Understanding Fats and Fatty Acids

Understanding Fats and Fatty Acids

The supermarkets are heaving with numerous types of cooking oils and we the consumers are more confused than ever before. All these cooking oils are made up of chemical units called as “fatty acids” which determines the properties of the oil.

Cooking oils, meat and dairy products are not the only source of fats that a person consumes daily. Food items like cakes, cookies, chips, margarines, creams are some of the examples of hidden fats which most people are unaware of.

Unlike popular belief, fats (oils) need not be avoided completely from a person’s diet. In fact, some fats are essential for good health. The important thing to learn is to choose the right type of fat for you.

This article will help you to understand the different types of fats, their beneficial and harmful effects on health, as well as provide you some tips to choose the right fat.

Types of Fats

Fats are made up of fatty acids and there are two major types of fatty acids. They are :

  1. Saturated fatty acid
  2. Unsaturated fatty acids

Saturated fatty acids have no carbon to carbon double bonds in their chemical structure and are thus more heat stable. This means that the molecules in the chain are tightly packed. It is the same property which makes them solids at room temperature.

Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more carbon to carbon double bonds in their chemical structure. This allows gaps between the molecules in the fatty chain and hence this type of fatty acids are liquids at room temperature. Depending on the number of double bonds in the chemical structure, unsaturated fatty acids are again divided into “monounsaturated” and “polyunsaturated” fatty acids.

All fats are made up of these fatty acids in varying compositions. For example, olive oil contains 75% monounsaturated fatty acids, 14% polyunsaturated fatty acids and 11% saturated fatty acids.

Type of Fatty AcidsAt Room TemperatureBelow Room TemperatureHealth RemarksExamples
MonounsaturatedLiquidCloudyImproves cholesterol, lowers risk of heart diseaseOlive, peanut
PolyunsaturatedLiquidLiquidImproves cholesterol level, reduces risk of heart diseaseCanola, Sunflower, Walnut
SaturatedSolidSolidIncreases cholesterol, high risk of heart disease
Butter, Lard
TransVariableVariableIncrease LDL (bad) and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. Highest heart disease riskFried food like chips, fries, baked items,

Saturated fatty acids

Saturated fatty acids are mainly derived from animal sources and examples include meat and dairy products. Butter, is rich in saturated fatty acids.

Scientific studies have shown that increased consumption of saturated fats is associated with increased blood cholesterol levels and thereby the chances of developing heart disease are higher.

Some vegetable oils like coconut oil and palm oil are also rich sources of saturated fatty acids. They increase the level of LDL (bad) as well HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood and are beneficial in some ways compared to the animal sources of saturated fatty acids.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)

They are mainly found in vegetable oils like olive oil and peanut oil. They are liquids at room temperature and become semi solid or cloudy when kept in a refrigerator.

Studies have shown that when saturated fats are substituted with monounsaturated fats, there has been dramatic improvements in the blood cholesterol levels. Food items rich in monounsaturated fatty acids reduces the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases the level of HDL (good) cholesterol. The favourable effect on blood cholesterol also helps prevent the development of heart disease.

Whenever you are buying cooking oils, look for the percentage of MUFA (monounsaturated fatty acids) in the list of ingredients. The higher the percentage of MUFA compared to the saturated fats, the better the oil is for your health.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)

Unlike saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats are always liquid in nature. They are also mainly found in vegetable oils like peanut oil, sunflower oil etc.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are more heart protective compared to monounsaturated fatty acids.

Trans fatty acids

By far the most unhealthiest fatty acids, trans fatty acids rarely occur naturally. Industries manufacture trans fatty acids from vegetable oils by a process known as “hydrogenation”. They do so in order to increase the shelf life and flavour of the cooking oil.

Trans fatty acids increases LDL (bad) cholesterol and decreases HDL (good) cholesterol. They are thus associated with the highest risk of developing heart disease.

Look out for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” label while choosing  cooking oils and stay away from them.

Fried food items, chips, crackers, cakes may contain trans fatty acids.

Popular Indian hydrogenated vegetable oils brands include Dalda and Vanaspati. They are rich in trans fatty acids.

This article will help you choose the right cooking oil next time when you visit the supermarket. If you liked this piece, do share with your friends.


Image Credit – Reynermedia

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