Lipids: Not the name of a Muppet

Ten or twelve years ago, when I subscribed to Astronomy magazine and read lots of books on that topic, I became fascinated with the concept of light (which consists of particles and/or waves), and the colors which came from deep space objects (stars, nebulas, etc.). I didn’t understand all I read, but maybe that’s how life plays out: we see things or read about them, but probably don’t understand what’s going on.

I bought a cheap prism to help me understand that “light” has many layers: as light enters the prism, it is refracted, and emerges as a rainbow of colors.

Light dispersion illustration.

I can see the results, but don’t ask me to explain how that happens.

Since this blog is about foods, not astronomy, I ask you to segue the concept that “light” can be divided into layers of colors. Foods can too, so let’s divide them into their “layers” (that is, categories): proteins, carbohydrates, and fats (“lipids”). Now that’s a lot easier to understand than explaining how a prism divides light into an array of colors. So let’s stick with the easy stuff, food.

The type of foods I want to explore are “lipids”, meaning, fats and oils (fats may also be referred to as “fatty acids”).

For purposes of discussion, there are only two types of fats:

Solids (which for purposes of this article are classified as “saturated”) and liquids (“non-saturated”). Examples:

Solid: Butter (saturated)

Butter

Liquid: Olive oil (unsaturated)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

We have been taught that if we eat lots of saturated fats (“solids”), the fats will somehow retain that characteristic and will clog our circulatory system, which blocks the passage of blood. This, in turn, can cause a heart attack or stroke. Similarly, if we stick with unsaturated fats (“liquids”), our “pipelines” will be uncluttered, and we’ll reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes.

This picture needs correcting, because all fats are not created equal. For example, coconut oil is normally solid at room temperature (it is a saturated fat), but coconut oil is actually a healthy fatty acid. It will not clog your pipelines.

But consider corn oil or soybean oil (both of which are liquids, that is, unsaturated): both are rich in what are called Omega 6s, a subset of unsaturated fats, but Omega 6s are NOT good for you if you don’t balance these oils with other fats containing Omega 3s (which are, again, a subset of unsaturated fats). If you have too many Omega 6s in your system, you might develop blood clots, arthritis and heart disease.

So what makes some unsaturated fats not healthy? Perhaps we should first distinguish between whether the fat is “monounsaturated” or “polyunsaturated”.

There are lots of monounsaturated fats used in our diets: olive oil, almond oil, peanut oil, canola oil, all of which are in liquid form at room temperature. Technical point: this type of fat is a chain of carbon with one pair of carbon molecules joined by a double bond. Thus, it is “mono” unsaturated.

But the other type of unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated, remains in liquid form even when refrigerated (examples: Omega 3, 6, 7, 9, flax seed oil, corn oil). Technical point: Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds between carbon atoms in the carbon chain backbone of the fat. Thus, with two or more double bonds, it is “poly” unsaturated.

There is a risk in eating lots of polyunsaturated fats, because they become rancid or oxidized when subjected to heat, oxygen, and/or moisture. If polyunsaturated fats are bombarded with hydrogen (hydrogenation), they become Trans fats.

 So what? you may say. Trans fats have some positive “benefits”: using them increases the shelf life of certain items (packaged cookies, for example), and they are now solid at room temperature (Crisco, margarine). OK, but is this bad for you? Apparently so, because Trans fats compromise your bodily functions, such as

  •  hormone synthesis immune function,
  • insulin metabolism,
  • tissue repair,
  • increase risk of coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, diabetes, and infertility, and
  • promote weight gain.

To avoid foods with Trans fats, read the food label on the package. Avoid foods with trans fats.

There are other potential bad guys in polyunsaturated fats, viz., Omega 6s. What are these? They are part of a class of lipids known as “Essential Fatty Acids”. Your body can’t produce them, so your supply comes from the foods you eat. There are a bunch of Omega EFAs: Omega 3, Omega 6, Omega 7, Omega 9, etc.

