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Live to Eat Newsletter by The Healthy Butcher

A Guide to Cooking Oils – Part 1: Understanding Fat

Talking about oil means talking about fat, as they are one and the same thing. FAT, you know, that three letter word that has for some backward reason become taboo in our society. Shhh… Oh my God (or “OMG” as the kids say), don’t say fat, she’ll hear you. Let’s get something straight: Consuming fat does not make you fat. Consuming an excess of fat, especially the wrong types of fat, makes you fat. Consuming an excess of carbohydrates and starches makes you fat. Living a sedentary lifestyle, while consuming enough calories to be a bricklayer, makes you fat. But consuming fat, in and of itself, does not make you fat. Conversely, not consuming fat will kill you. Fat is an essential part of your diet. It provides an amazing source of energy, aids in brain development, and helps your body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. Did you know that the human brain is composed 60% of fat!1 Use some of that fat now, and think about this fascinating notion - the most wondrous and complex organ in the human body, one that masterfully orchestrates trillions of daily activities for all of us – is primarily composed of fat. Think about the ludicrousness of a "low fat" diet, and the general fear we have of fat.  Fat was the centerpiece of the human diet for thousands of years, minus the last thirty years. Why have we abruptly moved away from the knowledge that our ancestors gained from thousands of years of evolution?

Fat is a big topic (no pun intended). And to know about what oils to use in your kitchen is the difference between not only being a good cook, but more importantly ensuring you and your family stay healthy for years to come. That seemingly simple decision of grabbing an oil, pouring some in your pan, and applying heat has long term ramifications to your health.

In this edition we proudly present Toronto author Jennifer McLagan, who lays the foundation of this topic by taking us through the history of fat, the science behind fat, and why fat is good for our health. In a couple of weeks we will send out Part 2, which will set out the list of oils we believe are the best to use for cooking.  Enjoy.

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A Guide to Cooking Oils – Part 1:
Understanding Fat


Fat-Jennifer McLagan-CoverArt

Reprinted with permission from

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes

by Jennifer McLagan

Copyright © 2008. Published by McClelland & Stewart.

Introduction:  A Matter of Fat

I love fat, whether it's a slice of foie gras terrine, its layer of yellow fat melting at the edges; rich, soft marrow scooped hot from the bone; French butter from Normandy, redolent of herbs, flowers, and cream; hot bacon fat, spiked with vinegar, wilting a plate of pungent greens into submission; a slice or two of fine ham eaten just as its fat begins to turn translucent from the warmth of the room, sweet, nutty, and salty all at once; or a piece of crunchy pork crackling, delicious either hot or cold. I love fat: I love the way it feels in my mouth, and I love its many tastes.

As a cook and a person who loves food, I can't imagine my food without fat. I grew up in suburban Australia in the 1960s, and there were always at least three different fats in our refrigerator: butter, lard, and dripping. Close to Christmas and during the winter there would also be suet in the freezer, waiting to be mixed into mincemeat or transformed into dumplings and pudding. The butter had its own special dish, complete with a lid to protect its delicate flavor from any strong odors lurking in the refrigerator. The snowy-colored lard came from our butcher packaged in a white, waxed cardboard container, and next to it sat a ceramic jar filled with meat dripping. The dripping was homemade, the fat from roasted meats carefully poured into a bowl and left to solidify, forming a creamy beige layer suspended on top of dark jelly That dripping was an essential base for a roast beef sandwich.

These fats were indispensable in our kitchen: we used lard and dripping to cook, while the butter was for bread, toast, and cakes. On the weekends, breakfast began with thick rashers of bacon cooked until they became crisp and oozed their fat into the pan. Then the eggs and, best of all, thick slices of day-old bread were added. Cooked in bacon fat, the bread became crunchy and full of the smoky; salty taste of bacon. We ate dumplings and puddings made with suet, fried our vegetables in beef dripping, and enjoyed buttery cookies. Once or twice a month we stopped at the local-fish-and-chip shop to indulge in hand-cut potatoes and thick slices of golden battered shark, euphemistically called "flake," which was cooked until crisp in hot, bubbling tallow and served with pickled onions. We ate fat with pleasure, and although we weren't a family of supermodels, none of us had a weight problem. We ate sensibly and, despite living in the suburbs, we walked.

