The Skinny on Fats: How to Read Labels

Food with unsaturated fatsNow that fat phobia is finally coming to an end—butter is back!—you’re probably getting curious about all the oils you see on store shelves these days. Which oils are the healthiest and how do you use them? Here’s a cheat sheet you can use when selecting, storing, and using oils and fats.

  • All oils contain roughly 14g of fat/120 calories from fat per tablespoon—in terms of the nutritional numbers, there is no such thing as a “light” oil. The differences lie in the type of fats that oils contain.  As you know from my other blog posts, being healthy is not about reducing food calories – its about choosing quality food and eating a balance of fats, carbs and protein at every meal.
  • All oils contain a mixture of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Oils are classified as being one of those three types—the classification comes from whichever type of fat is most prevalent in the oil. (Coconut oil, ghee, and butter are mostly saturated fats. Walnut, flax seed, and pumpkin seed oil are mostly polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil, avocado, and some nut and seed oils are mostly monounsaturated fats.)
  • How much heat an oil can handle before it breaks down and turns into smoke and then fire is determined by the type of oil it is: saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated.
  • All oils have complete fat labels that allow you to understand what kind of oils they are and how to use them properly—just look at the fat breakdown on the nutritional label to see which type of fat they contain.
  • Saturated fats are stable enough to handle medium to high heat. Store them in a cool, dark place (or in the fridge—that won’t hurt them but is not necessary for fats like coconut oil).
  • Monounsaturated fats can handle low to medium heat. Store them in a cool, dark place or in the fridge if you’re not going to use them within 6 months.
  • Polyunsaturated fats should never be heated as they are delicate and prone to rancidity. Always store them in the fridge!
  • Heat and light damage oils, so be sure to store your unrefined oils properly, and when you’re in the store, look for oils that have been stored in a cool, dark place and in a bottle that keeps the light out. That means tucked away on a shelf, not standing on the top shelf underneath a bright light and also not in a clear plastic container!
  • When shopping for oils, look for the terms “extra-virgin” and “unrefined.” You’ll notice that these unrefined oils are aromatic, flavorful, and have a unique color—refined oils, on the other hand, are flavorless, have no aroma, and are all the same pale golden color. Unrefined oils taste and smell like what they’re made of. The high-quality oils you want to purchase are those typically packaged in glass (often opaque dark glass) containers rather than see-through plastic. That’s to protect the unrefined oils from the damaging effects of light.  Oils found in clear plastic containers should be avoided.

And now you know the skinny on fats as far as label reading when you are grocery shopping…

To learn more about the skinny on fats- see my newest book co-authored with Dr. David Brownstein called The Skinny on Fats

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