An oil is an oil is a fat is a fat. No matter where you slice it, oils are just that – fats.
And before we come to the oil subject, we need to dissect the subject of fats. FATS! OOOOh, what a dirty word! Indeed, how people have become allergic to that word! We see products on the shelves yelling “FAT FREE”, “REDUCED FAT”, “LOW FAT”… So we wonder why Nature put them there in the first place. Actually, fats have their noble reasons for existing.
As an energy food, fat gives at least twice as much energy as an equal weight of the other energy foods (protein and carbohydrates), furnishing the body’s largest store of potential energy. (Thus, the more sedentary our lifestyle, the less energy used, the more fat sticks in unwanted body parts.) Fats serve as a cushion for the protection of vital organs; provide insulation from the thermal stress of cold environments; store and transport the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; play a vital role in vision, the health of mucous membranes and skin, bone growth, reproduction, nerves and blood clotting.
Yes, fats are indispensable. Club Overweights, rejoice! Wait, not so fat-oops, fast. In adequate amounts, fats insulate effectively; in excess, fat retards the heat flow from the body, straining thermal balance mechanisms. Too much of it also impairs endurance performance as the working muscles lose out to the energy required by the intestinal tract. Unless we live in the North Pole, or are infants or toddlers, we certainly don’t need any extra fat. (Nature designed babies’ diets high in fat and cholesterol to develop their brain and nervous system.)
HOW MUCH AND WHAT KIND DO WE NEED?
Just as there are various members in the family of proteins, B’s and C’s, likewise with the fats family. They’re called the fatty acids. The body can synthesize all but two fatty acids: linoleic (Omega-6) and alpha-linolenic (Omega-3) acids. Called the essential fatty acids (EFA), these help keep cell walls healthy and resistant to viruses, bacteria and allergens; moisturize hair and skin; are key players in the process of regulating vital body functions, like nerve impulses, among others. To prevent a deficiency of EFAs, we need only between 4-6% of total calories from fat.
The kinds of fats: 1) saturated; 2) monounsaturated; 3) polyunsaturated, and 4) supersaturated-each classified according to its degree of saturation, differentiated by its molecular structure.
Saturated fats are totally saturated with two hydrogen atoms connected to each carbon atom, forming a straight compact line. This gives them their characteristic solid state (even at room temperature) and their resistance to heat, light, air, and spoilage. They are greatly to blame for raising serum cholesterol levels, and weight gain. Under these, we find all animal fats-meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products; coconut, palm and palm kernel oils.
Monunsaturated fats are defined as two hydrogen atoms short of being a saturated fat, containing one double bond. This type of fat is liquid at room temperature and it thickens when cold. Because they have been known to lower bad cholesterol levels while enhancing the good, they are the best kind to have around. Many plant sources fall under this.
Polyunsaturated fats have more than two double bonds and are super fluid hot or cold. They aren’t that great, considering they lower both bad and good cholesterol and are more chemically unstable. The latter feature makes it sensitive to heat and light, and invites free radicals to wreak havoc in the host body.
Supersatured fats have three carbon double bonds, making them ultra-chemically unstable, and not to be used heated at all. They are considered quite healthy, but are more likely obtained from ingesting the entire source rather than as an extract. Plant sources include flax seeds, canola, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
Hydrogenation, in whole or in part, is man’s way of turning the unsaturated fats into saturated fats. It is a successful effort to duplicate lard and butter at a fraction of the cost and to extend its shelf life from here to eternity. Though they are not synthetic per se, the chemical tampering is of course artificial-thus, mutant is the result. Classic examples are vegetable shortenings and margarine.
Unfortunately, their good stops at their magnanimous taste and texture contribution to ice cream, pastries and confections. Considered worse than saturated fats in raising cholesterol levels, they undermine the good cholesterol while strengthening the bad. This simply means that even a little of this in your diet can equal a lot of saturated fats in another’s diet. No wonder, then, that they have often been suspects in cancer and heart disease cases. So stay as far away from them as you can manage.
If you insist on margarine, you’d be safer to stick with the tub-packaged than the sticks, the best non-hydrogenated margarine sub.
Aside from the kind of fats they are, another weighty health factor is the extraction process of these oils. Of the several, only the most common are enlisted here. After the oil extraction comes the refining process, which removes all the cloudiness and other non-oil parts, plus valuable nutrients as well. Unrefined oils are rare to come by.
HYDRAULIC PRESSING. A heavy weight is applied on the oil source (soft-fleshed fruits, walnuts and olives), then with a lever this oil is squeezed. Typically used in extra virgin oil extraction, this is the one of the most expensive.