Today, most people live more sedentary lives, driving instead of walking, and eating processed or takeout food more often than freshly cooked. As our lifestyles changed we gained weight, and it was easy to blame fat. Fat, we reasoned, was why we packed on the pounds and got ill, so we banned animal fat from our lives. Butter and lard disappeared from our kitchens, and we cut the fat off our meat. We've replaced traditional animal fats with vegetable oils, and we gobble up everything with a "low-fat" label. We have sacrificed all that taste and pleasure, yet we haven't lost weight or improved our health. When I say "we," I am generalizing: it is in North America in particular where eating is often seen as a necessary evil and fat is the most frequently demonized. Cultures that celebrate the pleasures of the table appear able to enjoy fat while still maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The French, for example, are cited as lucky people who can eat tubs of fat yet still maintain a normal body weight. But it's their love of food, combined with modest portion sizes and no grazing between meals, that is keeping them thin. They are both a model and a warning. As the French youth adopt the bad habits of snacking, eating on the run, and consuming industrial foods laden with hidden fat, guess what? They're gaining weight, too.

We have never been more obsessed with diet, exercise, and cutting the fat out of our food as we are in the new millennium, and never have we been fatter or unhealthier. Our approach to food is schizophrenic: if we enjoy a meal that has a lot of flavor, and therefore fat, we punish ourselves with a salad and a low-fat dressing from a bottle. There is something fundamentally wrong when, in a society of plenty, we fear what is on our plate, seeing our food as a poison (or, alternatively, as a medicine). I would argue that we are not just frightened of fat, but we are also fearful of pleasure. Eating is essential to life, and it is a pleasure that we can share with friends and enjoy in public. It should be a happy experience, not a torturous trial. How did we come to this?

How Fat Lost its Luster

From the beginning of human history until the middle of the last century the word fat had positive connotations. People lived off "the fat of the land" and everybody was happy to receive a "fat paycheck." Fat was valuable and useful. The best meat was well marbled and had a good coating of fat, and only the plumpest chicken was selected for the pot. Fat was an integral part of our diet, and those who didn't eat enough were sickly and often died. People living in extreme conditions, like the Inuit and the vived only because their food was high in fat. Eating fat and being a little plump was a sign of prosperity and health; no one wanted to be thin.

Inuit - Eating Blubber 

According to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the early-nineteenth century French epicure:

Every thin woman wants to grow plump: that is an avowal which has been made to us a thousand times. Therefore it is in order to pay homage to the all-powerful sex that we are going to try here to tell how to replace with living flesh those pads of silk and cotton which are displayed so profusely in novelty shops, to the obvious horror of the prudish, who pass them by with a shudder, turning away from such shadows with even more care than if it were actuality they looked upon.

How odd Brillat-Savarin's advice sounds to us today, when it seems that everyone is on a diet or watching his or her weight. Fat is no longer seen as valuable, and being plump is considered a health risk. Fat is no longer admired or associated with wealth, and, worse still, the fat in our food is now inexorably linked to the fat on our bodies. So our fear of getting fat makes us choose low-fat meats and eat lean chicken. How our view of fat was turned on its head in just a couple of generations is a complicated story.

One strand of the story is rooted in a concern for our health. In the 1950s, coronary heart disease emerged as a leading cause of death. Scientists searched for reasons to explain this phenomenon, and one hypothesis suggested that the increase in heart disease might be related to the cholesterol levels in our blood. Soon a theory was advanced suggesting that increased consumption of animal fat raised our cholesterol levels and resulted in heart disease. The link between cholesterol, saturated fat, and heart disease was only associative, not causal, and it did not account for the fact that some populations that eat diets high in animal fats (such as the French and the Inuit eating their traditional diet) don't have high rates of heart disease. During the following two decades science failed to prove conclusively that there was any direct connection between eating saturated fats and developing heart disease, but the theory persisted. Then, in 1977, the theory gained widespread credence when the U.S. Congress endorsed it. Americans were urged by no lesser authority than their government to reduce their fat intake for the sake of their health. Thousands of years of human history showing the importance of animal fat in our diet were overlooked, and instead it was labeled the greasy killer. While many experts still promoted a diet including eggs, meat, and animal fat, their voices were drowned out by industry and science. "Low-fat" and "nonfat" became the new mantras, and since none of us wants to die any sooner than is absolutely necessary; we also obediently replaced the cholesterol-containing animal fats in our diet with new, man-made ones.

The first man-made fat was margarine, created in 1869 to replace butter. Although it was cheaper than butter, it wasn't an immediate hit. At the beginning of the twentieth century, lard, tallow, chicken fat, and butter were the top four fats in our kitchens. With the discovery of how to extract oil from plants and the development of the hydrogenation process, the number of industrial fats multiplied, and they became even cheaper. These new fats were slow to gain widespread popularity; but the food industry loved them. They were inexpensive and extended the shelf life of baked and fried products, so they were soon incorporated into food products and prepared foods. When animal fat came to be associated with heart disease, these new oils and spreads were marketed as a healthy alternative, and their sales took off. By the end of the the twentieth century; not one animal fat made the list of the most popular fats for cooking; they had all been replaced by vegetable oils.

