Until recently, saturated fats were designated the health food “bad boys.” They stay solid at room temperature and are commonly found in animal products such as beef, duck and pork. When consumed in excess, saturated fats contribute to heart disease and obesity.
The reputation of old-fashioned butter took a dive in the early days of the butter/margarine debate because its saturated fat content was believed to cause to high cholesterol. (Newer research blames bad cholesterol metabolism on a customary bad diet and sedentary lifestyle.) More recently, the public has pinned hydrogenated trans fats to the mat and judged them to be the most dangerous of all. In the process, margarine products, previously unsuspected sources of trans fats, have suffered a smaller cheering section.
The process of hydrogenation causes structural damage and produces toxic trans-fatty acids, which serve no bodily function and have been proven a key health risk in heart disease and cancer. Liquid oils are heated to high temperatures and artificially saturated to protect against spoiling and to maintain flavor. They solidify, creating a key component in many of the margarines and shortenings seen on grocery shelves.
Dr Walter Willett, leading nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, has conservatively calculated that hydrogenated trans fats now account for about 30,000 premature deaths from heart disease every year in the United States.
Researchers have come to recognize what some shoppers still don’t; these fats increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol and increase triglycerides. They further interfere with virtually all roles of essential fatty acids within the body.
In 1990, Dr Enig revealed the unexpected presence of trans fats in over 200 commonly store-bought foods such as baked goods, snacks and salad oils. These fats often masquerade as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” on food labels.
Motivated in part by public concern, the US Food and Drug Administration proposed new regulations for trans fat labelling last year which are not yet in effect. About the same time, the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers took the opportunity to assure consumers that margarine is not synonymous with trans fat and that it remains a “more heart-healthy tablespread when compared to butter.”
Trans Fats To The Test
In the meantime, a newer generation of spreadable toppings intended to satisfy the consumer cravings have appeared on the market. An informal FDA market survey indicates that 30 percent of margarine products have already been reformulated to reduce trans fat count to zero (less than 0.5 grams). They are typically advertised as being low is saturated fat and non-hydrogenated (therefore trans fat free). However, not everybody is convinced that these shortenings are the best thing since sliced bread.
“I wouldn’t use any of them,” says Udo Erasmus, Canadian fats and oils expert and author of Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. “These products are unnatural, manmade and over-processed.”
According to Erasmus, fake fats are made with oil that has been treated with Draino, window-washing fluid and acid bleach. They are then heated to frying temperatures and solidified. They also don’t provide consumers with a beneficial blend of omega-3 and omega-6 essentially fatty acids, which are vital to proper bodily functioning.
To be beneficial, Erasmus adds, these oil products “would require greater care than the industry is willing to provide.”
In his book, he further examines this ongoing controversy. Overall, he indicates that despite the marketability of high-tech toppings, butter remains the better choice, especially if it’s organic and used sparingly.
“Butter wins easily on taste, digestibility, usefulness for frying and naturalness,” he writes. “Low cost is the main factor favoring margarine, but the key issue-how to get optimal amounts and balances of both omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, and avoid the killer saturated and hydrogenated fats–is not addressed by butter, margarine, Becel or new spreads.”
Essential Fat Facts
Our diets must include foods containing essential fatty acids (EFAs) because our bodies do not produce them naturally. Essential fatty acids and their derivatives fall into the unsaturated fat category. Among other things, EFAs are necessary for hemoglobin production, circulation, cell membrane and immune function and brain development. Researchers are also beginning to treat degenerative conditions such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis with EFA supplementation.
Alpha-linolenic acid, otherwise known as omega-3 essential fatty acid, has been shown to lower blood triglycerides and protect good cholesterol, which carries bad cholesterol out of the body. It also slows blood clot formation and controls blood pressure. The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are cold water fish and flax seed.
Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, or linoleic acid, is found in nuts and oils from nuts, beans and seeds. A lack of omega-6s can impact behavior and fertility and slow wound healing.
The proper dietary ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is two to one, but the modern diet typically provides the opposite. These unsaturated fats are also more susceptible to rancidity, so antioxidants like vitamin E may be helpful in preventing molecular breakdown. Many cold-pressed, unrefined oil blends are currently on the market and are available at health food stores.