Functional Food Design Rules – part 3

In part 1 I wrote about proteins as ingredients in functional food design. In part 2 I touched on carbohydrates in the same role, and this part 3 of the Functional Food Design Rules is dedicated to the third and last macro nutrient – fats or lipids (Greek for “fat”).

For a good primer on fats I suggest that you read this. In this article I am not going to discuss the biochemistry of fats extensively – you can read about it here. I will be more concerned with fats as they relate to cooking and baking, but I will also provide my “two cents” regarding what fats are more beneficial for human health and thus make for true functional foods design.

Fats and oils

Role of Fats in Cooking

In cooking fats are use for the following important reasons:

  • fats are the main molecules that carry flavor in foods
  • fats provide smoothness and creaminess
  • fats have large molecules and because of that they tenderize (their molecules increase the distance between starch, sugar and protein molecules)
  • fats have a lot higher boiling point than water and allow for cooking at higher temperatures than the boiling point of water (which is 100 C or 212 F). Because of this property they dry out the food surface and provide for a more crisp texture on the outside
  • fats are more viscous, which positively impacts food palatability and mouth sensation (creams are more palatable than skim milk)
  • fats assist in browning reactions (Maillard, caramelization – flavor increasing reactions) because of the higher temperatures of cooking that they allow

Role of Fats in Baking

In bread making fats:

  • lubricate the dough and make it more pliable
  • prevent stickiness
  • reduce the amount of dusting flour needed
  • tenderize
  • provide expansion of the loaf
  • produce softer and chewier crumb
  • improve keeping qualities/retard staling

In cake making fats:

  • help incorporate air during mixing and increase the volume of the cake
  • tenderize
  • are used in icings

In cookies fats:

  • provide the spread of the cookie
  • provide tenderness
  • prevent the excessive formation of gluten during mixing (if wheat flour is used)

In pies fats :

  • provide flakiness
  • provide tenderness, taste, palatability
  • extend shelf life

Types of Fats Used In Cooking and Baking 

Fats in cooking include solid fats at room temperature (mostly saturated) and liquid fats at room temperature – oils (mostly mono- and polyunsaturated). In this article I refer to both of them as fats. When I talk about oils specifically I will use the word “oils”.

There are three major groups of fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Generally, all of them are used in cooking and baking for the simple reason that, whatever the fat source, it almost always is a combination of all three major groups of fats.

As far as both human health and cooking qualities are concerned, the best fats to use in cooking are saturated or primarily saturated fats, like beef tallow, lard, clarified butter (ghee), palm and palm kernel oils (and shortenings), cacao and shea butter. The reason is these types of fats are less prone to rancidity (oxidation).

Next in the list of fats are oils with primarily monounsaturated composition, such as olive oil and high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils (not the regular version of the last two – they are too high in polyunsaturated fats, which means more oxidation and higher risk of systemic inflammation, due to the high Omega-6 content). Monounsaturated fats tend to oxidize during cooking but not as easily as primarily polyunsaturated oils. Their shelf life is also longer compared to poly- fats.

One last note on monounsaturates. These oils, although liquid at room temperature, are semi-solid when refrigerated. These properties can be used in baking  especially when producing pie crusts or other types of flake dough when the baker (for whatever reason) has to avoid the use of saturated fats.

Obviously, high in polyunsaturated fatty acids oils should not be used in cooking – especially high-temperature cooking, like deep frying. What are these oils? They include many of the seed and grain (industrial revolution) oils, like cottonseed, corn, sunflower and safflower (not the high-oleic version), walnut, grapeseed and soyabeen oil. Canola oil (naturally-bred from rapeseed oil but not a natural process of oil extraction – uses solvents). Canola oil falls within this group of oils not only because if its high Omega-6 content, which is not as high as the rest of the oils listed in this paragraph, but because it contains a type of monounsaturated fat with questionable properties as far as human health goes – erucic acid (1, 2, 3). Granted, ill effects were shown in rats, not in humans, but until we know more it might be a good idea not to use this oil in cooking.

Last, trans fats – a big NO, NO in contemporary food preparation. No discussion needed here. Note, there are naturally-occurring trans fats (like vaccenic acid in ruminants, converted in the human body into conjugated linoleic acid-CLA) but they don’t possess the disease-causing properties of man-made trans fats, so they are ok (they may even turn out to be beneficial to human health 4, 5).

My Favorite Cooking Fats for Functional Foods Design

When using fats as a part of functional foods design, I am concerned with two main issues: 1) their potential to go rancid (bad), and  2) their potential to bump the Calories sky high (not good either).