MECHANICAL PRESSING (OR EXPELLER PRESSED). Screws are continuously driven through the oil source until it’s all pulped up. The friction generated from this process is heat to 190 degrees Fahrenheit that thus expresses the oil. This is the most widely used health-safe process. Also expensive, but less so than the above.
MODIFIED ATMOSPHERE PACKING (MAP). A specialized mechanical extraction system of extracting oil in a non-oxygen, light-free atmosphere at temperatures as low as 70 degrees F. Only non-reactive metals (stainless steel) processing equipment, tanks, lines and valves are used, preserving nutrients and freshness to the max. Oils expunged in this way MUST be refrigerated.
SOLVENT EXTRACTION. The least expensive and the most unhealthy, this method extracts oil by applying hexane compounds to dissolve the oil down to only 1-3% of the residual meal. NOT GOOD because: 1) hexane is a volatile solvent that is a confirmed carcinogenic; 2) it is a hydrocarbon polluter-that is, ozone and air hazards; 3) the residual meal, still laden with the hexane, is sold as animal feed, which somehow ends up in man’s food again. Unfortunately, almost all our local oils are extracted in this way.
CHOOSE YOUR OILS WELL
CANOLA. By far, the most healthy. Largely mono-unsaturated, bland in flavor, and with a high smoking point, it lends itself to all uses: baking, deep-frying, sauteing. Mostly available mechanically pressed, and refined.
OLIVE. If you should limit your stock to only two kinds, use this and Canola. Also mono-unsaturated, this is the QUEEN of oils, heart-healthy and robust in flavor. The greener the color, the more fruity and flavorful. Flavor depends on the type of olives, the soil and climate in which it was grown, the method of extraction, and they say, even the temperament of the farmer!!! It takes up to 2000 olives to yield a quart of olive oil, so don’t complain about the price. Choose only the virgin or extra virgin for the best in flavor and nutrition. Much of what is commercially available is stone or hydraulic-pressed, both refined and unrefined.
PEANUT. With a nice, nutty flavor (that is usually unnoticed until heated), and low smoking point, this is a largely mono-unsaturated oil ideal for stir-frying or sauteing or methods not needing high heat. Excellent for oriental cooking, this may also be used in baking. Available mechanically pressed, both refined and unrefined.
SAFFLOWER. Largely polyunsaturated, safflower oil is extremely vulnerable to oxidation. Use only in low-heat methods, baking and dressings. Don’t count on this for flavor because there is none. Available mechanically pressed, usually refined, rarely unrefined.
SESAME. Toasted is best. Flavor is super. Mostly mono-unsaturated, it is resistant to oxidation. Fantastic for oriental cooking, stir-fries, sauces, dressings and dipping sauces. Best if little or no heat is applied. May be used for deep-frying ONLY if refined. Available mechanically pressed, refined and unrefined.
SOY. Not too great a culinary choice. It has a fishy taste and smell, is mostly polyunsaturated and therefore prone to oxidation. Its pretty high smoking point is nullified by its being solvent-extracted and always refined. With so many other choices, this can be scratched out of the pantry list.
SUNFLOWER. Particularly good for dressings, this is about as unstable as safflower. May be used in general cooking and baking, but NOT for deep frying. Also not much flavor. Available only refined (because it gets rancid too quickly otherwise), mechanically pressed.
COCONUT. Expunged from dried coconut meat, this oil is highly saturated, available only refined and solvent-extracted. Because it’s cheap, widely available, has a long shelf life and produces the crispiest chips, nuts, etc., it is used in 98% of households and factories in the Philippines. But most health experts agree that it is not recommended for cooking or baking. The old folks still use it (home-made) on their hair to guard against dryness, dandruff and premature graying.
FLAXSEED. Wonderfully textured, colored and flavored, this is the most heart healthy of them all. Mono-unsaturated, rich in viamin E and omega-3 fatty acid, this has been used as a therapeutic remedy for hypertensive and heart patients. It can only be extracted by MAP, mechanically pressed. Its buttery flavor makes it excellent as a spread instead of butter, a flavor enhancer in shakes and smoothies, and as an added dimension to salad dressings. Unfortunately, its price limits its benefits to only a few.
COTTONSEED. Although not available for retail by itself, this is widely used as the main ingredient in hydrogenated stuff, commercial chips, fries, and other snacks. Although high in polyunsaturated fat, it has a saturated fat called palmitic acid, an item known to raise cholesterol. NOT GOOD because: cottonseed is the most heavily laden with chemical pesticides-a minus factor in human and environmental health; very little, if any, is available unhydrogenated. This is an unseen culprit that should be avoided as much as possible.
This oil story can be summed simply: choose wisely and use sparingly.