The Differences Between Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats

poached egg with vegetables and tomatoes on blue plate

Table of Contents

Dietary fat is broken into these major categories: saturated, unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), trans fats, and dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products, like meat, eggs, lard and dairy products including milk. The rest of the fats used in cooking are manufactured by pressing vegetables and nuts or chemically altering a liquid fat to make it solid.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fat is a fat that is solid at room temperature. This includes trans fats, defined below. These fats can be found in foods naturally or added to foods by way of using tropical oils such as palm kernel oil and coconut oil. These fats may or may not contain cholesterol, which is only found in animal products. Examples of foods containing saturated fats are macadamia nuts, cheese and animal meat whether processed or not.

These types of fat are to be limited as they contribute to heart disease, can increase the bad cholesterol in the blood and lead to obesity. It doesn’t mean a healthy person has to eliminate them entirely from the diet, just use them moderation. Butter and cream, hallmarks of classical cuisine, and lard, known for producing favorite pie crusts, can still be incorporated in recipes as long as the recommended amounts are consumed. According to the American Heart Association, a typical diet should consume no more than 7 percent of the total daily calories. This does not include trans fats, which should be avoided.

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Unsaturated Fats

These fats can be broken into two separate categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. All fats in the diet should not comprise of more than roughly 30 percent of the total calories consumed (25 to 35 percent for most diets). Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and change to solid when cold. This type of fat can help reduce cholesterol when used as a culinary replacement for saturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats also contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids which cannot be produced by the body. Types of mono- and polyunsaturated fats include vegetable and nut oils, and foods like avocado, nuts and seeds. Fatty fish have an additional benefit of containing a good source of Omega-3 and Omega-6.

Good fats are essential for the body and brain to function whereas consumption of bad fats lead to many modern maladies.

Trans Fats

These fats are made by altering the chemical make-up of an unsaturated fat and make it saturated. These fats are also known as hydrogenated fats. Commercial food producers have made great use of these as they stay solid at room temperature, and have a much longer shelf life. They can also be heated and reheated without degradation which has made it a mainstay for fast food frying. Ideally, the amount of trans fats consumed would be at zero, but since they are nearly unavoidable in commercially processed foods, look at the labels. Now, all Nutrition Facts Labels on foods must list them.

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Substitutions or Replacements

Here are some basic choices to consider when choosing which fats to use in cooking.

  • Milk: Use skim or reduced-fat in place of whole milk, or try low-fat buttermilk.
  • Cream: Use evaporated skim milk instead. It can also be used in place of whipped cream for a sweetened whipped topping.
  • Eggs: The yolk contains all the cholesterol. Replace an egg with two whites instead, or 1/4 cup of a liquid egg substitute for every egg.
  • Shortening: Sometimes you just have to use it, as in the case of pie crusts and quick breads like biscuits. Use only trans fat-free shortening, or try a replacement as suggested for butter below.
  • Butter: In baking, as in the case of cookies and cakes, try replacing part of the total amount of butter with yogurt or mashed fruit like bananas and applesauce (good for muffins and quick breads).