In the 2011 Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey by the International Food Information Council, most Americans believe they have some control over their health and that food and nutrition plays a role in maintaining and improving their health. In fact 87% believe certain foods have health benefits but since 2005 there has not been an increase in the consumption of the foods associated with health benefits. Also, most Americans are aware that some fats and oils are related to health benefits and that’s what I would like to explore with a little “fats 101”.
First there are the “bad fat brothers”, Sat and Trans, they like to clog arteries and cause heart disease. Then there are the “better fat sisters”, Mon and Poly, they like to look out for you and your heart. Poly in particular provides the very popular and healthy omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. These are essential because our bodies cannot make them, they must be consumed. Omega-9 fatty acids are created by our body from the unsaturated fats we consume and can be found in our diet.
Let’s start with omega-3 fatty acids, which come in three forms: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eiconsapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is plant based and we find them in seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. ALA needs to be converted to EPA for any health benefits. Unfortunately, very little ALA gets converted, although women tend to convert at a higher percent than men. EPA and DHA are associated with heart health by lowering total triglycerides, food sources are fish and fish oils. DHA is most abundant in the brain and retina.
Omega-6 is another essential fatty acid, food sources are vegetable oils, poultry, eggs, whole grain breads, flax seeds, and acai berries to name a few. Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential in our diet it’s the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids that can cause us problems. In fact an increase of omega-6 and a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids lead to an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, mental health disturbances, obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. Today’s ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diet is 16:1; our goal should be 4:1.
How did this happen? Well we need to look at modern agribusiness production methods and technology. For example, the switch in domestic animal feed from grass and hay to omega-6 rich grains changed the fatty acid composition of the animal’s meat and dairy products, according to Artemis Simopoulos, a world-renowned fatty acid researcher. Also, food manufacturers like to use oils that are lower in omega-3 fatty acids for processed foods to extend the shelf life.
Some examples of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in oils are: corn oil has a ratio of 66:1, while sunflower oil is 77:1. Just two slices of whole wheat toast with nothing on top provides all the omega-6 you need on a daily basis. For your daily intake of omega-6 aim for no more than 6.7 grams per day, and for omega-3 you want 650 mg per day, mostly from DHA and EPA sources. Suggestions on how to achieve this is to eat more fish on a weekly basis, follow a Mediterranean diet, and use a mixture of olive oil and canola oil for every day cooking.
A note on cooking with various oils, all oils have a smoke point. This is the point when the oil starts to decompose and the “healthy” antioxidants in the oil are replaced with free radicals and other dangerous molecules. I usually tell my clients to cook with canola oil, which has a high smoke point and use olive oil for salad dressings and as a dipping sauce because canola has a higher smoke point. Also, both oils contain heart healthy properties and it is good to have a combination of both in your diet.
Lastly, I didn’t want to forget about omega-9 fatty acids, which are not essential because our bodies can make them. They are part of the monounsaturated fats group. Dietary sources are canola and sunflower oils, and almonds. Currently, an omega-9 canola oil is being produced for the food industry. It is free of saturated and trans fat, has a stable, long shelf life, lasts 50% longer than hydrogenated oils, and has a good, clean taste.
Take away message: stick with the “better sisters” oils, use the higher omega-3 fatty acids at home because you receive more than enough omega-6 in processed foods and when eating out. If you would like to see my family and friends favorite canola oil based marinade click here.