Monday, March 15, 2010

Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats

Not all fats are bad. Not all fats are good. In this article I want to show you the differences of fats we find in our foods. Fat is the most energetic of all nutrients. It has 9 calories per gram. Carbohydrate and protein each have 4 calories per gram. This is true for all fats, whether it is healthy omega 3 fats or lard. Keep this always in mind when trying to have a balanced calorie intake.

Saturated Versus Unsaturated

What are saturated and unsaturated fats? Saturated fats are long chains where there is no space between the fatty acids that form it. The molecule is saturated with hydrogen ions. Saturated fats that you can see are hard, white and solid. Think about cheese, chocolate, ice cream and whole milk. The key point is that these solid white fats can raise your blood cholesterol in a predictable way. We are all vulnerable to the cholesterol-raising effects of saturated fats.

Unsaturated fats are chains with double bonds in its carbon molecules. Because of these double bonds, these fats can combine with oxygen and become rancid. There are some compounds that have only one double bond, they are called mono-unsaturated fats. They may have two or more double bonds and they are called poly-unsaturated fats.

Poly-unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. They include corn oil and sunflower oil and are considered healthy because they can lower blood cholesterol. They have a very weak structure, however. Mono-unsaturated fat is also liquid at room temperature, but it is thick or viscous when put in a refrigerator. It can be considered healthy. Mono-unsaturated fats are found in olive oil and peanut oil. They are a key component of the Mediterranean diet we hear so much about.

Trans Fats: The Root of All Evil

What are trans-fats? We certainly hear a lot of bad things about them in the media and the press. Trans-fats are unsaturated vegetable oils that manufactures try to make more solid so it lasts longer and less likely to become rancid. They make it more solid through a process known as hydrogenation. They blow hydrogen gas into this unsaturated fat, adding hydrogen to their double bonds. The consequence is that they twist the molecule.

Harshly hydrogenated fats are what you see on the label. Oftentimes they are found in foods that are premade. The major contributors of trans-fats in the American diet include things like muffins and cookies. Think about it, if I want to preserve the life of a food, I can do it using partially hydrogenated fat.

Current research shows us that these hydrogenated unsaturated fats (trans-fats) are just as likely to contribute to heart disease as saturated fats. Some research even suggests that this kind of fat is the major villain in the development of coronary artery disease. Since 2006, food manufacturers must list their products’ trans-fat content on the label. There is no dietary requirement for trans-fats, you don’t really need them.

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