Wednesdays with Whitney: Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats

“Help! What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat? That darn food label is some confusing!”


Who is ready for a chemistry lesson? Let me assure you--chemistry class was not my strong suite. So, I will try to make this as painless for us all as possible.

Saturated fatty acids have as many hydrogen atoms as possible attached to their molecular chain hence the term saturated (with hydrogen). These fats are usually solid at room temperature. Think of the white marbling in a steak or chewy fat on a chicken-wing. Animal-based foods, for example, are typically mostly saturated fats, including fat in cheese, lard, and butter. Tropical vegetable oils like coconut, palm kernel and palm, and cocoa butter are also mostly saturated fat as compared to other plant-based foods.


Now, unsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, are lacking hydrogen (therefore, unsaturated). Further, there are different types of unsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The difference here is the number of double bonds, but we won’t get into that. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Canola, olive, peanut and high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils contain lots of monounsaturated fatty acids. Avocados are another common food containing high monounsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids differ in the location of their double bounds categorizing them as omega-3 fatty acids (linoleic acid) or omega-6 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid). Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because our body does not create them. Omega-9 fatty acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, can be made in the body if we have enough omega-3 and omega-6. Many folks supplement with fish oil for added omega-3’s. These can also be obtained through the food you eat via salmon, flax seeds, walnuts, and a variety of other foods.


The fat in the foods we eat is a combination of the different types of fats. The various proportions determine the overall health of the food, among other considerations. If we look at meat and fish, fish has more polyunsaturated fat while meat has more saturated fat, they both have unsaturated and saturated fats and they both tend to have more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat.


Phew, no wonder they don’t put all of that on the food label! Under the TOTAL FAT section of the Nutrition Facts label it is broken down into saturated fat, trans fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat. An eating pattern higher in unsaturated fat and lower in saturated fat is recommended. Varying your intake of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats is beneficial.

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