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The Phat Fats

Some fats are essential and some fats are dead weight – one of the keys to good health is knowing the difference

My father, in an effort to set a good example by not swearing in front of us, used to call the people who cut us off in traffic "fat heads" – presumably meaning that the errant driver (it was never my father’s fault) was about as intelligent as his own budding beer belly. Little did he know that he was paying a compliment.

Fat was bad back then. You cut it off your steak, or spat it into a napkin. If you were watching your weight, you avoided it as best you could, shelling out for low fat mayonnaise and cutting down on the lard in your diet. People didn’t distinguish between the different types of fat, and although it was understood that fat was a minor player in the food chain, nobody ever used the word "essential" – I would have remembered that. Growing up, my house was stocked with the Lite™ version of just about everything.

Our knowledge of nutrition and human physiology has come a long way in recent years, forcing us to re-evaluate our understanding of how the body works, what the body needs and why. This includes fat.

Vitamins and minerals aside, our entire diet is made up of proteins, carbohydrates and fats – we eat what we are and we are what we eat. And one of the things we need to eat in order to be healthy mentally and physically is the right kinds of fat.

As a general rule, good fats are the ones that occur naturally in the food we eat that haven’t been damaged by high heat or otherwise refined or reprocessed by the food industry.

This is achieved by using petroleum-based chemical solvents to remove impurities from naturally occurring plant and animal fats. Unfortunately, the process also removes colour, taste and nutrients.

Hydrogenization is a process by which hydrogen is forced into polyunsaturated oils to make them more saturated. In the process, trans fatty acids are created that contribute to a wide array of health problems, including heart disease and cancer. They increase our stores of lipoproteins, the so-called "bad cholesterol" and lower our stores of high density lipoproteins, or "good cholesterol."

Margarine is produced by hydrogenization, as are many of the oils you can buy in the supermarket.

Here’s a snapshot of the process:

The oil is "degummed" or washed by using water, salts and acid to remove waxes, phosphates and other "impurities." Alkali – a substance that neutralizes acids and becomes corrosive in water – is added to remove free fatty acids that can go bad. This soap and oil mixture is heated and pumped through a separator to remove the soap from the oil.

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