As I mentioned above, highly polyunsaturated oils are not to be used in cooking because of their tendency to go rancid. I am not concerned at all with the use of saturated fats as to this day I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that they are bad for human health. Quite the opposite – I’ve seen plenty that they are not. Some of them, like stearic acid (saturated, mainly in cocoa butter) are even beneficial (6). So, I use them freely in my cooking/baking, and I suggest that you do, too.

Calories. Fats are calorie-denser compared to carbs and protein with twice the Calories of the later two. So, adding fats liberally does not provide for responsible functional foods design. It simply unnecessarily elevates the total calories of the food. And, as we are beginning to understand, one of the chief reasons for the “State of Obesity” we live in is the chronically elevated total Calorie consumption in modern societies. So, why contribute to that? (Stephen Guyenet, Ph.D. is an authority in this matter. Read the results of his extensive work on the subject here).

When formulating a functional food recipe, I strive for not more than 30 percent of the Calories to come from added fat. In other words, a single serving of food that’s 300 kcal will have not more than 10 g of fat (or 90 kcal). This is enough fat to: carry the flavor compounds, provide decent moisture and tenderness without causing the product to feel neither oily nor dry.

Wich finally brings me to my favorite cooking fats part…

For cooking on the stove:

  • Pomace oil/extra virgin olive oil blend (pomace oil – from the pulp of the olive, not naturally derived) for low temperature frying and sauteing (higher smoke point than pure extra virgin olive oil) – not as easily oxidizable, primarily oleic acid  (Omega-9, a highly beneficial fat according to most accounts ), not as much polyunsaturated fats; also pomace oil does not have the characteristic olive flavor associated with 100% extra-virgin olive oil and the smoke point is higher, too
  • Butter – 60 percent saturated and 30 percent monounsaturated
  • Coconut oil for lower temperature cooking – 90 percent saturated fats, of which 66 percent are medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs), which do not undergo digestion like other cooking fats do and are more easily available for energy, better shelf life (keeping qualities)

For baking:

  • Palm oil shortening – roughly 50 percent saturates, only about 10 percent polyunsaturates; great keeping qualities, semi-solid to solid at room temperature (can be used as shortening), better shelf life
  • Coconut oil
  • Pomace/extra virgin olive oil blend
  • Butter

My grandma used to bake with lard. Lard was one of the two main fats available back in the communist times in my Mother-country (the other was sunflower oil for cooking). I know that lard and beef tallow, as well as duck and goose fat (medium to high saturation) are great for cooking and baking, but since I started playing with baking (after I came to the US) I have not used lard yet. I am planning to, however. I just have to find a good source for it.

Also, shea butter must be great for baking. It is very close in its fatty acid profile to palm oil – the main difference – it has stearic acid in place of palmitic acid, found in palm oil. Stearic acid is far more beneficial for human health (link above) than palmitic acid (which we, humans, make, by the way). However, I’ve personally never used shea butter in cooking/baking so I can’t tell you how it behaves. I suspect it is more solid at room temperature than palm oil because of the presence of the lengthier stearic acid (palmitic acid is shorter; longer saturated fatty acids are more solid at room temperature). I’d love to try it, though.

– – –

This is it. The article on fats in functional cooking and baking is not complete by any means. I would appreciate any advice as to how to make it more thorough. So, please, use the comments form below with any notes or advice… or if you notice any information that is not presented in a correct way.. or if you have questions on the text above.

Finally, a reminder. In part 1 of this series you can read about the proteins in food formulating, in part 2 I touch on the different types of carbohydrates, and this is part three.

3 Responses

  1. Okay, this may answer the question I asked previously, whether saturated fats remain stable after cooking, i.e. is their potential for rancidity effected by cooking. This article seems to indicate not. Is that correct? Thanks.

    1. It’s my understanding that the higher the saturated fats content the lower the rancidity potential during cooking. The one simple reason for that is the lack of double bonds and missing hydrogen atoms – no “holes” for oxygen atoms to fill.

      You have to keep three things in mind: 1) Sources of saturated fat are not pure saturated fats. They pretty much always contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; 2) The temperature of cooking – the higher the temperature the higher the chance of fats oxidation/rancidity; and 3) The presence of natural enzymes and microorganisms in natural, virgin oils and fats. Like I mentioned in this article enzymes and microorganisms can cause hydrolytic rancidity – they can partially “digest” saturated fats and thus convert them into other types of fats that can easily oxidize.

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