WHAT SHOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT OILS & FATS
Mrs. Aminah had run out of cooking oil and headed towards her neighbourhood supermarket to purchase some. This simple task already appeared complicated to her. At the supermarket she headed straight to the section retailing cooking oils, margarine and other fat-based products and started to scrutinise the product labels. What awaited her was most baffling, with the labels depicting technical information that was quite beyond her comprehension. Unfortunately, this is precisely the situation facing most consumers keen to acquire knowledge that could guide them in the preparation of healthy and affordable meals for the whole family. The alternative is to buy expensive cooking oils, often imported, under the pretext that the all the woes about bad nutrition can be wiped clean by the higher price just paid for it.
Deciphering the product label:
A myriad of branded cooking oils confronts any consumer visiting the supermarket today and the need to be able to choose wisely has become of paramount importance. In a very simplistic approach, three major terms describe cooking oils today. Oils and fats are often described as Saturated, Monounsaturated or Polyunsaturated. These terms although used to describe the chemical composition of an oil or fat have a profound effect on the overall nutritional properties of the product. They actually refer to the building blocks of different fatty acids that predominant in a given oil or fat.
Saturated oils and fats have traditionally taken a beating in the health arena and in modern society their avoidance appears to be fashionable. Examples of saturated fats are coconut oil, palm kernel oil and animal fats such as butter, lard, beef and mutton fat. A major health concern with saturated fats is their ability to increase blood cholesterol levels that are a recognised risk factor for heart disease.
The cardio-protective effects of the fat in the Mediterranean diet containing mainly monounsaturated fatty acids have presently won many followers. Oils that are rich in monounsaturates include olive, Canola, rapeseed, sunflower and our very own palm olein. Monounsaturates are basically neutral fatty acids as far as blood cholesterol regulation is concerned. However, in persons having elevated blood cholesterol levels, they are helpful in first lowering and then maintaining blood cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated oils have often shined at the expense of saturated fats and have traditionally been advocated as highly beneficial for health. Examples are corn, soya, safflower and sunflower oils. These oils are predominated by their content of a polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid, which is also termed as an essential fatty acid – essential because mammals including humans are unable to make this in their bodies. The positive nutritional attributes of polyunsaturates can however be negated due to their propensity to oxidise when heated such as during frying. High consumption of oxidised oil may lead to cancer and liver damage.
Natural oils and fats in reality are a mixture of these fatty acid classes and product labels, should reflect these information. Usually the fatty acids are depicted as percentages and one can easy ascertain the major composition on this basis alone. This is also very useful for housewives who are very health conscious and delirious of choosing the correct oil for the family. The importance of this is further reflected when one intends to purchase margarine, bakery fat or other compounded solid fats. These are formulated for specific performances and often the natural oil or fat has to be modified by special processes to tailor them to such products.
An example is the process of hydrogenation, which simply means adding hydrogen atoms to the oil or fat so that its liquid oily state is transformed into solid fat. Unfortunately this process results in the formation of trans fatty acids which have been shown to be deleterious to health. They are known to increase one’s blood cholesterol, decrease the “good” cholesterol and also affect the mental development of a newborn child. Watch-out! The polyunsatuarated margarine or bakery fat claiming all the wonders of health may actually contain substantial amounts of trans fatty acids.
Fat in our daily diet:
Criticise fat for all its health fallacies – high caloric content, overweight problems, heart disease risk, among others – but remember it is an essential part of the human diet and serves a number of important physiological functions. Fact is, fat along with protein and carbohydrate is part of the macronutrient component in our diet. While proteins and carbohydrates provide us 4 calories per gram consumed, the caloric density of fat is more than double at 9 calories per gram. Humans cannot tolerate a fat free diet for long periods. On the other hand over-consumption of fats is a classic modern dietary malise leading to a number of degenerative diseases. Moderation is the key, which is also strongly advocated by all health authorities globally.
We readily relate to oils and fats that are visibly added to our foods during cooking and other forms of food preparations. This is termed visible fat (visible to the naked eye) and in many communities including Malaysia, this forms the major part of our dietary fat. However, most of us will be surprised to learn that small amounts of fat in our diet are also derived from vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, meat, fish and many other dietary ingredients. Since they are not visible to the naked eye, they are termed invisible fat. This is also apparent in many processed foods that are part of the modern man’s diet. The sum of the visible and invisible fat adds up as the total fat in the diet.
Health pundits enthusiastically blame a number of health conditions on dietary fat. In many cases these effects have been traced to the over consumption of fats in our diet. Many health experts call for moderation in fat consumption with optimum fat intake levels suggested at 30% of total calories. Surprisingly, this is not the easiest recommendation to follow especially in Western populations. The problem appears to be taste rather than health related. Fat contributes significantly to the taste and eating quality of food. Our food senses are remarkably “fat-conditioned”, such that reducing fat content triggers an outrage in our gourmet minds and food becomes less acceptable. This has been observed in a large number of trials and the compromise is a less than optimum fat intake, presently at about 36% calories in the Western population.
Did you know that there could also be a bonus from the oils and fats we consume? This comes to you as the minor components in dietary fats and includes vitamin E, carotenoids (provitamin A), sterols and other phytochemicals of nutritional significance. These are usually present at less than 1% of the total oil/fat composition. Modern science is slowly unravelling many important physiological functions of these compounds including cholesterol-lowering, anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties. Some oils are especially rich in some of these components and the scientific community has expanded much time and effort concentrating and researching them for their health effects. A rather good example is palm oil.
The consumers’ perception and even education of dietary fat has a long way to go. Present labelling practices may need to be made less technical so that the housewife understands the many items that are declared therein. A well-informed consumer can be depended upon to make the right choice of cooking oil or fat for their family without being unduly influenced by unreasonable claims. After all, Malaysian palm oil faced a
similar ill-conceived dilemma a few years ago and consumers were presented with absurd misconceptions about its health properties. Fortunately, with the passage of time and dedicated scientific scrutiny, palm oil’s image as healthy dietary oil suitable for people of all walks of life has been proven beyond doubt.