The campaign against animal fat was very successful, and it didn't top with cooking fats. The obsession with low-fat spread to our meat. We rejected marbled beef, fatty pork, and plump birds, so producers responded by breeding leaner animals. Today few of us can look at a slice of pork belly or consider a well-marbled steak without a pang of guilt or, worse, fear, even though that pork belly and steak are much leaner than they were thirty years ago. We lack the positive flavor memory that fat should trigger. This fear of fat extends to everything-especially butter. Recently scientists announced they have successfully bred a cow to give low-fat milk. Does that mean no more cream or butter?

Fat was also attacked on a second front. Not just bad for our health, fat became socially unacceptable. In North America, we are surrounded by cheap, plentiful food, and since in a society of plenty anybody can get fat, being plump no longer represents wealth. "You can never be too rich or too thin," the Duchess of Windsor is quoted as saying, and being thin has become the new ideal. To be thin is to be beautiful, rich, successful, and powerful, a message reinforced daily by advertising, movies, and the fashion industry. Your weight reveals on which side of the divide you stand: rich or poor, powerful or impotent, with or without self-control. Fat has become entangled not only with health concerns but also with aesthetics, politics, and morals.

Bombarded from all sides by the food industry; medical celebrities, science, the government, and the media, how could we not be convinced? The amount of animal fat in our diet has declined, and we eat less than a quarter of the butter and a fifth of the lard that we ate in 1900, and low-fat proponents claim this is why there are fewer deaths from heart disease today. However, a closer look at the data reveals that it is improved medical care that is responsible for the decline. The actual rates of heart disease haven't abated, and obesity; diabetes, and cancer rates are all on the rise. What went wrong?

Fat Science

The relationship between what we eat and how our bodies react to it is very complex, and it wasn't smart to dismiss thousands of years of empirical evidence. Eating animal fat didn't kill our ancestors, and there is no proof that a low-fat diet improves our health or lengthens our life, let alone makes us beautiful, rich, or powerful. The best computer projections generated by fat researchers reveal that a low-fat diet may add a mere two weeks to our life. Is it worth it? I don't think so, though an existence without flavorful fat would seem very long indeed.

We need to rethink our relationship with fat. After decades of low-fat propaganda, most of what we think we know about fat just isn't true:

All animal fats are saturated. Wrong.
Eating fat makes us fat. Wrong.
A low-fat diet is good for us. Wrong.

To understand the role of fat in our food we must understand the science of fat, so here is a very simplified science lesson. All fats are lipids, which is to say they don't dissolve in water: this is why we can skim them off our stock. There is no such thing as a completely saturated or completely unsaturated fat: every fat is a combination of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are simply chains of carbon atoms with pairs of hydrogen atoms attached at each link. If each link in the chain has its two hydrogen atoms, it is a saturated fatty acid; if the chain is missing one pair of hydrogen atoms, it is monounsaturated; and if it is missing two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms, it is polyunsaturated.

Molecular Structure of Fat 

The location in the chain of the missing hydrogen atoms is important both to scientists and to our bodies. An omega-3 fatty acid is missing its pair of hydrogen atoms three links from the end of its chain. (Since scientists love Greek, and omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, you can see why it is called an omega-3 fatty acid.) An omega-6 fatty acid has no hydrogen atoms attached to the sixth link from the end of its chain. These two fatty acids are usually singled out for special mention because they are what are known as essential fatty acids, or EFAs. The body makes other types of fatty acids, but not EFAs, so they must be ingested. The length of the fatty acid's chain is also important. Fatty acids with short and medium chains are quickly metabolized, while the body tends to store fatty acids with longer chains.

Because saturated fatty acids have a chain complete with all its pairs of hydrogen atoms, they are firm at room temperature and very stable. Saturated fatty acids, like stearic acid, a common saturated fatty acid found in beef and lamb fats, are less vulnerable to heat and oxygen and don't turn rancid easily. Monounsaturated fatty acids are softer than saturated fats at room temperature because they are missing a single pair of hydrogen molecules, but they are almost as stable and slow to turn rancid. The most common monounsaturated fatty acid is oleic acid, which is found in pork and beef fats. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms missing from their chains, making them liquid at room temperature. They are very fragile and turn rancid quickly.

