The Gazette - 2009-03-14 - MARIAN SCOTT

Know the fats of the land

The notion that some fat is actually good for you is welcome news to those of us who would rather slather butter on a crusty baguette than eat sweets.

But before you rush out and order a bacon-cheeseburger with fries, remember that not all fats are created equal, warns Catherine Field, a professor of nutrition at the University of Alberta.

And a little bit goes a long way, since one gram of fat has nine calories, compared to four calories for one gram of protein or carbohydrates.

Here’s a primer on which fats pull their nutritional weight and which to avoid. Thumbs up: oily fish

Fish like mackerel, herring, salmon and sardines are rich in omega-3 fats, shown to protect against heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline and other disorders. Health Canada recommends at least two servings a week of these fish. Wild salmon have much higher concentrations of omega-3 than farmed fish because of the algae they feed on. Thumbs down: trans fat

Man-made trans fats were born when the food industry discovered it could combine hydrogen with vegetable oil to create fats that remain solid at room temperature, like hard margarine and shortening. Trans fats extend the shelf life of foods and give them a more tempting texture, but there is a major downside: They are now known to raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary artery disease. Many packaged foods and fast foods contain trans fat, including commercial baked goods, cookies, crackers, frozen prepared foods and fast food. Federal guidelines recommend that trans fat in food products should not exceed five per cent of total fat content for most foods, or two per cent for soft margarine. But a recent survey by Health Canada found 117 out of 517 products exceeded those recommended limits. Supermarket croissants and cookies were among the worst offenders. For more information: gras-trans-fats/index-eng.php. Thumbs up: olive oil

Olive oil, star of the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to help protect against heart disease by reducing bad LDL cholesterol. Extra-virgin olive oil, derived from the first pressing, is rich in antioxidants, substances in food that may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Pour it on salad, dip your bread in it and use it for cooking at low to moderate heat. Olive oil is sensitive to heat and light, so choose small bottles. If you do buy it in a large container, pour a small amount into a dispenser for daily use and keep the rest in the fridge. Thumbs down: margarine and shortening

For years, dietitians recommended margarine over butter. Now, hard margarine and other partially hydrogenated fats have been proved to be more harmful than oldfashioned butter. But what about baking? Chef and cookbook author Jennifer McLagan (www.jennifer steers clear of partially hydrogenated fats. She bakes with butter, or obtains lard or suet fresh from a butcher. Soft margarines are often advertised as free of trans fats, but be wary: A Health Canada survey conducted in 2007 found some brands contained as much as 21 per cent trans fats. Thumbs up: pasture-raised meat and dairy products

We are what we eat, the saying goes. Now, research suggests the same may be true of the creatures we eat. The meat and milk of pasture-raised animals contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), believed to protect against disease and boost metabolism. Researchers at the University of Alberta are investigating the potential benefits of vaccenic acid, another naturally occurring trans fat that has been shown to reduce bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in the blood considered to be an indicator for heart-disease risk) in laboratory rats. The eggs of free-range chickens that peck on insects and green plants have been found to contain higher concentrations of omega-3 than those of factoryfarmed hens.

For information on where to buy pastureraised meat, visit en/agriculture/paniersBios/index.php. Thumbs down: deep-fried fast food

The fast-food industry has made strides in reducing trans fats, but problems remain. In January 2008, Health Canada sampled french fries, onion rings, hash browns and chicken from Burger King and found their fat content consisted of up to 41 per cent trans fat. A subsequent visit in May noted that levels had dropped to 24 per cent or less.

Last month, Health Canada added acrylamide, a chemical produced when potatoes are fried at high temperature, to Canada’s toxic-substances list.