Fats and oils have gotten a bad rap, mainly due to commercials and advertisement of so-called “healthy” foods that say what is not contained but only indicate in the fine print what is in them. Think “low fat, no GMO, no artificial flavors, no artificial coloring” which probably means highly-processed, origin-unknown, non-organic, with preservatives, high sugar content, so-called “natural” flavor enhancers such as yeast extracts and so on.
Now, when talking of fats, let me tell you that not only is fat a carrier for many less-volatile flavors, but that they are also essential to your well-being.
In fact, your body needs various components found in different fats and oils, and it is able to dispose of excess fat it does not need, contrary to popular belief, though I have to admit that this ability is of course limited to some extent. That means that you will not gain as much weight as the food you eat but that there is a tolerance window in which your body is able to decide what to keep and what not.
Exceed that window, of course, and you will get obese, but stay in that window and be comfortable.
On the other hand, if you get too little of fat in your diet, you may suffer from other ailments. Fats serve as transport vehicles for various fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients and are also stored for “harder times” as an energy reserve and to insulate and protect your body and organs against thermal or mechanical stress or your skin against germs and from drying out. Additionally, fats as a sub-class of lipids, are used to construct and renew the lipid-protein-membranes that all your body cells and neurons in your brain have.
Fats and oils mainly consist of fatty acids and a special kind of alcohol bonded together, some vitamins and trace amounts of other stuff like water.
The distinction between fats and oils in urban slang is in how solid or liquid that mixture is, and fat is generally considered a summary term which also includes oils. The higher the concentration of saturated fatty acid chains and the less unsaturated fats, the harder the fat is.
Common interpretation from many studies is that unsaturated fats are considered good for health while saturated and especially artificially altered fats (hydrogenated, trans fats) are considered bad because they may contribute to arteriosklerosis, though newer studies indicate that the picture may not be as clear as it seemed years ago, partly because scientists neglected the fact that the body can regulate intake and integration to some extent rather than taking whatever it is given as is.
That said, you’d still want to limit the saturated fats and prefer the unsaturated ones instead because they also serve as anti-oxidants, i.e. they “catch” free radicals that may otherwise alter your genes.
Olive oil with a fat content of roughly 90% for example consists of about 50-60% mono-unsaturated, 10-20% poly-unsaturated and about 20% saturated fat, which is why it is liquid at room temperature but becomes jelly-like when put in the fridge. Canola oil has about 5-10% saturated, 50-60% mono-unsaturated and 30% poly-unsaturated fats while sunflower oil is 10% saturated, 30% mono-unsaturated and 50-60% poly-unsaturated fats.
The different compositions of those oils is why it is recommended to not limit yourself to one but to mix and match as you see fit so that you get the most out of them.
Try to heat as little fat or oil as possible and prefer it pure. Also, heating fats and oils to high temperatures with salt may also produce carcinogenic dioxins, so if you must heat fat e.g. to fry or sauté something, try to salt later or limit the time the salt comes in contact with the oil or fat.
High-quality free-range organic cattle and poultry also contain higher amounts of unsaturated fats when they feed naturally on grass, greens and insects and over prolonged periods, with plenty of opportunities to move freely rather than “quick and dirty” in cages and overcrowded pens on a diet of corn and industrial fodder. This also propagates to milk and eggs, by the way.
So next time you go to the supermarket or grocer, take a look at free-range, organic products and high-quality oils, and don’t worry too much about low-fat products. It is not just about the quantity, but also the quality. “Better less” is better than “much worse”.