Let’s first consider Omega 3s: They contain an essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. Omega 3s are in fish like salmon, sardines and tuna — as well as in walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds, and have powerful anti-inflammatory capabilities. Research has linked them to a variety of health benefits — most specifically, Omega 3s reduce the risk of heart disease. When you hear the words, “Omega 3”, think: anti-inflammatory. According to Brett Osborn, MD (Get Serious), most of the world’s medical ailments (including diabetes, cancer, heart and cardio issues, mental issues) have inflammation at their root. To reduce inflammation, eat foods which are “anti-inflammatory”.

Contrast this with Omega 6s: these fatty acids contain linoleic acid, which is good. Omega 6s are in seeds, nuts and vegetable oils like safflower, corn and sunflower oil. But they also have arachidonic acid, which causes inflammation. Over time, an excess of arachidonic acid can lead to problems such as blood clots, arthritis, and heart disease. Again, referencing Dr. Osborn, when you think of Omega 6s, think “inflammation.” Not good.

So what should you do? Try to keep your ratio of Omega 3s foods equal to those of Omega 6s. This way, the anti-inflammatory benefits of Omega 3s will offset the inflammatory drawbacks of Omega 6s.

Keep in mind that the typical American diet suggests the foods we eat give us 15 times the number of Omega 6s compared to the Omega 3s we consume. To bring the ratio more in line with the Japanese (who have a 4:1 ratio), here’s what you might do:

  •  Cut back on buying packaged foods (which are prone to be high in Omega 6s and Trans fats)
  • Use less oil (coconut oil is all right, as well as flax seed oil)
  • Eat fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc.)
  • Take Omega 3 supplements

To conclude our discussion of fats, let me mention triglycerides and cholesterol.

Triglycerides are fats which we make when we don’t use all the calories (energy) we consume. This stored energy can be used to create ATP (energy) when we need it. When you have a regular blood check test, it will undoubtedly tell you about the triglycerides in your blood stream. If they are too high, which is in the 150 to 199 mg/dL range, you run the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, as well as becoming obese, or falling into a state known as metabolic syndrome (sort of a mix of cardio problems and pre-diabetes).

Since triglycerides don’t dissolve, you should take steps to lower the level of these fats by losing weight, avoiding sugary and refined foods. Don’t have a 9 p.m. snack before bed (that includes ice cream). And the list of what to do and not to do is much, much longer, and this one is incomplete; so please do your own research on this topic.

Let’s turn to cholesterol. Cholesterol is a sticky, waxy, fat like substance found in some foods (egg yokes), but it is also made by your liver and other cells. You need it, for your brain and hormone production (including all the sex hormones, i.e., androgen, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and DHEA). Hormones help you deal with stress, and protect against heart disease and cancer. Cholesterol also helps produce bile sales, which help you digest food. Since your brain needs serotonin in order for you to feel good, cholesterol plays an important role for the functioning of the serotonin receptors in your brain. It also helps to repair damaged cells, as well as prevent leaky gut syndrome.

That said, cholesterol is beneficial.

According to Mary Enig (Eat Fat, Lose Fat), cholesterol is a “heavyweight alcohol with a hormone-like structure that behaves like a fat, being insoluble in water and in blood. It has a coating of a compound called a lipoprotein, which makes it water-soluble so it can be carried in the blood. Lipoproteins are described in terms of their density . . . High-density lipoproteins (HDL) carry cholesterol away from the cells to the liver, and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol to the cells.”

Most of us have been told that a high HDL level indicates we are destined “to live long and prosper” (well, maybe not prosper), and that a high LDL level means we might die because our arteries will harden unless we begin taking statin drugs (such as Zocar).

But let’s delve into this, because the numbers may not be what they seem. If you have VAP (Vertical Auto Profile) blood tests, you will be testing cholesterol, lipid and lipoprotein levels. This test, however, segments cholesterol into subclasses. Subtype A is plaque, while subtype B is dense and atherogenic. A standard lipid profile does not differentiate the two. For this reason, it is completely erroneous to assume that elevations in LDL are wholly bad. Your LDL may be composed mainly of subtype A. (quoting from Get Serious, Brett Osborn, MD).

Dr. Osborn explains that subtype A is fluffy and less apt to be integrated into artherosclerotic plaque, while subtype B is dense and atherogenic. Paraphrasing what he said, don’t be too concerned about higher LDL levels, unless the Subtype B levels are high (which might indicate hardening of the arteries).

