Saturated fats, even more than their unsaturated counterparts, have been vilified in recent decades. Blamed for being the cause of cardiovascular disease, such traditionally used saturated fats as lard and schmaltz are almost universally being replaced by the highly processed vegetable oils described in last months post. Many of us have even grown up with a negative “eewww” connotation with the word “lard.”
This is demonstrated by the huge change in the types of fat consumed in the United States over the last century.
Fats & Oils in the Food Supply: 1890 vs. 1990 (in descending order of market share)
But it's time to re-examine the fa(c)ts.
Functions of saturated fats:
- Compose over 50% of cell membranes and maintain cellular integrity
- Facilitate calcium incorporation into bones
- Protect the liver from toxins
- Enhance the immune system
- Important for proper utilization of essential fatty acids
- Maintain cardiovascular health—most fat around the heart is saturated
- Short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids have antimicrobial properties, protect against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract
As you can see, saturated fats are essential and should not be ignored, much less eschewed in a health-promoting diet. Let's take a look at some fine sources of saturated fats..
Butter: mmm…everything tastes better with butter! Not only that, but check out what it’s got:
Vitamins A, D, E, and K2, antioxidants, lecithin, and a number of other nutrients that benefit the immune system, important for cell membranes, as well as are healing for the digestive tract. And that’s just the beginning. Read more about the benefits of butter here.
But eating all that butter makes you fat, right??
On the contrary, butter contains many short- and medium-chain fats that are metabolized for energy rather than stored as fat. These fats are absorbed more efficiently in the digestive tract and get moved directly into the bloodstream for distribution to the body’s cells to be used for energy. Comparatively, their longer-chain counterparts, those found in vegetable oils, are absorbed into the lymph, the fluid that mainly circulates the cells of the immune system, and are more likely to be carried to fat tissue.
So it’s like eating sugar, right?? No, the difference is that sugar induces the release of insulin, a hormone which sequesters sugar and encourages fat storage. Short- and medium-chain fats do not induce an insulin response, which means no blood sugar fluctuations, which means more sustained energy.
Many articles have been published in major publications in the last year, which polish butter’s tarnished reputation: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine.
Coconut Oil: Where shall we begin with all of the benefits? Coconut oil promotes cardiovascular and immune health, supports metabolism, thyroid function, and skin health, and can also be used for weight loss.
Almost 50% of coconut oil is composed of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that has significant anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. Lauric acid is converted into monolaurin in the body, and in that form it can combat a number of viruses and bacteria. Coconut oil also contains lots of medium-chain fats, which are metabolized for energy as described above.
Lard: Lard is fat that comes from pigs. It actually contains 60% oleic acid, the monounsaturated fat that makes olive oil so beneficial. The other 40% makes up the saturated fat, although the composition varies widely depending on the pig's diet. Lard has been shown to increase HDL to LDL ratios as well as support the immune system. An extra benefit is that it’s also great for extra deliciously flaky pastries and tender biscuits and cookies.
Just a reminder from last month’s post that saturated fats are completely “saturated” with hydrogen atoms and contain only single bonds, which makes their molecules very stable and not prone to oxidation or rancidity. So go ahead, leave that jar of lard or bacon fat on your countertop for months. No problem!
This makes saturated fats the best to cook with. Butter, ghee, lard, tallow, coconut oil, red palm oil, chicken fat, and duck fat can tolerate heat from cooking without their molecular structures changing.
Some of you may be scratching your heads at this point because you’ve seen other charts that have shown vegetable oils to have higher smoke points, or have seen vegetable oils labeled suitable for high-heat. The truth is that these vegetable oils do have higher smoke points, but the reason is that they are highly refined. The more refined (and processed) an oil is, the higher its smoke point is going to be. For those of you who missed last month’s post, I talk about why these oils are unhealthy to consume.
It is often possible to obtain fat from your butcher at a fairly low price. Because people eschew this part of the animal, it is still considered a byproduct in many cases. To render the fat simply cut the fat into small 1” chunks and set in a heavy bottomed pot over low heat for hours until the fat has melted down. Pour off the fat into jars, and voìla! You’ve got fat to cook with for months! If you’re not going to use all of it right away store the extra jars in the freezer or fridge and keep the one you’re using on the countertop. You may also find already rendered fat at some butchers and farmers’ markets.
One big caveat to using animal fat is that it’s very important to obtain your fat from properly bred animals, pasture-raised or grass-fed. This is even more important for fat than muscle meat. Toxins accumulate in fat, and therefore all of the antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and other toxic residues found in conventionally raised animals are found in highest concentration in the fat. Furthermore, as discussed in last month’s post, the fatty acid profile for animals, even organic, that have been fed corn and soy all of their lives as is typical, is pro-inflammatory. Consuming fat regularly from these animals could lead to a whole host of health problems. Dark yellow butter from grass-fed cows is an indicator of its nutritive value—the color comes from a higher concentration of beta-carotene, but other nutrients, like vitamins A and E are also in greater amounts.
Butter, coconut oil, and red palm oil are readily available and can usually be found at the grocery store, so no extra work is required to obtain these. Just add them to your list next to the kale and avocados.
Ghee is often available and has the added benefit of having a much higher smoking point than butter. Ghee is just butter with the milk solids removed and gently cooked until golden—what remains is just the butterfat. This makes ghee more suitable for high-temperature cooking, such as searing meat and roasting vegetables.
Give it a Try!
This month's recipe takes advantage of the fall's tender eggplants and hot peppers. Cooking the eggplants in lard with some piquant flavors makes for a melt-in-your mouth delight fit for even a staunch eggplant skeptic. If you don't have lard on hand, try it with coconut oil for a Southeast Asian interpretation.
Sichuan Spicy Fried Eggplant
5 Asian eggplants, cut lengthwise, then crosswise in 1” pieces on the bias
4 T or more lard
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 green onions, white and green parts, sliced on the bias
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh red chili, thinly sliced on the bias
1/2 cup chicken broth
3 T soy sauce, or tamari
1 T rice vinegar
1 T honey
1 ½ T arrowroot (optional, to thicken the sauce)
1 T sesame oil
1 T toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
basil and fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
In a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat add about half the lard and tilt the pan to coat all sides. When the fat is hot, add a layer of eggplant, stir-fry until seared and lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Season the eggplant with salt and pepper. Remove the eggplant to a plate and cook the remaining eggplant in same manner, adding more fat if needed for each batch.
In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, vinegar, honey, and arrowroot (if using) until the honey and arrowroot are dissolved. After all the eggplant is out of the pan, add the green onions, ginger, garlic, and chili; stir-fry for a minute until fragrant. Add the broth. Pour the soy sauce mixture into the wok, add the eggplant back in, and cover. Cook until the eggplant is completely tender, then uncover and cook until the sauce is absorbed. Drizzle with sesame oil, garnish with sesame seeds, basil, and cilantro and serve.