Those of you old enough to remember the late 1980s will recall those dark days when “fat,” in virtually any form, was about the most reviled substance in America. It was worse than sugar. Worse than salt. Worse even than carbolic acid, quicksand, coal ash, or plutonium.
Diet gurus, fitness buffs, and even a fair number of well-credentialed healthcare professionals fingered it as the prime culprit behind the nation’s obesity epidemic. Packaged-goods companies reformulated everything from crackers to yogurt to lunch meat in low- and no-fat varieties. McDonald’s launched the McLean Deluxe. Chaos and confusion reigned.
Fast-forward 25 years or so, and the American dietary terrain looks a whole lot different. We’re at war with added sugars; the Mediterranean diet—rife with olive oil and nuts rich in “good” fats—has been hailed by no less an authority than the Mayo Clinic as a heart-healthy eating plan. And even hardcore triathletes recognize that purging fat from the diet isn’t a winning performance strategy.
Consumers, understandably, have been a bit whipsawed. “With research coming in at breakneck speed in recent years, even experts have a hard time agreeing about which fats we should consume, and in what exact proportions, to improve our health and prevent chronic disease,” Consumer Reports wrote in 2013.
This column won’t attempt to sort out the conflicting data or weigh in on which fats are “good” and which are “bad.” But I will attempt to offer for your consideration a reasonably thorough survey of many of the interesting, delicious, and versatile fats now being adopted for their flavors, textures, and reputed health benefits.
Fruits and grains
If the only time you think of avocados is when you’re ordering guacamole, allow me to be blunt: You’re totally missing out. This sumptuous fruit is rich in both mono- and polyunsaturated fats as well as fiber, and it can be deployed in everything from spreads to garnishes, sauces, soups, dressings, and desserts. In addition, its oil can be extracted and used for frying—its smoke point is higher than olive oil’s.
Coconut has seen its reputation burnished in recent years, and we at CCD Innovation are seeing its flesh used increasingly in applications as varied as condiments, syrups, jams, spreads, and savory snacks. Palm oil, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm, is not to be confused with palm kernel oil, which is taken from the seeds and has a much higher saturated fat content. The former is increasingly being used in place of butter in baking or spreads. Finally, there’s rice bran oil, which is low in saturated fat, high in vitamin E, and excellent for pan-frying.
Nuts and seeds
Speaking of foods that have undergone a major reputational rehabilitation, it’s time to get reacquainted with nuts—a “nutritional powerhouse,” according to a March 30 entry in The New York Times’ Well Blog, which referenced two large studies that linked consumption of nuts with a lower likelihood of dying at any age. So bring on the almonds (confections, desserts, beverages, sauces, and ice creams), cashews (often used in vegan cheeses, beverages, and desserts), and pistachios (oils, dressings, and sauces). And seeds, chia, flax, grapeseed oil, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sacha inchi—a Peruvian delicacy that looks like large Macadamia nuts is are rich in protein and omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids—are well worth incorporating into salads, veggie patties, stir fries, or other applications.
Traditional options in moderation
While most of the items noted above fall under the general heading of fats that most experts seem to feel are “good” these days, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that there is also a place—a smaller place, but a place nonetheless—for fats that add tremendous flavor in smaller quantities, but that aren’t hailed as boons for the cardiovascular system. In moderation, fats such as butter, beef fat, pork fat, chicken fat (or schmaltz), and duck fat can have a transformational impact when used in frying or baking, and they remain among the most versatile and consistent fats for cooking.
Think of these fats more as salt and pepper—as seasonings that impart a distinctive flavor used sparingly. Then, combine them with a “good” fat to help offset the real or perceived health negatives.
For me, both as a chef and as a menu-development professional, it’s been gratifying to see oils and fats return to the American diet in a healthier, more thoughtful way. Being more discriminating about the ingredients we select in the interest of taste, texture, health, functionality, and overall product performance is a win-win both for consumers and for the quick-serve chains that serve them. So let’s raise a glass—or maybe a tablespoon would be more appropriate—to the fats that make the foods we love taste great.