must have nothing but saturated fats for you. Or does it? Checking out the fatty acid profile of a delicious rib eye steak we can see that the saturated fat:unsaturated fat ratio is about 50:50.

BEEF: Saturated fatty acid 52%
Monounsaturated fatty acid 44%
Polyunsaturated fatty acid 4%

So beef fat has a large proportion of unsaturated fats.

When we look at plants, we’d assume that they are pretty much unsaturated, but this deserves a closer look too.

OLIVE OIL: Saturated fatty acid 14%
Monounsaturated fatty acid 77%
Polyunsaturated fatty acid 9%

So, olive oil is clearly much higher in monounsaturated fatty acids than the animal fats above, but still has some saturated fatty acid.

How about coconut oil, recently touted as the new ‘good oil’ for us to consume? A whopping 92% saturated fat!

COCONUT OIL: Saturated fatty acid 92%
Monounsaturated fatty acid 6%
Polyunsaturated fatty acid 2%

So unsaturated fatty acids do come from both plant and animal sources and the same is true for saturated fatty acids.

As a rule, animal fatty acid sources are largely made up of monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids, with little polyunsaturated fat, while plant fatty acid sources vary widely in the percentages of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids they contain.

SO WHAT SHOULD YOU EAT ?

I suggest getting your dietary fatty acid intake from a variety of natural sources that we have evolved to eat: meat, poultry, eggs, fish, full-fat dairy products, olives, nuts, coconuts are all good natural sources of fatty acids.

Unrefined fats and oils have more flavour and more nutrient value, however refined oils have a higher smoke point and longer shelf life

But … the oil refinement process, which involves hexane solvents, high heat, bleaching, and deodorising, raises numerous health concerns, particularly those associated with hexane residues, trans fats, and damage to heat-sensitive polyunsaturated fatty acids (one important polyunsaturated fatty acid is omega 3).

For cooking choose a fat or oil with a high smoke point, ideally unrefined. [see table below]

As fats and oils become rancid on exposure to air, heat, and light, ensure you store fats and oils in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

Fat Comparison Chart

 Fat (1 Tbsp; 11-14gms) Saturated
(grams)
Mono-
unsaturated (grams)
Poly-
unsaturated (grams)
Trans-fat (grams)
Safflower Oil 0.8 10.2 2.0 0.0
Canola Oil 0.9 8.2 4.1 0.0
Flaxseed Oil 1.3 2.5 10.2 0.0
Sunflower Oil 1.4 2.7 8.9 0.0
Margarine (stick) 1.6 4.2 2.4 3.0
Corn Oil 1.7 3.3 8.0 0.0
Olive Oil 1.8 10.0 1.2 0.0
Sesame Oil 1.9 5.4 5.6 0.0
Soybean Oil 2.0 3.2 7.8 0.0
Margarine (tub) 2.0 5.2 3.8 0.5
Peanut Oil 2.3 6.2 4.3 0.0
Cottonseed Oil 3.5 2.4 7.0 0.0
Vegetable Shortening 3.2 5.7 3.3 1.7
Chicken Fat 3.8 5.7 2.6 0.0
Lard (pork fat) 5.0 5.8 1.4 0.0
Beef Tallow 6.4 5.4 0.5 0.0
Palm Oil 6.7 5.0 1.2 0.0
Butter 7.2 3.3 0.5 0.0
Cocoa Butter 8.1 4.5 0.4 0.0
Palm Kernel Oil 11.1 1.6 0.2 0.0
Coconut Oil 11.8 0.8 0.2 0.0

STANDARD DOMESTIC COOKING TEMPERATURES

Pan frying on hob: 120 °C (248 °F)

Deep frying: 160 – 180 °C (320 °F – 356 °F)

Oven baking: Average of 180 °C (356 °F)

 

Type of Fat Smoke Point

Note the difference in smoke points between Refined & Unrefined counterparts of the same oil.

Safflower Oil 510°F/265°C

Rice Bran Oil 490°F/260°C

Olive Oil Refined/Light 465°F/240°C

Soybean Oil 450°F/230°C

Sesame oil Semi-refined 450°F/232°C

Peanut Oil 450°F/230°C

Clarified Butter 450°F/230°C

Corn Oil Refined 450°F/230°C

Sunflower Oil Refined 440°F/225°C

Almond Oil 420°F/216°C

Canola Oil Expeller pressed 420°F/216°C

Olive Oil Virgin 410°F/210°C

Vegetable Oil 400-450°F/205-230°C

Beef Tallow 400°F/205°C

Coconut Oil Refined 400°F/205°C

Canola Oil Refined 400°F/205°C

Grapeseed Oil 390°F/195°C

Avocado Oil Virgin 375-400°F/190-205°C

Chicken Fat 375°F/190°C

Duck Fat 375°F/190°C

Lard 370°F/185°C

Vegetable Shortening 360°F/180°C

Sesame Oil 350-410°F/175-210°C

Butter 350°F/175°C

Corn Oil Unrefined 350°F/175°C

Coconut Oil Unrefined 350°F/175°C

Olive Oil Extra Virgin 350°F/175°C

Sesame oil Unrefined 350°F/175°C

Sunflower Oil Unrefined 350°F/175°C

Flaxseed Oil Unrefined 225°F/107°C

Canola Oil Unrefined 225°F/107°C