All food sources that you might think of as fat, such as butter, shortening, and oils, are made of fatty acids. Fatty acids are divided into three categories: monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and saturated fatty acids. Although oils and fats contain a combination of these three fatty acids, they are classified by the fatty acid with the highest percentage. For example, olive oil is primarily made of monounsaturated fatty acids.
Fats behave differently in cooking and baking and how they affect your health. Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (such as olive and canola oil) and saturated fats (such as butter and lard) to minimize your risk of heart disease.
Here are some simple facts about each major type of fat:
- monounsaturated fat
Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but become semi-solid or cloudy in the refrigerator. When replacing saturated fat, monounsaturated fat can help improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Olive oil and peanut oil are examples of monounsaturated fats.
- polyunsaturated fat
Polyunsaturated fats are always liquid, even when refrigerated. When used in place of saturated fat, they can help improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that lower triglyceride levels, improve heart health, and provide anti-inflammatory benefits. Canola oil, sunflower oil, and walnut oil are examples of polyunsaturated fats.
- Saturated fat
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. Diets high in saturated fats have been linked to elevated cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease, so it’s best to limit their use. Butter, lard, palm oil, and coconut oil are all examples of saturated fats.
- hydrogenated fat
Hydrogenated fats are solid at room temperature. Hydrogenation is the chemical process that turns liquid oil into solid fat. Fully hydrogenated oils are primarily saturated fats. Diets high in saturated fats have been linked to elevated cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease, so try to limit their use. Shortening, prepared pie crusts, and frozen doughs (such as cookies and rolls) are all examples of hydrogenated fats.
- Trans fat
Most trans fats are formed through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oils, which causes the oils to become solid at room temperature. Trace amounts also occur naturally in some meats and dairy products. Trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. High LDL and low HDL levels increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. These fats are so unhealthy that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned food manufacturers from adding partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, the leading source of artificial trans fats, to foods and beverages.
Keep healthy fats on hand
If you’re limited on pantry space and on a budget, these three oils will meet your basic cooking and baking needs:
- olive oil
In addition to being a source of monounsaturated fat, extra virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, which have been linked to heart health. Olive oil is great for roasting or sautéing vegetables and making homemade salad dressings.
- rapeseed oil
The neutral flavor and high smoke point make canola oil an excellent choice for baking and sautéing. Most canola oil is highly refined and has a relatively long shelf life. It’s very versatile and can be used to sauté, roast, bake, and make salad dressings.
- Walnut oil
While this specialty oil is more expensive than olive or canola oil, walnut oil has a rich, nutty flavor and contains heart-healthy omega-3s. Like all nut oils, walnut oil has a short shelf life. Purchase a small bottle and store it in the refrigerator for up to three months. Its nutty flavor only works well with certain dishes. Best uses include salad dressings—try a blend of canola and walnut oils—or giving a subtle walnut flavor to baked goods.
Use heart-healthy oils
If you’re switching to healthier oils, here are two recipes to start with:
Making salad dressing at home gives you control over the ingredients. Drizzle this sweet and tangy dressing over a salad of mixed fruit or mixed greens, oranges, cranberries and walnuts.
1 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice concentrate
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
a pinch of black pepper
In a blender, combine all ingredients until smooth. Serve immediately. Place leftovers in a container and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Shake well before use.
Nutrition Facts per 2 tablespoons: 143 calories, 14 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 9 g monounsaturated fat, 89 mg sodium, 7 g total carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein.
Tomato Basil Pesto
Serves 15 people
Make the pesto and freeze in portioned containers for your family.
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
8 cups diced roma tomatoes
1/2 cup tomato paste
12 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat; add oil. When the oil is heating, add the garlic and sauté until light golden brown. Add vinegar and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer the mixture for about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes break down. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly. Place sauce and cheese in food processor and process until smooth. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings as needed.
Nutrition Facts per 1/2 cup: 85 calories, 4 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 g monounsaturated fat, 344 mg sodium, 8 g total carbohydrates, 0 g total sugars, 1 g fiber, 2 g protein.
Jamie L. Prochinske is a nutritionist in La Crosse, Wisconsin.