Essential Fats…

Essential fats, good fats, essential omegas, omegas 3 and 6; these all refer to the same thing, a group of oils and fats that we need to include in our diets as we are unable to make them for ourselves.

These oils carry out a range of tasks in our bodies from brain and nerve function to reducing inflammation, and are now the most commonly taken type of supplement. However, with so much terminology, so many types of fats and so much marketing speak around them, it is very easy for consumers to get totally confused as to what they should be taking and why.

Anything “essential” when we talk about nutrients means that the only way for us to get any is to eat it, whether essential vitamins like vitamin C, essential fats or essential amino acids. Our bodies are incredibly clever at turning food into the various chemicals and components that it needs – we give it a chicken salad sandwich and it makes red blood cells and skin cells and hormones and eye lashes. However, its inventiveness does have a limit, and there are certain basic building blocks that it cannot make from something else. We cannot manufacture vitamin C, and we cannot make essential fats. This is almost certainly an evolutionary shortcut – these things were once so plentiful in our diets that there was no need to develop the skills to make them ourselves. The problem is that they are no longer so common, but it will take us several more million years of evolution to catch up to that fact.

Essential fats are found in large quantities in oily fish such as mackerel, herring and anchovies, and most plant seeds, but particularly oily seeds like linseed and hemp seeds, as well in some unusual fruits like acai berries. They are also present in wild game, but far less common in reared meat – probably because of the difference between what wild animals and reared animals eat, as well as how much exercise they get. There are two main types of essential fats, called omega 3 and omega 6, and we need to get enough of both of them.

Omega 3s are most common in fish and omega 6s are most common in seeds. Some seeds contain significant quantities of omega 3, in particular linseeds, but the form of omega 3 in seeds is not as good as that in fish. To avoid too much chemistry, if we imagine that essential fats are building blocks for other chemicals, fish omega 3s are nicely squared off house bricks, whereas plant omega 3s are a lump of rock – both will make a house, but its a lot easier with the bricks.

Omega 3 fats are mainly involved with making the fatty covering that surrounds our nerves, and forms the majority of brain tissue, as well as directly helping nerve transmission. They also make anti-inflammatory chemicals that can help with joint, skin and soft tissue inflammation. Fish oil supplements are very often give to children, as various studies and a lot of parental experience has shown that they can help with concentration and learning, as well as potentially improving emotional stability. Pregnant women take them to help with nerve development in their growing babies while older people also commonly take fish oils for brain function to ward off Alzheimer’s, and also to help reduce inflammation in arthritic conditions.

Omega 6 fats can also help reduce inflammation, but are mainly taken for the health of the skin and hair as they help to keep them moisturised and supple. It is also very common to buy supplements that contain a mixture of omegas 3 and 6 to get the best of both worlds.

There are foods to include in your diet that will increase your consumption of essential fats. Try to have a couple of portions of oily fish a week, but avoid those species that are over fished. Go for sustainable options such as mackerel, anchovies and sardines. Also include a wide variety of nuts and seeds as well as avocados, and if you are up for it some wild game such as venison or pheasant. Plant seed oils like sunflower or hemp seed are great on salads, but don’t cook with them as the omega 6s are very easily damaged by heat.

If you want to ensure that you are as oily as you can be, go for a some supplements. Unless you are vegetarian I would focus on fish oils as a healthy diet should include enough omega 6, or go for a combination 3 and 6. Essential fat supplements should always be taken with food otherwise you won’t digest them properly.

Saturated Fats…

Saturated fats, unsaturated fats, poly-unsaturated oils, essential fatty acids, trans fats, hydrogenated fats—the world of cooking oils is a confusing one that seems to get more confusing by the minute. And all you want to know is which oil to pour over and your salad, and which oil to fry with. Let’s try and simplify it a bit.

They are the same thing. Some tend to be solid, some tend to be liquid, but they are the same thing. So that
bit was easy.

Very healthy oils that our bodies cannot make, and so need to be included in our diet. They are vital for
nerves, for the health of skin and hair and to reduce inflammation. Most commonly found in fish oils and in
plant oils.

This is simply a measure of how reactive the fat is, and so how likely it is to change when you cook it.

Saturated fats are very stable. They tend to be solid at room temperature, like animal fat or coconut oil, and when you heat them they do not change. Unsaturated fats have a more open chemical structure which can change shape when heated, or when reacted with other chemicals.

