The different kinds of oils and fats have always been confusing to me. I was speaking to my friend and realized that I have no idea what all the different terms (saturated, unsaturated, trans) mean. After doing more research on this subject, I learned a lot about fats that I previously didn’t think were related.
This article will look at what the different terms mean at this point. Science can change based on new research evidence. Something good can be bad a few years later and vice versa. I typically only look at the protein content of foods therefore I am writing this so that I can better understand nutritional labels, I hope this article can help you learn something too.
Chemistry Of Fats
If you are interested in the chemistry behind fats, this video by Khan Academy explains the different structures behind the different kinds of fats.
We learned in secondary school that fats are made up of two components, glycerol and fatty acids. The different structures in the fatty acid chains give the fats different properties and therefore, different names.
Different Categories Of Fats
After viewing the video above, we know that there are three categories of fats.
- Unsaturated Fats
- Saturated Fats
- Trans Fats
This is the top level for the different types of fats. Saturated and trans fats are quite straightforward. However, unsaturated fats are the source of all the confusion as they can be broken down further.
Unsaturated fats are the healthiest of the bunch. Although they are considered healthy fats, consumption should also be done in moderation as fats are still a dense source of calories.
They are classified into two groups, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The difference between the two groups is the number of carbon double bonds. Monounsaturated has one carbon double bond while polyunsaturated has more than one carbon double bond.
Each of these groups then contains the different Omega-X that we are used to and even those that we are not used to. Here is a diagram showing the 3 common Omega fatty acid groups, 3, 6 and 9.
Omega-X is a name given to a group of fatty acids with a certain chemical structure. The number behind the Omega is the number of carbon atoms from the methyl end (-CH3) to the nearest carbon double bond (C=C).
|Benefits||Helps lower total and bad cholesterol levels|
|Common Food Sources||Olive oil, canola oil, avocado, almonds, pumpkin seeds|
This fatty acid is less-known and not commonly found in our diet but it still has benefits. However, there is limited research on this group of fatty acids, so take the benefits with a pinch of salt.
|Benefits||Moisturizing, increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol|
|Common Food Sources||Macadamia nuts, sea buckthorn|
Besides seeing Omega-3 on the packaging of marketing material, do you know that DHA (commonly added to baby formula) is also a fatty acid that is under the Omega-3 umbrella?
|Benefits||Reduce blood clotting in arteries, protect arteries from hardening and lower blood fat|
|Common Food Sources||Salmon, mackerel, walnuts, flax seeds|
|Benefits||Helps lower total and bad cholesterol levels|
|Common Food Sources||Sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds|
Here is another uncommon Omega-X that we are not commonly marketed to. Similar to Omega-7, there is limited research in the area, so take it with another pinch of salt.
|Common Food Sources||Pomegranate seed oil, salmon|
This is where it gets a little confusing. The science overwhelmingly says that saturated fat is not good for our heart health. But, there are certain champions of saturated fats that say that it is good for us, giving us a healthier heart, stronger bones and immune system amongst others. However, most scientific research is against this contrarian argument.
|Disadvantages||Raise bad cholesterol|
|Common Food Sources||Beef, Pork, Cheese, Processed Meats, Milk, Lard, Coconut Oil|
Trans fats are unequivocally bad for us. It not only increases bad cholesterol in our bodies, but it also lowers the good cholesterol too. This is why multiple countries have banned artificial trans fats as it is linked to heart disease. Natural foods still contain traces of trans fats but before the ban, the majority of our intake of trans fats come from artificial sources like hydrogenated fat, commonly found in processed foods like snacks, baked goods and fat spreads.
It is not that difficult for companies to swap to a healthier alternative as cost and shelf life are no longer a problem due to improvements in food science.
Trans fats should not be a major problem in Singapore unless one consumes huge amounts of oils or meats which contain trace amounts of trans fats. Singapore has fully banned artificial trans fat since June 2021. I looked at several products that commonly have trans fats on a supermarket website and there are little to no trans fats in them. Even margarine, commonly thought to have trans fats, no longer has any trans fats due to new methods in turning vegetable oils into a solid form, allowing them to be spread.
|Disadvantages||Raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol|
|Common Food Sources||Pastries, cakes, cookies, biscuits and commercially deep-fried food prepared with shortening or partially hydrogenated oils.|
Fats And Cholesterol
The purpose we are so concerned about the type of fats we eat is because of how it affects the cholesterol in our body.
