Oils 101: Here’s How to Eat Healthier

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Animal products aren't the only source of saturated fats. Unhealthy fats hide in groceries ranging from Smart Balance margarine to Aunt Jemima French toast. Here's how to spot them – including a grocery shopping cheat sheet.

My boyfriend uses Smart Balance butter. He thinks it’s healthy, but I keep telling him the palm oil in it will kill him.

Smart Balance claims that palm oil – or “palm fruit oil” as they call it to make it sound better – isn’t bad because it’s not as bad as palm kernel oil. But all palm oils contain saturated fats that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest warn against because they encourage heart disease.

So why do palm oils frequent ingredient lists? Simple: They’re cheaper than healthier alternatives like soybean oil, partly because one acre of oil palms yields 10 times as much oil as one acre of soybean plants, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Most food manufacturers prioritize their bottom line before your waistline, so it’s up to you to guard your health by shopping wisely. “But avoiding certain fats can be hard,” Consumer Reports said recently, “because some hide where you least expect them.” They don’t just hide at the grocery store either. As the magazine discovered…

Fat is also good at hiding in chain restaurants, leading you to be bad even when you’re trying to be good. It might be no surprise that Chili’s rib-eye steak has 116 grams of fat, nearly twice the recommended daily limit. But what about Burger King’s healthful-sounding Tendercrisp Garden Salad with Ken’s Creamy Caesar dressing? Forty-three grams of fat, more than the famous Whopper. An innocent-looking Dunkin’ Donuts tuna croissant clocks in at 40 grams. And a 32-ounce Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Coolata packs 46 grams, twice as much as a glazed cake doughnut.

It’s not just animal products like red meat and whole milk that you have to watch out for. Bad (saturated) fats hide in certain oils. So to guard your health, you must learn oils by name, distinguish the good ones from the bad ones, and then scrutinize food ingredient lists.

ShopSmart magazine, published by the same nonprofit as Consumer Reports, recently released a list of 10 “smart food swaps” that substitute a lower-fat food for a higher-fat equivalent. But not all of their swaps are smart, because even they focused on the numbers and ignored the ingredients. For example…

A smart swap:

  • Grocery: Terra Mediterranean Exotic Vegetable Chips (One 1-ounce serving contains 150 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 1 gram of saturated fat.)
  • ShopSmart’s swap: Popchips Original Potato (One 1-ounce serving contains 120 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 0 grams of saturated fat.)
  • My ingredients analysis: Both snacks are made with the same healthy (unsaturated) oils, so you may as well consume the one that contains fewer calories and less fat.

A pointless swap:

  • Grocery: Aunt Jemima Cinnamon French Toast Sticks (One 89-gram serving contains 270 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 2.5 grams of saturated fat.)
  • ShopSmart’s swap: Aunt Jemima Homestyle French Toast (One 118-gram serving contains 220 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.)
  • My ingredients analysis: Don’t eat either of these! Both contain trans fats in the form of “partially hydrogenated soybean oil.”

A stupid swap:

  • Grocery: Rice-A-Roni Spanish Rice (One 1-cup serving contains 260 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat when prepared with margarine and tomatoes.)
  • ShopSmart’s swap: Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice Spanish Style (One 1-cup serving contains 200 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and 0 grams of saturated fat.)
  • My ingredients analysis: ShopSmart compared the margarine-included Nutrition Facts of the Rice-A-Roni product to the box-contents-only Nutrition Facts of the Uncle Ben’s product. Without the margarine factored in, the first product actually has fewer calories, fat, and saturated fat because it’s made with soy protein instead of oils.

If you’re now as confused as ShopSmart, don’t fret. Learning your oils doesn’t have to be complicated. For healthy shopping purposes, they fall into four categories…

  • Best: Unsaturated fats that contain healthy, necessary omega-3 and/or omega-6 fatty acids (e.g., canola oil, corn oil, flaxseed/linseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil)
  • Good: Unsaturated fats (e.g., cottonseed oil, olive oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil)
  • Bad: Saturated fats (e.g., cocoa butter, coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil)
  • Ugly: Trans fats (e.g., any partially hydrogenated oil)

In case that’s still too much to digest, I’ve created an oils cheat sheet that you can print out and take with you to the grocery store. And when you reach the butter aisle, I recommend Parkay Squeeze: It contains no bad oils and fewer saturated fats, as evidenced by its liquidy form. (Saturated fats are solid or semi-solid at room temperature.)

Stacy Johnson

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