Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

How to Read a Label, Pt 2: The Big Fat Deal

I’m going to be honest here.  Because I really do like things simple, trying to figure out which processed foods I could buy if I cared about fats was pretty much the deal-breaker for all processed foods.  It turned out that it was easier to make my own food than to decipher a lot of the information on fats.  Seriously.

Basically, when you get into fats, things get slippery.


Puns aside, I will do my durndest to boil this information down to the bare essentials.

Really Bad Fats–Set ‘em Down and Walk Away

Partially hydrogenated anything, also known as trans-fats or trans fatty acids. This is the easy one.

Where you’ll find them: margarine, shortening, miracle-whippy stuff, chips, microwave popcorn, donuts, commercial cake frostings, non-dairy dessert toppings, packaged crackers, cookies, pastries, and loads of other packaged goods.  Plus fry oils in restaurants.  (Unless the restaurant is in New York City or California)  Oh–and frozen potato products.  And most frozen stuff meant to be fried, for that matter.  The list goes on and on and on.  If the label says “partially hydrogenated,” “margarine,” or “shortening” in the list of ingredients, drop it like a hot potato.  I’m usually an “in moderation” kind of personfolk, but not with these.

What they are: liquid vegetable oils turned semisolid by adding hydrogen for the purposes of increased shelf life, frying qualities, or mouthfeel (texture)

Why they’re bad: Oh, where to start.  The FDA points out that, like saturated fats, trans fats increase the LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream.  That’s the low-density lipoproteins.  I think of LDLs as being much like the car in which I learned to drive: a pea-soup-green Chevy Caprice Classic from 1978.  Basically, LDLs are the spread-out, unwieldy Chevies of cholesterol nuggets, clogging everything up and making your heart seize up in panic.  LDL cholesterol =  bad cholesterol.  Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic emphasizes that trans fats have a particularly nasty habit of increasing those LDLs while actively DEcreasing your HDLs, or high-density lipoproteins…these being the tightly-packed little Smart Car cholesterol do-gooders that zoom around picking up extra cholesterol in the blood and taking it to the liver for you.  In other words, trans fats are two kinds of awful.  The Mayo site gives you info like this to chew on:  “According to the comprehensive Nurses’ Health Study — the largest investigation of women and chronic disease — trans fats double the risk of heart disease in women.”

Just say no.  Just this Monday, the American Medical Association said exactly that, supporting a push to go nationwide with a ban on trans fats in bakeries and restaurants.

That was easy, right?  In the words of Sarah Palin (and countless legions of my native Wisconsinites), “You betcha.”  From here on out, it only gets more complicated.

The Rest of the Story

Butter:  Contrary to what you may have been told, you could do a lot worse than butter, especially butter from pastured cows.  Yes, their feed does make a difference.  Why?  Read this quote from Nina Planck’s book Real Food:

Compared to industrial milk, dairy foods from grass fed cows contain more omega 3 fats and more vitamin A and more beta-carotene and other antioxidants. Butter and cream from grass fed cows are a rare source of the unique and beneficial fat CLA. According to the Journal of Dairy Science, the CLA in grass fed butterfat is 500 percent greater than the butterfat of cows eating a typical dairy ration, which usually contains grain, corn silage, and soybeans. CLA is a polyunsaturated omega 6 fat [which is not the same at other omega 6 fats, and acts more like an omega 3], CLA prevents heart disease (probably by reducing atherosclerosis), fights cancer, and builds lean muscle. CLA aids weight loss in several ways: by decreasing the amount of fat stores after eating, increasing the rate by which fat cells are broken down, and reducing the number of fat cells. Most studies of CLA and cancer have been conducted on animals, and more research is needed, but findings are encouraging. CLA Inhibits growth of human breast cancer cells in vitro. A Finnish team round that a women eating dairy from pastured animals had a lower risk of breast cancer than those eating industrial dairy.

(Thanks to Kimberly Harris at The Nourishing Gourmet for the quote.)  Finally, remember that organic ≠ pastured.  A growing industrial organic sector manages to meet organic standards without allowing their cattle to get most of their feed from grass.  When you have a choice with dairy, go grass-fed or pastured.

Vegetable Oil: Probably soybean oil, probably from genetically modified soybeans.  You make the call.

Canola Oil: Want to see controversy?  Do a search for canola oil, safe, and dangerous, and see what pops up.  Some swear it’s one of the healthiest oils you can eat.  Others claim it’s an industrial oil that is poison in a bottle.

Cottonseed Oil: Dr. Weil, a leader in the complementary medicine (medicine marrying “alternative” and standard Western medicine for optimum benefits) scene, says to go through your pantry right now and throw out anything with cottonseed oil in it.  “[I]t is too high in saturated fat and too low in monounsaturated fat. What’s more, cottonseed oil may contain natural toxins and probably has unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues (cotton is not classified as a food crop, and farmers use many agrichemicals when growing it).” My .02 on it is that conventionally grown cotton is one of the most nutrient-depleting and pesticide-using crops out there, so I’m all for discouraging conventional cotton.