Cholesterol is a substance in our blood that is used for various bodily functions. Cholesterol not only comes from food, but our body also creates them.
There is good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL). We want our HDL to be high and LDL to be low.
High cholesterol will narrow our blood vessels, which will increase our risk of suffering from heart diseases.
Our body actually produces most of the cholesterol in us. Therefore, cholesterol in foods we consume should not be much of a concern. Instead, we should be concerned about the type of fats consumed, as they will indirectly affect the cholesterol levels in our bodies. The confusion comes in because foods with high cholesterol can also be high in saturated fats. The bad rep that eggs have been getting because of their high cholesterol has since been debunked by many studies. Eggs are an exception where it has high cholesterol, but it also has high unsaturated fats, the good kind.
Besides the oil that we consume, having a healthy weight, leading an active lifestyle and not smoking help keep our cholesterol at healthy levels.
Nutritional Information Of Common Oils In Singapore
According to Health Hub, the oils we use at home should contain less than 35% saturated fat, more than 50% unsaturated fat and less than 0.5% trans fat.
However, to qualify for the healthier choice symbol, oils should contain less than 20% saturated fat and less than 1.5% trans fat. If oils want to include “Trans Fat Free” in their marketing, trans fat needs to be less than 0.5%.
**Note: This is just a guideline and you should rely on the nutritional details on the packaging.
The percentages sometimes don’t add up to 100% as they don’t include the weight of glycerol.
Beware of vegetable blends as it is not clear what is in them, they might use lower quality oils to lower the price or increase the stability of the product. If you see palm oil or hydrogenated oil in the mix, you should avoid it.
The reason for avoiding palm oil is its high saturated oil content and deforestation effects, while the reason for avoiding hydrogenated oil is the high trans fat content.
Besides the fatty acid content of the oils, there are additional properties that might make an oil a better choice. For example, olive oils have anti-inflammatory properties and high amounts of antioxidants, soybean oils have high vitamin K and sunflower oils have high vitamin E.
Foods Contain Multiple Types Of Fats And Nutrients
Food is made up of multiple compounds and therefore contains different nutrients. For example, although sunflower oil is a good source of unsaturated fats, it also has saturated fats and even some trans fats.
Additionally, when we consume oils, we are not only consuming fat, there can also be micronutrients in them like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
If we add protein, carbs and fibre into the mix, fats are just a part of the equation of a healthy diet.
Moderation Is Key
So which fat is best? Based on the science, we should focus on unsaturated fats and lower saturated fats intake and avoid trans fat. A typical Singaporean diet is rich in carbs and fat and low in protein. More important than choosing a healthier fat source, we should control the amount of our fat intake.
If you grow obese from overconsumption, any benefits brought by the healthy fat will probably be cancelled out many times over. Take note that just a tablespoon of fat (15g) contains about 135 calories. For reference, an average male’s daily requirement to maintain weight is about 2,200 calories while an average female’s is about 1,800 calories. To get a more accurate amount, use a metabolism calculator as a base and adjust your diet accordingly. Every person has a different metabolism due to differences in
- activity level
- muscle mass
- fat mass
- hormones and others
The different names and types of fats can be confusing. Fats are mainly categorized into three groups, unsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Unsaturated fat is good, unsaturated fat is bad/debatable while trans fat is bad. Fats not only contain various fatty acids but there are also antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in them.
Besides choosing healthier sources of oil, we should also moderate our consumption of oil as our Singaporean diet is carb and oil-rich and poor in protein.
Here is a summary of the different types of fats and their common sources.
Unsaturated – Good
Olive oil, Canola Oil, Avocado, Almonds, Pumpkin Seeds
Flaxseed, Corn Oil, Sunflower Oil, Walnuts, Fish
Saturated – Bad / Debatable
Beef, Pork, Cheese, Processed Meats, Milk, Lard, Coconut Oil
Trans – Bad
Pastries, cakes, cookies, biscuits and fat spreads
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