Again, a measure of reactivity. Mono-unsaturated oils are only a little bit unsaturated and so are mostly stable. As such it takes quite a lot of heat to get them to change shape. Polyunsaturated oils are very unsaturated and so are highly reactive. They practically change shape on a sunny day.

They are the same thing. If you had a degree in chemistry you might argue with that, but in terms of your health they are the same thing. Trans fats are what happens to an unsaturated fat when you heat it up, trans simply meaning change. So if you take a poly-unsaturated fat and heat it a little bit, you end up with a trans fat. If you take a mono-unsaturated fat and heat it a lot you end up with a trans fat. If you take a saturated fat it doesn’t matter how much you heat it, you will never get a trans fat.

It used to be that saturated fats were going to clog your arteries and give you a heart attack, while polu-unsaturated fats were going to help you live longer. This is sort of true, although there are some saturated fats that are better than others, but what is more true is that it doesn’t matter how bad saturated fats are, trans fats are worse.

The problem with trans fats is that your body does not recognise them, and so can’t digest them. Neither can anything else – there was a Blue Peter experiment I remember from when I was a child where we put a dish of butter and a dish of margarine, which at the time was all made from trans fats, on a windowsill, and see what happened. While the butter went rancid and mouldy, the margarine sat there, impervious to all bacterial or fungal attack. Never eat anything that does not decompose.

As we are not able to digest trans fats, they just hang around causing problems digesting proper fats in your stomach, and then settling out on blood vessel walls, or in fatty tissue. Trans fats are the main type of fat contributing to heart disease and obesity.

So what do we do?

As we can see, in whatever oils we eat or cook with, the aim is not to make any trans fats. The simple rules are

  • Dont’ cook with polyunsaturated oils
  • Only medium fry with mono-unsaturated oils
  • Use saturated oils for very high temperature cooking

Sunflower Oil 

A polyunsaturated oil. So don’t fry with it. However, it is very good for you in its natural state with lots of vitamin E and healthy essential fats, so makes good salad dressings. Because of their reactive nature poly-unsaturated oils also go off quicker, so don’t keep sunflower oil kicking around for too long.

Olive Oil or Rapeseed Oil

Both mono-unsaturated oils, so ideal for shallow frying. Olive oil is also very popular in dressings because of its taste and so is the more versatile of the two. Rapeseed is slightly better for frying as it can withstand higher temperatures.

Coconut Oil 

A saturated fat, but one that comes with many health benefits, coconut oil is great for high temperature cooking like stir frying or roasting. It can be bought in its virgin form, or having been heated and cooled to get rid of the fragrance. You don’t really want coconut flavoured roast potatoes.

Hydrogenated Fat…

Hydrogenation is a way of making liquid vegetable oil hard at room temperature. The oil is heated up to 210 degrees C under high pressure for up to eight hours while hydrogen gas is injected. Small particles of nickel or copper are added. This destroys the essential fatty acids (needed for many important functions in the body) in the oil and replaces them with deformed trans fatty acids.

Hydrogenation is the process used to make oils more solid and is the cornerstone of massproduced margarine. It provides longer shelf life in baked products; longer fry-life for cooking oils, and gives foods a certain kind of texture. Processors use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat because it is cheap, easy to work with and extends the life of processed foods.

It is listed on food labels as hydrogenated fat, partially hydrogenated fat, vegetable fat and oils, vegetable margarine or vegetable shortening.

Hydrogenation converts unsaturated fatty acids into both saturated and trans-fatty acids.

Saturated fats (butter, coconut and palm fat) are not good for the body in excess and should be kept to a minimum in the diet. The trans fatty acids formed by hydrogenation are unnatural and only ever exist in nature at very low levels, much lower than those found in hydrogenated fat.

Because of this, we believe that the human body is not equipped to deal with them. They also compete with essential fatty acids (good for you) for absorption in the body. Trans fats also cause significant and serious lowering of HDL (good) cholesterol and increases in LDL (bad) cholesterol; make the arteries more rigid; cause major clogging of arteries; cause insulin resistance; cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes; and cause or contribute to other serious health problems.

Companies can use liquid vegetable oils or palm and coconut fat, which are naturally hard at room temperature.

Where we lead, others follow…

Within the last year several major retailers have finally made steps towards removing hydrogenated vegetable oil from their products. These include Tesco, who in November 2005 announced it had taken all trans fats out of it’s own label ready meals (450 in total), and Marks and Spencer who also announced in November that by mid 2006 all hydrogenated oils would be removed from their own brand products.


Information found on Planet Organic website.