Know Your Fats:
How to choose better quality
essential fatty acids and monounsaturated fats
The major concern with essential fatty acids is how to get better quality forms of them and in higher quantities than what are typically consumed. The modern diet lacks polyunsaturated omega-3s, but is over-saturated in poor quality polyunsaturated omega-6s.
Polyunsaturated oils contain various essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs must be consumed in the diet because our body does not make them on its own. The following are the major EFAs: arachidonic acid (AA, Ω6), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, Ω3), docohexanoic acid (DHA, Ω3), linoleic acid (LA, Ω6), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA, Ω6) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, Ω3).
Much of the effect of fatty acids are a result of their conversion into hormone-like substances in the body know as prostaglandins, which can act as anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory substances.
Arachidonic acid (AA,Ω6 ), found in animal products, is the second most predominate EFA in most non-vegetarian diets aside from linoleic acid. This EFA often encourages pain and inflammation, as well as blood clotting and can be damaging to health when not countered with enough beneficial omega-3 EFAs.
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fats found in fish oils, and contrary to AA are anti-inflammatory and pain reducing, particularly in the arteries, and are good for cardiovascular health.
Range fed meats and dairy products, like grass-fed beef and pasture-raised dairy products and eggs, also have better ratios of beneficial EFAs that somewhat counter the pro-inflammatory aspects of the AA found in these foods. While we need AA in the body as an important EFA we do not get enough of the other anti-inflammatory EFA's, which causes us to be out of balance.
Many of the EFAs listed above promote healthy youthful skin and hair, support proper thyroid and adrenal activity and thus bolster immunity; are required for normal growth and energy; promote healthy blood, nerves, and arteries; are crucial in the transport and breakdown of cholesterol; and help us to lose weight by way of improving cellular membrane integrity.
All fats contain three types of lipids in varying percentages. The three main types of lipids are saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. They are classified by which type predominates. See the chart below for their classifications.
Fats can become oxidized by heat, air and light. Saturated fats are the most stable of all fats and have the fewest rancidity problems. Monounsaturated fats are the second most stable, and polyunsaturated fats are the most susceptible to free-radical oxidation by heat, air, and light.
Since the use of vegetable oils, which are high in omega-6 EFAs, is so common you might think that a lack of essential fatty acids would not be a problem, but many oils contain rancid forms of fatty acids because the majority of the oils we use are refined. These oils also lack omega-3 EFAs.
Refined oils are solvent extracted at high heat temperatures with harsh chemicals like hexane. They are then bleached and chemically treated to ensure colorless, tasteless oil with a long shelf life. These oils are generally full of free radicals that damage our tissues and DNA. The taste of rancidity has been removed but the harmful effects are quietly lurking. That bottle of Wesson oil in your cabinet is definitely refined and harmful to your health.
However, many unrefined oils are available today. Unrefined oils are usually labeled expeller pressed and are mechanically pressed at temperatures of 160ºF or below. They retain their original aroma, taste, and color and are sometimes cloudy. They also retain their vitamin E content, which tends to preserve the oil from rancidity and thus free-radical damage in the body that can easily occur in the polyunsaturated portion of any oil.
Only unrefined oils should be used as food. Unrefined oils are available in most health food or specialty stores. A major brand that produces a line of unrefined oils is Spectrum Naturals. This brand labels its oils as refined or unrefined. If oil is not labeled as unrefined it is most likely not. The most beneficial unrefined oils are listed below.
As cooking oil, monounsaturated oil strikes a balance between saturated fats, which can cause cholesterol accumulation, and polyunsaturated fats, which can easily become rancid during extraction and storage.
Monounsaturated fats also do not deplete HDL, a beneficial lipoprotein, which removes cholesterol from the arterial walls and transports it to the liver, where it is broken down into bile acids and flushed from the body. Monounsaturated fats also reduce LDL, a less beneficial lipoprotein, which causes cholesterol to be deposited in the arteries. On the other hand polyunsaturated fats deplete beneficial HDL, while also reducing LDL.
Some monounsaturated forms of traditionally polyunsaturated oils are now available. These include new strains of sunflower and safflower developed by plant breeders to contain more monounsaturated oils. These oils are defined on their labels as being "high oleic".
Canola oil is often recommended because of its low saturated fat content, it's decent omega-3 fatty acid content, and it's elevated monounsaturated properties. But it usually comes from a genetically modified source and is a refined oil extracted with solvents. Because it is refined it lacks the nutrients necessary for metabolism and refinement harms the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in it.
The monounsaturated oils that are most highly recommended are extra virgin olive oil and sesame oil. Even though sesame oil has a high polyunsaturated fat content in comparison to some others, its rancidity is kept in check by sesamol, an antioxidant naturally present in the oil. These oils can handle temperatures of up to 350ºF.
If oils begin smoking in a pan you should poor it out and start over. Smoking oil means oxidized oil.For a list of oils and their cooking temperatures, visit this link.
When high temperatures are involved in cooking, particularly above 320ºF, like in frying, the most stable oils are unrefined clarified butter, freshly rendered lard (available from Dai Due and pictured above), coconut oil, palm oil, or palm kernel oil.
I am not recommending regular consumption of deep fried foods, but if you were going to deep fry, the best unrefined oil for the cheapest price, since it is often used in larger quantities, would be high oleic safflower oil or freshly rendered lard (not store bought refined lard).
For a good dose of the hard to get omega-3 EFAs you can use flax seed, chia seed, hemp seed, pumpkin seed and walnut in either a concentrated oil form, which should not be used as a cooking oil, or in their whole forms. See below for a great Breakfast seed cereal recipe that uses some of these seeds. Additionally, spirulina is high in EFAs and energizing too. Add a scoop to a smoothie or take it in capsule form.
The main point here is to watch out for the oils that are used in packaged foods and restaurants. They are most certainly using refined oils unless otherwise specified. Don't be fooled by foods labeled organic or natural. They are probably made with refined oils as well. Do your best to use the best quality oils you can use at home and try to choose whole food snacks that are free of refined oils. Know the temperatures your refined oils can withstand and use them for specific purposes. For most cooking, olive oil is a great choice.
Unrefined oils can add a lot of flavor to your food and it is fun to explore the different tastes they can lend to a dish. Just be sure to keep all your oils in a cool, dark place. Be sure to keep flax oils and high omega-3 oils in the fridge and use them within three months.
Below are recipes for a breakfast seed cereal (pictured above), a great monounsaturated and omega-3 rich dressing for your greens, and a pumpkin seed "cheese" spread. Enjoy the flavors and keep your body free of free radicals from your fats!