The good, the bad and the trans fats

What different fats do and how they work

From the butter on your bread, to the olive oil with your fuul, and the semneh in your casserole, fat is the cornerstone of a healthy Egyptian menu.

But not necessarily a healthy body.

In a typical sense, fat is seen as a solid, like butter or the fat in meat. Oils are just fats that are liquid at room temperature. Once fat makes it though your digestive system, into your bloodstream, it is cholesterol.

In referring to fats as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated, one is describing whether all the available spaces on the carbon atoms are bonded to hydrogen atoms, or if there are any hydrogen atoms missing.

Highly saturated fats have all of their carbon atoms filled, or saturated, with hydrogen atoms. This kind of fat is found in certain cuts of meat, dairy products like butter and cheese, and the tropical oils coconut, palm and palm kernel. A diet high in saturated fats can cause a rise in low-density lipoprotein, which takes bad cholesterol to the arteries and is thought to cause their hardening and lead to heart attacks, strokes and vascular disease.

Monounsaturated fats have a hydrogen atom missing, and in its place a double bond between carbon atoms. These monounsaturated fats can be found in olive, canola and peanut oils, and also in most nuts and nut butters. This kind of fat does not cause cholesterol to increase. In fact, monounsaturated fat can help to lower bad cholesterol, and maintain the levels of high-density lipoprotein, which moves good cholesterol from your body-tissue via the bloodstream to the liver for processing.

Then there are polyunsaturated fats, which have more than one hydrogen atom missing from the carbon chain, each replaced by a double bond between carbon atoms. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the two major categories of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower saturated fats and increase high-density lipoproteins (good cholesterol), and is found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring, plus canola oil, walnuts and flaxseed. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids but cannot be made by the body so must be obtained from food, like cereals or whole grains, eggs, poultry, and most vegetable oils.

Now what about trans fats? They are so despised these days that New York City’s instituted ban of trans fats at restaurants will take full effect in the summer of 2008, while some leaders are advocating their ban throughout restaurants in the entire United States.

Sometimes called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, trans fats occur when hydrogen is added to a polyunsaturated fat—making it solid at room temperature—and takes on the traits of a saturated fat. Trans fats have become increasingly popular over the last ten years with manufacturers, both for enhancing flavor and for increasing the shelf life of foods. They’re used for deep frying and processed baked goods like cookies, cakes and crackers. But trans fats drive up bad cholesterol levels and lower the good, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.

To eat healthier, the fats in your diet should be mostly polyunsaturated fats (such as from fish), or possibly monounsaturated fats (olive and canola oils). And keep in mind that vegetable oils do not contain cholesterol, which is only found in animal products.

Monounsaturated fat anyone?
Monounsaturated fat anyone?

Fats can happily be accommodated and are required for healthy living. They not only carry the flavors in food, but they are also needed to ensure absorption of vitamins and plant matter. The downside is that the calorie count will climb, as calories are more concentrated in fat than in protein or carbohydrates. Your best bet is to balance your meals and snacks. For instance, to have a high (saturated-)fat meal, then make the next one lower in fat. Or complement your meals with a lower fat food alongside your higher fat food.

As for popular fats in Egypt, corn oil, olive oil, and semneh are preferred for cooking. With a high smoking point, corn oil is popular for frying, with polyunsaturated fats to balance out its trans fats. Olive oil is monounsaturated, and extra virgin olive oil has high levels of antioxidants, but both have lower smoking points and are better used as dressings. Semneh, also called ghee, is almost entirely saturated, with the highest smoking point of the three plus antioxidant properties.

But in addition to the kind of oil being used, the double whammy of overuse and re-use in Egypt is alarming. Traditional Egyptian cooking tends to use too much oil and relies heavily on deep-frying. And try to stay away from too much taameya, as this and other deep-fried fast foods are cooked in oil that’s re-used again and again, not just in one day but possibly across an entire week. This encourages that other unarmed combatant—free radicals, which come from the oil’s unsaturated fat combining with oxygen in the air when subjected to high cooking temperatures. Free radicals increase according to the frequency of use and, there’s no way to put this gently, they’re carcinogenic.

A healthy variety in the oils you consume will help balance the kinds of fats you are ingesting. If you have deep fried chicken and chase it with a salad dressed in olive oil and then for your next meal have something grilled in a whole wheat sandwich, you can still have your mum’s cabbage mahshi and minced meat mousaqa in the evening—as long as you chase that with a wheatgrass smoothie

Wael Elazab

This was first published on March 10, 2007, in the International Herald Tribune’s sister paper, The Daily Star Egypt. Printed in the weekend Lifestyle section, it was originally titled, “Fat, glorious fat: Cooking with fat doesn’t have to stew your innards.”

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