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Ayurveda considers ghee the best oil to cook with, as well as the best oil for your health. Ghee is said to balance all three Doshas, the controlling principles of the body. Ghee is the pure oil extracted from butter and we’ve all been told that animal fats are supposed to be bad for us. So why do all Ayurvedic practitioners recommend ghee and why is ghee used in so many Ayurvedic preparations?

Before we go into why some oils or fats are considered good for us, and some bad, let’s first look at why out bodies need oils and fats in the first place.

The fat in our body

We need oils and fats for a variety of reasons:

  • We need dietary fat to make tissues and to manufacture various biochemicals, such as hormones.
  • Vegetable oils and animal fats help our body create fat tissue. This tissue is called Medha in Ayurveda.
  • Fat tissue gives padding and protection to our bones and internal organs. It also insulates the body to prevent heat loss.
  • Fats are an important source of energy for the body. Fats have more than twice the energy potential of proteins or carbohydrates.
  • Fat tissue keeps our skin from drying up and keeps our hair full-bodied and supple.
  • Every cell has a membrane that holds the cell components together and fat tissue is an essential component of this membrane.
  • Fats enable us to absorb certain nutrients.

It’s clear that our body needs a regular supply of oils through our diet. But will any fats do? Are all oils equally useful?

Not all oils are created equal

One way of classifying animal fats and vegetable oils is by determining how much saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids they contain. This classification depends on the proportion of hydrogen to carbon atoms in a fatty acid molecule (one of the building blocks of fat).

The more liquid forms of oil have a lower proportion of hydrogen to carbon. The more solid oils have a higher proportion of hydrogen to carbon.

Vegetable oils and animal fats are normally composed of a mixture of different fatty acids. Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fat, but it has a small amount of polyunsaturated fat. Lard has an equal proportion of saturated fat to monounsaturated fat, but it also contains some polyunsaturated fat.

Apart from palm, coconut, and olive oils, most vegetable oils are high in polyunsaturated fats. Most animal fats are high in saturated and monounsaturated fats.

Our body generally finds saturated and monounsaturated fats more easy to assimilate than polyunsaturated fats. Also, because our body tissues are mostly made up of saturated and monounsaturated fats, we require more of them than polyunsaturated fats.

Are butter, lard and bacon fat truly evil?

For decades we’ve been told that saturated fats are major ‘baddies’ in our diet and particularly bad for our heart. We’ve been told to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fats, such as coconut oil, meat, eggs, and dairy products. Meanwhile, the food industry has made lots of revenue by creating a new food category called ‘low fat’.

What fats did our great grandparents eat?

Now let’s look back at what fats people ate a hundred years ago. At the beginning of the 20th century ‘low fat’ was an unknown concept. People’s major fat intake was from dairy products or from meat. Yet, at that time, fewer than one in a hundred Europeans and Americans were obese and coronary heart disease was rare. The better health that our forefathers enjoyed can be attributed to the fact that they generally ate far less meat and fats than we do today and they had a far less sedentary lifestyle. But it could also have something to do with changes in the type of fats we now eat.

Crisco vegetable shortening vs lard

In 1911, Procter and Gamble started marketing an animal fat substitute called Crisco as a new kind of food. Originally used to make candles and soap, Crisco was promoted as a ‘healthier’ alternative to lard.

A prolonged series of marketing campaigns gradually converted American housewives from lard to Crisco, as their cooking fat of choice. At the same time Crisco, and many similar products (collectively called shortening), increasingly found their way into processed foods all over the western world, including the UK. Crisco was the first of many such animal fat substitutes, the main ingredient of which is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, or trans fatty acids. These products were originally created from cottonseed oil and more recently from soybean oil. The cheapness of these oils was the main reason for their use.

How fatty are your acids?

The margarine concept was first patented in 1869 and the original commercial product was mostly composed of beef fat. Later on, and mostly for cost reasons, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were used in the margarine production. Hydrogenation involves passing hydrogen through oil in the presence of a metal catalyst. This increases the melting point of the oil and “hardens” it. When oils are partially hardened into what is known as partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are produced.

Go to part 2 to learn more…