Palm Oil: The oil that sparked a minor girl scout revolt because of the impact on endangered orangutan habitat.

Coconut Oil: The camps are split.  Either this is a miracle oil that will cure all of what ails you and help you lose weight, or it’s packed with more dangerous saturated fat than bacon grease, and you should run, RUN the other way.  Bottom line–coconut oil does contain saturated fats, but they are supposedly qualitatively different from the saturated fats in animal products.  I can tell you that it’s a tasty oil.  It’s really good in cookies.  Should you use it?  Beats the heck out of me.  Look, use it sometimes if you want, but I’m not going to tell you to eat 5 tablespoons straight from the jar every day for good health.  That’s how I treat it in my own life.  Fair?

Flax Oil: Great for getting beneficial omega 3s in your diet.  It’s also a really tasty oil.  It should also NEVER be heated.  Good for salads and cold dishes, not good for baking or cooking.

As far as the rest of it…well, opinion is always changing.  How much should we care about omega 3s and omega 6s?  Is sunflower oil good for you or bad?  Has saturated fat gotten a bad rap?  There are a lot of questions about fats and oils.  You can read more about them here and here.

I know, I know…I am supposed to simplify this stuff for those of you who don’t have the time to read all that, right?

Okay.  Here’s as simple as I can get it.

  • Say no to shortenings and partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Because many chemicals and heavy metals accumulate in the fat of animals, watch how much animal fat you consume, particularly if you’re not careful about where your meat comes from.  If that’s you, by the way, you should read this.  And this.
  • Get your fats from foods (nuts, avocados, dairy, etc.) instead of added oils whenever possible.
  • If a dish needs some added fat when cooking, I currently usually vote for pastured butter.  It’s really tasty, and the saturated fats and cholesterol aren’t a concern in our healthy, vegetarian household right now.  I prefer not to use oils during cooking, instead adding the desired oil after the food is removed from the heat. For example, steam your vegetables with a tablespoon of water to cook, then add the flavorful sesame oil when the dish is done and you’re plating the food.  Why?  Many fatty acids become damaged when heated, making them harmful to us (either by breathing in the vapors while cooking or by ingestion).  If you don’t want to quit using oil on the stovetop, keep the heat medium or lower.
  • Related to the above: any time your cooking oil is smoking on the stovetop, this is bad.  Ventilate the place, toss the oil, and start over.
  • Stick mostly with the following fats and oils: pastured butter, olive oil, flax, and coconut if you dare.  Keep all oils in a cool, dark place.  I keep them in the refrigerator…even the olive oil.  Light and heat cause oils to break down.  Just pull them out a half hour before you plan to use them.
  • Oh–and ditch the processed foods and their mysterious fats.

What else do you want to know about labels or fats?  Fire away!


5 Comments so far

  1. healthy oil guy November 16th, 2008 7:46 pm

    Some great advice here…I use virgin coconut oil for cooking. I also use flaxseed oil, hempseed oil and fish oils to give me a well-rounded supply of essential fatty acids.

  2. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? November 17th, 2008 8:01 am

    Wow, great info. I just found your blog and will keep reading. This post reminded me of my “favorite” fat trick when it comes to labels on packaged food:

  3. Laurel November 17th, 2008 9:31 pm

    Thanks for stopping by! ;) Hemp seeds have a great flavor, and I recently experimented with avocado oil. It’s expensive, but it works well for high-heat applications. Truth be told, I tend to rotate with my oils. Right now, I’m a butter and flax person, but I use olive oil in most of my muffins and cakes. (It sounds odd, but it’s really not.)

  4. CoconutOilGuy November 28th, 2008 12:13 am

    Hello! Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat, but what people almost always forget to say or simply don’t know about is that coconut oil is predominantly medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). Almost all other dietary oils and fats are mostly long chain fatty acids (LCFA). MCFA-rich coconut oil is so so different from LCFA oils/fats.

    Unlike LCFAs that travel great distances in your body, MCFA-rich coconut oil goes straight to your liver to help power metabolism. In a nutshell, MCFA-rich coconut oil is PRO-Energy, NOT PRO-Fat. Coconut oil is nature’s richest source of MCFAs.

    Oh and I almost forgot. I have been taking at least 4 tablespoons of virgin coconut oil (VCO) everyday for about 2 years now, don’t exercise, and am definitely not a vegetarian. According to my last trip to the doctor about 2 months ago, my health condition is excellent.

    Take care.

    Your Drugstore in a Bottle

  5. [...] I’ve pointed out before, processed and prepackaged foods usually have something in them you’d prefer not to be eating.  In the case of many non-dairy “milks” such as soy, rice, or almond milk, [...]

Leave a reply