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Why saturated fats are not bad

What is the best oil for food—saturated or unsaturated, refined or unrefined, virgin or cold-press?

Extra-virgin olive oil in particular is not suitable for cooking at all since all purported benefits are lost the moment it’s heated. Most olive-oil health claims tend to be exaggerated. (Istockphoto)
Extra-virgin olive oil in particular is not suitable for cooking at all since all purported benefits are lost the moment it’s heated. Most olive-oil health claims tend to be exaggerated. (Istockphoto)

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As I was watching the Western world react with shock and horror at blond white people go through what browner-hued people have been going through for decades and centuries under colonialism and then American foreign policy, one headline that caught my eye was that India imports close to 1.8 million tonnes of sunflower oil from Ukraine and one can expect a short-term increase in its price.

When I was growing up, the prevailing wisdom was that fats were public enemy numero uno. With economic liberalisation came both wealth and diseases of plenty. Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems skyrocketed all of a sudden and every expert was pointing the finger at fats. We were told fats increase “cholesterol” levels and clog arteries. And since Indian food really doesn’t work without fats, we were told that the solution was to reduce our consumption of artery-clogging “saturated” fats like ghee and butter and embrace the new lean kid on the block—unsaturated vegetable oils (like sunflower oil). There was just one problem. They were terribly wrong on both counts, and the sheer magnitude of how wrong they were continues to stare us in the face even now, as India skyrockets up the global diabetes and heart disease charts with no signs of slowing down. 

At nine Calories per gram, fats are the most energy-dense food we can eat. To put things in perspective, petrol gives you about 11 Calories per gram, although you should, of course, not try consuming it. Carbohydrates give you about four Calories per gram, and what is often not very well known is the sheer scale of lobbying the sugar industry did in the post-war years to point us all at the wrong villain.

It is only in the last decade that medical science has started screaming from the rooftops that it’s carbohydrates that are the bigger problem, not fats. And more recently, there is increasing evidence that diets rich in saturated fats (like coconut oil in Kerala cuisine or the seal blubber Inuits use) are not bad at all. If anything, over-processed vegetable oils, like sunflower or safflower oils, contain omega-6 fatty acids that aren’t particularly good for you. 

Almost every dish in the subcontinent starts with heating some fat and adding spices and other flavouring ingredients to form the base flavour for the entire dish. And quite often, a similar, albeit simpler version of the starting combination will be used at the end of the dish (tadka) to add a final burst of flavour and texture. The general idea is to use whole spices because powdered spices are best added towards the end of the cooking process, while whole spices need a bit of heating to release their flavour molecules into the cooking oil.

Fats like ghee or coconut oil are called “saturated” because all the carbon atoms are bonded with the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms. When fats have carbon-carbon double bonds, that reduces the number of hydrogen atoms and these fats are called “unsaturated”. When the double-bond is in the third position from the end of the molecule, it’s called Omega minus 3 because omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Mustard oil is a rare example of plant fat with a decent amount of omega-3 fatty acids but it also has erucic acid that recent research has shown to be problematic.

In general, plant-based fats (coconut oil is a rare exception) tend to be richer in unsaturated fats while animal fats (like ghee or lard) tend to be largely saturated. Unsaturated fats are liquids at room temperature while saturated fats tend to be solids. Saturated fats are also less prone to oxidation and rancidity and are easier to transport. In the post-war years, the food industry tried to convert plant-based unsaturated fats into saturated fats by cramming in extra hydrogen atoms (in a process predictably called hydrogenation). The only problem was that the process wasn’t perfect and it ended up creating a particularly nasty by-product called trans-fats, which our hearts generally tend to look upon as a Bond villain.  This is why vanaspati has largely gone out of fashion in the last few decades (although the industry has since then improved the process to make it safer). 

If you are thinking of using unrefined oils to avoid these problems, cold-pressed/virgin oils (with the exception of mustard oil) are not safe for high-temperature cooking. Extra-virgin olive oil in particular is not suitable for cooking at all since all purported benefits are lost the moment it’s heated. Most olive-oil health claims tend to be exaggerated.

A word of warning: Please don’t take nutrition or diet advice from someone who isn’t a doctor or a qualified nutritionist. Don’t rush to drench your food in ghee and script paeans to it on WhatsApp forwards quite yet. I am merely pointing you to contemporary (and still evolving) published science that significantly contradicts what Indians tend to consider settled wisdom about fats. Go read up more and talk to your doctor. Given that India has 30% of the world’s cattle, perhaps we should just go with ghee and stop importing all that sunflower oil.

Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking. @krishashok

Also read | How the alchemy of fats and spices creates cooking magic

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