So now you have it: fats are a source of “immediate” energy (found in short and medium chain fats, i.e., fiber rich foods, butter oil, coconut oil, all of which are absorbed quickly), and long term energy, to be used when you need it (long chain and very long chain fats, such as olive oil, organ meats, egg yolks, butter and fish oils are not absorbed quickly, and are stored). But try to eat the right kinds of fats (those with Omega 3 concentrations, such as salmon and tuna), and avoid foods with long shelf lives (which have more Omega 6s than you need).

I am indebted to all of the authors who have opined on these topics, but especially, Mary Enig, Brett Osborn and Sally Fallon.

 

RECIPE

 With the onset of cooler (and colder) weather, I’ve been combining sous vide meat preparation with outdoor barbecue. I decided to cook pork ribs, which are much too big to fit into my Sous Vide Supreme Demi. To cook large meats (such as brisket and ribs), I bought the Anova Precision Cooker (a less expensive unit than the Sous Vide Supreme Demi).

Let me walk through my experiences, and the lessons learned (Sous vide cooking is an art, not a science, so mistakes will be made).

I started with 3 large slabs of ribs, which I marinated in an expandable Food Saver bag. After I sealed off one end of the bag, I stuffed all three slabs in the bag, then poured two bottles of a mild pork marinade into the bag, and sealed off the open end with my Zip Lock sealer. I kept this in the refrigerator for 30 hours. Note: I am not required to remove the membrane from the ribs, when I cook the ribs sous vide. Some (like my cousin David) have a gift in removing this troublesome membrane; I do not have that gift. So for this Beauchamp, sous vide cooking is the rescue.

We bought a plastic container from the Ikea store in Frisco, Texas, and I clamped the Anova holder unit on one end of this tub. This container (made to hold office files) is a heavy plastic, and holds lots of water. It took many trips from the kitchen to the garage (where the primary cooking would be done), to fill the plastic tub. Next, I inserted the heating unit, and set the temperature to 137° F. It took about 3 hours to bring the temperature to its desired setting of 137°.

Sous Vide side view

The ribs were taken out of the marinade bag, and dried with paper towel. Each rib was put in its own bag, then the bags were sealed off, so that very little air remained in the bags (if there are air pockets in the bags, they will float to the top). I plopped the bags into the water (fortunately, they sank to the bottom; on previous encounters with floating bags, I have added a 5 lb. dumbbell weight, to force the bag to the bottom of the container).

I cooked the ribs for about 30 hours. At 137° the meat was pastured (and safe to eat), though it was a little pink in the middle.

Due to the colder temperature, it took a couple of hours to heat the Big Green Egg to 250° F (I added a soaked piece of pecan to the charcoal, because ribs should have a smoked flavor). I inserted the “indirect” cooking plate into the BGE, then removed the ribs from their “sous vide” bags. We use lots of paper towels in sous vide cooking; the towels are used to dry the meat of most of the moisture. After I got the ribs relatively dry, I added my favorite pork rub Fran had concocted a couple of months ago.

After 30 hours of cooking, the ribs didn’t have the appearance of being done (this is characteristic of all sous vide cooking), so when they are removed from the sous vide unit, many chefs will simply use a Crème Brule blow torch to finish the product. I have done this, too, but for ribs to taste great, they must be smoked. And that’s what I did.

Big Green Egg with ribs

After about three hours in the BGE, the color changed dramatically, and they were removed from the Big Green Egg. They were tasty and moist. I covered them with aluminum foil, and waited until the guests arrived.

My big mistake was keeping the ribs in the oven, which was set on warm. I had forgotten a principle in barbecuing, which is, meat continues to cook after it has been removed from the grill. Thus, the ribs were a bit overcooked when they were served. The taste was still great, but had lost the tenderness, which is the characteristic of good sous vide cooking.

The Anova Precision cooker performed as advertised. Mid-way through the cooking process, I had the good sense to put the Ikea plastic over the tub of water (water does evaporate, and I added a gallon or so during the 30 hour cook).

Sous Vide view from above

I know that sous vide is not for everyone (it is expensive), but since Fran and I are limited in dining choices (not too many restaurants offer gluten free and low carb meals, which is what we are now relegated to). So our “restaurant” meals are at home, and they are superb!