A Quick Course In Fats and Oils

If you are already familiar with fatty acids, triglycerides, essential fatty acids, linoleic acid, alpha-linoleic acid and their function in the body, you can skip this section and go on to the nest. If these terms are unfamiliar to you or you are unsure of their meaning, it will be of benefit to keep reading. This section contains a little bit of chemistry, but only a little. If you're not the scientific type, don't worry. My discussion here will be very basic and simple enough for the non-scientific person to understand. The main reason for this discussion is to familiarize you with some terminology that will help you understand fats and oils better.

The terms fat and oil are often used interchangeably. There is no real difference; however, fats are generally considered solid at room temperature while oils are liquid. Lard, for example, would be referred to as a fat, liquid corn oil would be called an oil.

Fat and oils are composed of fat molecules known as fatty acids. This is an important term to remember because we will be discussing.

Doctors often use the term "lipid" in referring to fat. Lipid is a general term that includes several fat-like compounds in the body. By far the most abundant and the most important of the lipids are the triglycerides. When people speak of fats and oils, they are referring to triglycerides. Two other lipids that are important in human health are phospholipids and sterols (which includes cholesterol).

The fatty acids in the oil you put on your salad for dinner and in the meat and vegetable you eat - in fact, the fat in your own body - come in the form of triglycerides. A triglyceride is nothing more than three fatty acids joined together by a glycerol molecule. So you can have saturated triglycerides, monounsaturated triglycerides, or polyunsaturated triglycerides. You can also have a triglyceride that has one of each fatty acid or any combination of the three.

All vegetable oils and animal fats contain of a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. To say any particular oil is saturated or monounsaturated is a gross oversimplification. No oil is purely saturated or polyunsaturated. Olive oil is often called a "monounsaturated" oil because it is predominately monounsaturated, but like all vegetable oils, it also contains some polyunsaturated and some saturated fatty acids as well.

Generally, animal fats contain the highest amount of saturated fatty acids. Vegetable oils have the highest amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Palm and coconut oils are exceptions; although they are vegetable oils, they contain a high amount of saturated fat.

Sine fatty acids are classified as being essential. What this means is that our bodies cannot make them so we must have them in our diet in order or achieve and maintain good health. Our bodies can manufactured saturated and monounsaturated fats form other foods. However, we do not have the ability to manufacture polyunsaturated fats. Therefore, it is essential that they be included in our diet.

When we talk about saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fats, we are not referring to just three types of fatty acids, but three families of fatty acids. There are many different types of saturated fatty acids as well as many different mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Two families of polyunsaturated fatty acids are important to human health; they are referred to as omega 6 and omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. There are several omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Two are considered essential because the body can use these to make all of the rest. They are linoleic acid and alphalinolenic acid. These are the essential fatty acids (EFA) you hear so much about. Linoleic acid belongs to the omega 6 family. Alpha-linolenic acid belongs to the omega 3 family.

If you eat an adequate source of linoleic acid, the body can make all other omega 6 fatty acids it needs. Likewise, if you have an adequate source of alpha linolenic acid, it can make all the other omega 3 fatty acids.

Getting enough linoleic acid (omega 6) is not a problem. Almost all plant and animal foods contain this fatty acid. Most of the fats we eat contain plenty of linoleic acid. It is the primary component of most vegetable oils. Soybean, corn, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower and other common cooking oils are predominately fat contains 22 percent linoleic acid.

Alpha linoleic acid (Omega 3) is less common. Flaxseed oil is a good source. A few other oils contain smaller amounts as do leafy green vegetables and seafood.

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