Breaking Down Fats
All fats are broken down into three categories; they are either saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. With saturated fats, all available carbon bonds are linked with a hydrogen atom. Balanced as such, saturated fatty acids are highly stable, and not as subject to oxidation as other fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Sources of saturated fats include animal fats, mothers milk, and tropical oils.
Monounsaturated fats are considered the most healthy. They are not as chemically stable as saturated fats, but are more so than polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats often include the omega-9 fatty acid, oleic acid. Olive oil, avocados, and nuts are all sources of monounsaturated fat.
Polyunsaturated fats are consumed in a higher proportion to any other fat in today’s diet. They include the essential fatty acids; omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (linolenic acid). They are highly reactive, and go rancid easily. These fats should not be subjected to high heats as they will not only lost their nutritional value, but also oxidize and become a source of free radicals. Soy, corn, and canola oil are all polyunsaturated.
Classifying fats into these three groups, it is easy to write off one group as harmful, leaving the other two to fill the role of healthy fats. While this is partially true, it is partially false as well. First of all, this breakdown doesn’t fully explain the different kinds of fats. Fatty acids can either be short, medium, or long chained, depending on the number of carbon atoms. Both short and medium chained fats play an important role in a healthy diet. They are easily digested, enhance the immune system, and have valuable antimicrobial properties. Medium chain fats are found in the world’s healthiest food - mothers milk, as well as milk fat, and tropical oils. Long chain fats are found in all types of fat. They as well are important, but require the body to work more to digest them.
Health Benefits of Tropical Oils
Tropical oils play a vital role in a well-balanced diet. Coconut oil is made up of 92% saturated fat. Despite this, it is undoubtedly a nutritional oil in its natural form. Coconut oil has a generous portion of medium chain triglycerides, at 62%. About half of those are composed of lauric acid. Lauric acid is the most important fatty acid for building and maintaining a healthy immune system. Virgin coconut oil has strong antimicrobial properties, making it a useful line of defense against harmful bacteria and pathogens. Most of the fat content of coconut oil is directly converted to energy in the liver, taking the strain of lipid processing off of the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. As a healthy source of saturated fat, it helps the body utilize calcium for bone health.
Palm oil, which has a more balanced fatty acid composition, consists of 50% saturated fat, and 50% unsaturated fat. Like coconut oil, it provides medium chain triglycerides. It also is a good source of antioxidants, rich in both vitamin E and beta carotene.
The tropical oils, unlike other vegetable oils, are highly saturated. Although there is no reason to give up other nutritional oils, some saturated fat is necessary. It serves to protect the liver from toxins, for bone health, immune support, and for healthy cells. Cells membranes are composed of 50% saturated fat. Also, to effectively utilize the health benefits of the essential fatty acids found in polyunsaturated fat, the body needs the stable structure of saturated fat.
Both of these tropical oils are not as vulnerable to heat. They are less likely to become rancid and lose their nutritional value while cooking. Virgin coconut oil and organic, unrefined palm oil deserve to be viewed as healthy oils, at least in moderate levels.
Why Natural Tropical Oils are Healthier than Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
Without unnecessary processing, tropical oils are by far a healthier choice than hydrogenated vegetable oils. Food manufacturers hydrogenate polyunsaturated vegetable oils to yield solid vegetable oils at room temperature (tropical oils are semi-solid at room temperature without processing) such as margarine or shortening.
The hydrogenation process erases any positive benefit of the vegetable oils used, and in the end creates trans fatty acids, which have been the culprits of heart disease all along. During hydrogenation, oils are subjected repeatedly to heat, pressure, and moisture. They are also mixed with small amounts of a catalyst, usually nickel oxide, as well as emulsifiers, and in the case of margarine, bleach, followed by dyes and artificial flavoring.
Until recently many products made with hydrogenated oils claimed to be heart healthy because they were made with unsaturated fats. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The hydrogenation causes changes in the chemical composition of fatty acids, turning them into trans fatty acids. Trans fats have misplaced hydrogen atoms. They are extremely harmful to the body, but because they are manufactured, and unrecognizable, the body doesn’t know how to get rid of them. Instead, it brings the false fats into body tissue where they harm the body on the cellular level, confusing cellular metabolism.
Saturated fats have been blamed for the wreckage of trans fats. This has been a mistake for the past forty years. The research that was done to examine the role of fats in heart health used hydrogenated tropical oils. Instead of blaming the processing of the oils, saturated fat was blamed.
Heart disease is a serious issue in the United States, still the leading cause of death in both men and women. Unfortunately it has taken years to understand that it is processed foods that have had serious negative effects on our health all this time. The health community is beginning to re-examine its assessment of saturated fats, and the potential benefits of tropical oils in particular. While tropical oils are only a small part of the whole of nutritional fats, they play an essential role.
Page, Linda. “Healthy Healing: A Guide to Self-Healing for Everyone”. 11th Edition (Traditional Wisdom, 2003).
Enig, Mary, PhD and Fallon, Sally. “The Skinny on Fats.” (From: Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, Second Edition). New Trends Publishing, 1999.
This post is part of the series: The Controversy over Tropical Oils
Tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil, have been given a bad reputation as unhealthy fats. Although they are high in saturated fatty acids, these tropical oils have many health benefits, and are worth adding to a healthy diet as long as they remain in their natural form.