The final group of fatty acids is the trans fatty acids. These are the fats everyone is talking about. They are created when liquid or polyunsaturated fatty acids are made solid at room temperature by the addition of hydrogen. These are all man-made, except for the one natural trans fatty acid, conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, which is found in butter and fat from ruminants. This natural trans fat is good for us, credited with fighting cancer and preventing weight gain and heart disease. CLA was the only trans fat we ate up until the twentieth century, but now we consume huge amounts of man-made trans fatty acids in prepared food products. While it is possible to hydrogenate any fat - lard is sometimes hydrogenated to prolong its shelf life, for example - most of the trans fatty acid we eat is in hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Finally, we need to take a look at cholesterol, because it is always linked to animal fat. Cholesterol is often described as a fatty substance, but it is actually a sterol or type of alcohol found in all animal protein. Our cell membranes and much of our brains are made of cholesterol. Our vital organs need cholesterol to work, and our bodies use it to repair themselves. Cholesterol is important to our health, and recent studies have linked low cholesterol levels with certain diseases, depression, and an increased risk of infection. Our understanding of cholesterol is continually evolving, and the ideal cholesterol level is hotly debated, as is the net effect of dietary cholesterol on blood or serum cholesterol, whether high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called good cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol.


Why Fat is Important in the Kitchen

So now we understand that there is no such a thing as a completely saturated or unsaturated fat, and that all fats are a combination of the two. Butter contains 50 percent saturated fat, while lard is only 39 percent saturated and duck fat a mere 33 percent. But why should we care about the saturation of fat at all? And why don't we just cook and eat without fat?

Since humans made their first fire, fat has been an important cooking medium. Cooking without fat is very difficult; fat keeps our food succulent in the heat of the oven and stops it from sticking to the pan. Fats that can be heated to high temperatures are indispensable for frying; they make our food appetizingly brown, adding caramelized flavors and a crisp texture. The best fats for all these roles are those higher in saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids because, unlike vegetable oils, which are typically high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, they are stable and don't turn rancid easily when heated. Fat is also critical to the flavor of our food: without it, meat has no real taste. In addition, without marbling and external fat to baste and tenderize them, lean meats become tough and dry as you cook them. Many aromas and flavors are soluble only in fat, so unless you use fat in your cooking, they are not released. Fat, then, adds, carries, and helps us taste flavor. Fat's molecules are big, round, and smooth and they feel good in our mouth; think of the pleasurable sensation of butter melting on your tongue. Fat is the body's preferred fuel, providing us with more than twice the amount of energy as the same quantity of carbohydrates and protein. It helps the body to absorb nutrients, calcium, and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat and protein are found together in nature because it's the fat that helps us digest the protein, so it makes good sense to eat a well-marbled steak, or a roast chicken with crispy skin. Because fat is digested slowly, eating it leaves us feeling sated, and we're less likely to snack between meals. Eat the right fats and you'll probably lose weight! And, as we all know, fat tastes good. Scientists now believe that we may have a taste receptor for fat and speculate that fat is the sixth taste. Fat may belong alongside salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (a savory taste associated with amino acids, the building blocks of protein), the five tastes that govern the flavor of food.

Whether or not it's the sixth taste, I rest my case: fat is fundamental to the flavor of our food and essential for cooking it. So let's cook our French fries in lard, spread our bread with butter, make our pastry with real animal fats, grill a well-marbled steak, and enjoy them all.

Why Fat is Good For Our Health

Fat is just as indispensable to our health as it is to our cooking. Every cell in our body needs fat, our brain and hormones rely on fat to function, and fat supports our immune system, fights disease, and protects our liver. Fat promotes good skin and healthy hair, and it regulates our digestive system and leaves us feeling sated. Yet after more than 30 years of reducing our intake of animal fats, we are not healthier, but only heavier. Diets low in fat, it turns out, leave people hungry, depressed, and prone to weight gain and illness. We reduced the animal fat in our diet but increased our intake of sugars and other refined carbohydrates, then were surprised when we got fat. We shouldn't have been. Up until recently, everyone understood that fat and protein were satisfying and starches and sugar made you fat. Animals are fattened for slaughter by feeding them grains, and the same applies to us. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the famed French food writer of the early nineteenth century; once wrote, "The second principal cause of obesity lies in the starches and flours which man uses as the base of his daily nourishment. As we have already stated, all animals who live on farinaceous foods grow fat whether they will or no; man follows the common rule." Dr. Robert Atkins, perhaps the most famous modern proponent of the idea that fat doesn't make you fat, carbohydrates do, became successful advocating a diet based on this old truism.

