Understanding Fats and Oils

All fats are not created equal. It is worth understanding more about fats (fatty acids), as we all need some (small) amount of fat in our diet.

Some are good, some not so good.


Saturated or Unsaturated?

Most fats and oils are made up of a combination of different kinds of fatty acids. They can be split into three:


Predominantly found in animal fats (meat fat, dairy fat, butter, cheese, etc). Saturated fats are also found in Palm oils (such as coconut). These are the bad fats - leading to obesity, and higher levels of cholesterol. This in turn is linked to heart disease and strokes. Saturated fats can be in many foods that we don't expect - chocolate, cakes, pastries, and bacon for example.


These fats are found in fish, some vegetable oils (such as sunflower and soybean oil), and in some nuts (such as walnuts and almonds). Like Monounsaturated fats, these contain healthy fatty acids such as Omega 3 and Omega 6 which tend to lower cholesterol.


Found in olives (and olive oil), cashews, peanuts, and avocados.

Our body can manufacture its own saturated fat, but not the Essential Fatty Acids that are found in unsaturated fats. EFAs are good, and play a good part in our diet - which explains why a 'no-fat' diet is no good. These oils usually make the best cooking oil.

Saturated Fat Levels

The list below ranks the popular fats and oils from the highest in unsaturated to the highest in saturated fatty acids.

  • Canola oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Soya bean oil
  • Olive oil
  • Corn oil
  • Monounsaturated margarine
  • Polyunsaturated margarine
  • Peanut oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Table margarine
  • Animal frying fats
  • Palm oil
  • Butter
  • Coconut oil


Calories, fats, and food

Weight for weight, ALL fats contain high levels of calories (9 calories per gram). Most of us need to lower our consumption of all fats. Most of us each too much fat full stop. Its very hard with today's processed food to avoid it.

Trans fats

While there are three main fats (described above), there is another kind of fatty acid that can really confuse the issue. There are processed or chemically altered fats that have changed their chemical makeup. The process of hydrogenation can turn a primarily unsaturated fat into a saturated one.

Why? So that the fat or oil has a longer shelf life, is more stable, has a better consistency. Margarine is a prime example. Other examples are many fried and baked foods, and refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Trans fats are bad. They raise the 'bad' cholesterol (LDL - low-density lipoproteins), and can interfere with Essential Fatty Acid functions. Luckily trans fats are quickly becoming banned around the world as governments recognize the impact they make on people's health.




Last updated 25 Sept. 2012