On April 1, the limitation of the presence of trans fats in foods marketed in the European Union comes into force, as long as they are not naturally present in them. Coinciding with this date, Ángel Gil, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Granada and president of the Ibero-American Nutrition Foundation (FINUT), analyzes the different types of fats present in our diet and their effect on health. Among all of them, olive oils stand out for their high content of unsaturated fatty acids and the presence of bioactive compounds that exert a very beneficial effect on health, as reported by the Spanish Olive Oil Interprofessional.
Gil explained that "trans fatty acids are limited because it has been shown, throughout numerous studies, that they are really very negative for health because they induce cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other comorbidities associated with chronic diseases."
However, experts like Ángel Gil warn that this news should not mislead us and “we cannot put all fats in the same bag”. "Fat is essential for life. The World Health Organization (WHO), the US Institute of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommend that adults take between 20% and 35% of our energy in the form of fat. Fats not only fulfill the mission of giving us energy, but they are also structural components of our tissues. For the constitution of our cell membranes we need fat”, affirmed the doctor recently awarded the Sir David Cuthberson Lecture Award 2021 (second Spanish researcher to achieve this recognition).
In this sense, he considered that it is essential that the consumer knows how to differentiate the different types of fats, their effects on our health and where to find them. As he has specified, trans fats are formed when vegetable oil goes through a process called hydrogenation. "It was common for these trans fats to appear in products such as margarines and in products used in pastry making to generate a fat with a solid consistency," said the expert, while confirming that they have practically disappeared from the diet of Europeans.
Regarding saturated fats, “international organizations, including EFSA, recommend that their consumption be reduced. In general, organizations such as the WHO indicate that we should take them in a percentage less than 10% of the energy ”, indicated Dr. Gil. They are the typical fats present in foods of animal origin, but also "some vegetable oils, such as palm and coconut, have a very high amount of saturated fatty acids".
Finally, there are unsaturated fats that experts describe as "healthy" and of which there are two main types. "Unsaturated fats that contain the essential fatty acids linoleic and linolenic in relatively large amounts", which are preferentially found in vegetable oils, including olive oils. Furthermore, “there is a very important unsaturated fat, oleic acid, which is present in olive oil and which is the majority component of all our cells. We have approximately 40% oleic acid in our membranes”, he detailed.
Properties of olive oil
The Interprofessional has pointed out that not even by differentiating the different types of fatty acids present in a vegetable oil can we get an accurate idea of its health effects. Thus, there is a missing element in the equation which are the bioactive compounds, also present in these vegetable oils and which are the ones that make the difference. "The case of olive oils, particularly virgin olive oil, is extremely important. There is a fraction that is called unsaponifiable and within it there is a high amount of tocopherols that have vitamin E activity; but there are also other compounds such as polyphenols, terpenes, squalene... Bioactive compounds that have a very beneficial function for the organism. The consumption of olive oil, especially virgin olive oil, contributes to regulate cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, which reduces the incidence of cardiovascular disease", the expert emphasized.
For this reason, Gil has highlighted that the benefits of the different oils that the consumer is in the shelf cannot be homologated only by their composition, because "those of seeds have to be extracted with organic solvents and in this process they lose the bioactive compounds . Thus, the consumption of olive oil is not only influenced by having oleic acid, but also by having bioactive compounds that have been shown in epidemiological and intervention studies that really exert a very beneficial effect for health and for prevention. of numerous chronic diseases”.