All fats, however, are not equal. We have reduced our intake of animal fats, but at the same time the total amount of fat in our diet has increased. We have replaced animal fats with man-made hydrogenated fats, which are full of trans fats. These trans fats are difficult for our body to process, so instead it stores them as fat. They adversely affect our cholesterol levels by increasing LDL and lowering HDL, and they interfere with insulin production, promoting diabetes and obesity. It is now understood how dangerous trans fats are, and in 2002 the Institute of Medicine declared that there is no safe level of trans fat in our food.

The other dietary fats we've been using to replace animal fats are polyunsaturated salad and cooking oils. Polyunsaturated fats that are not hydrogenated are very unstable and oxidize easily, especially when heated, so they are not good to cook with. Oxidized fat makes us sick and damages our cells' DNA. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also dangerous because they suppress our immune system, and our increased consumption of them has affected the balance of the essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3 in our bodies. An ideal ratio would be around two to one - twice as much omega-6 as omega-3-but by replacing animal fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, many of us now consume up to twenty times more omega-6 than omega-3. An excess of omega-6 has been linked to cancer, heart disease, liver damage, learning disorders, weight gain, and malfunction of the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems. While our consumption of omega-6 has skyrocketed, our sources of omega-3 fatty acids are vanishing. Meat and butter from grass-fed animals contain omega-3, but animals raised on a diet high in grains are full of omega-6 fatty acids. Too much omega-6 in our diet also inhibits our intake of omega-3.

In the last hundred years our diet has changed more dramatically than at any other time in our history As food has become cheaper and more plentiful we've increased our caloric intake, and the sources of those calories have changed radically. We now eat more trans fats, more sugars, more processed foods, and large amounts of vegetable oils. We need to stop and think about what we are eating and why. Animal fat was an important part of our diet until quite recently. Our experiment with reducing it hasn't made us healthier, and it has robbed our food of taste. Human nutrition is complex, and no two bodies function in the same way, but for the majority of us, eating animal fat isn't the death sentence we have been led to believe. Rather, there are many health benefits associated with eating good animal fats. While I am confident the tide is turning for animal fat, there is still a lot of ground to be regained. Fear of fat is instilled into our consciousness, and we are a generation that knows everything about olive oil but has no idea what good butter tastes like, let alone what to do with lard or suet.

Not only has our diet changed, but also how we think about food. Science has broken down what we eat into the sum of its parts - fat, protein, carbohydrates, micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, and an expanding array of trace compounds that may help us or harm us - and in doing so has turned eating from a pleasure into a minefield where we fear a wrong choice will kill us. And while I have talked a lot about the science of fat, I've done so in an attempt to convince you of something our ancestors knew instinctively: fat is good. We all need to reevaluate our relationship with what we eat. We have become disconnected from the source of our food, and this has led to a loss of knowledge about our food on all levels, from how to buy it and cook it to what we should eat. We are a generation that is computer literate but food illiterate. I am not talking about being up with the latest food trends, but the ability to cook a simple meal from scratch, perhaps the most important skill any of us can have. We all have to eat, and if we know how to cook, we will understand what we are eating, and thus maintain a culture of food. If we don't act, we'll doom generations to relinquishing control over what they eat to big food producers.

We now spend less than 10 percent of our total income on food, and almost half of that meager amount is spent outside the home. We spend less time sourcing our food, less time preparing it, and even less time eating it. Not having time is no excuse; we must make time. The act of cooking and sharing a meal is essential to mankind; it is part of what makes us human. It forges bonds, promotes friendship, and leads to the discussion of ideas. It is a basic building block of civilization. To share and pass on the knowledge of food means being active participants, not passively watching celebrity chefs and then ordering take-out food. It requires understanding where our food comes from, respecting the animals we kill, and being able to cook them - all of them, including the fat. We must take back the responsibility for what we eat, and for how our food is raised. By enjoying and appreciating our food we will not only restore our own health and that of our animals, but we will also restore the pleasures of the table and maintain a culture of food.

Jennifer McLagan is the author of a brilliant trilogy of books:
Bones; Fat:
An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes;
and Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal
Bones Fat-Jennifer McLagan-CoverArt Odd Bits
She is also the host of a new show called Odd Bits.  You you can view the Sizzler Reel by clicking here, or view the complete pilot show by clicking here.


1 Michael A. Schmidt, PhD. Brain-Building Nutrition - How Dietary Fats and OIls Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional Intelligence. (Berkeley: Frog, Ltd., 2007) xv.

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