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Eating Essentially: The Good, the Bad and the Must-Have Fatty Acids

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Fat Facts

You're probably familiar with, but may be confused by, fat terminology and labeling lingo. So here's a short primer to help.

  • All fats and oils are made up of a mix of basic units called fatty acids, which are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. 
  • Each type of fat varies by the length of their carbon chains, how many carbon atoms are "saturated" with hydrogen, and the number and location of the bonds linking the carbons together. (1
  • Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat are the three main categories of fats and oils. An easy way to remember their differences follows: (2) Saturated fat: usually solid at room temperature; mainly from animal sources (meat and dairy), and a few plant sources (coconut, palm, and palm kernel).

Monounsaturated fat: liquid at room temperature; mainly in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, including olive oil, sesame seeds, almond butter and avocado.

Polyunsaturated fat: liquid at room temperature; mainly in vegetable oils and fish.

Two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-6 and omega-3, are considered "essential fatty acids," or "EFAs." That's because the human body cannot make them, and we must consume them in our diet.

What's in a name?
The terms, "omega-3" and "omega-6" identify the location of a double bond that links two carbon atoms together in the chain. Omega-6 fatty acids are easily found in commonly consumed vegetable oils such as: corn, soy and safflower oil.

Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are harder to come by. Below are the three major types of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as where we can find them in our diet: (3,4)

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid): flaxseed, walnuts, milk and meat from cows raised on pasture; 
  • EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid): fatty fish; fish oil supplements, algae, and fortified products, such as Organic Valley Omega-3 Milk.
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Did you know?
  • "Trans" fat is formed when hydrogen atoms are added to liquid vegetable oil in a process called "hydrogenation." Food processors like hydrogenated vegetable oils because they are less susceptible to rancidity and have a longer shelf life. However, trans fats provide no known benefit to human health. Read ingredient labels on food packages and avoid products containing "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" – that's your sign that the product contains trans fats. (1,2,15)
  • Japanese and Eskimo populations gave us the first clues about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists noticed both groups had relatively low rates of heart disease. Their diets revealed a common secret to good health: fish! Specifically fatty fish from cold water, rich in the protective omega-3s. (3,9)  
  • Most Americans barely consume 100 milligrams of EPA/DHA per day. (6,9)
  • The EFAs in Organic Valley's Omega-3 milk come from sustainably sourced Peruvian anchovies and bear a Marine Stewardship Council certification. 
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