Fat: the much-maligned ingredient of the food world. Just a mention of the word and the arteries start to fur, and fears of stroke and heart disease have us reaching for the diet options. But are we trading flavour and substance for reduced calories?
For 20 years we have been taught that not all fats are created equal. We must love the good – avocados, nuts, seeds, oily fish, sunflower and olive oils – and loathe the bad: saturated animal fats, sausages, pies, butter, ghee, lard. As for the uglies, trans fats – well, just don’t go there. However, opinion is changing, and some of what we were told may not be accurate.
Let’s take lard as an example. It was once not only the mainstay of British cooking but loved across the world wherever there were pigs. Lard put the snap in our pastry, the flavour in our chips and the sizzle in our Yorkshire pudding as its batter hit the smoky heat.
Then someone decided it was no longer good for us: it was after all saturated, thus a baddie in the fat world, and was banished from the land. Hurrah, we all became slimmer and healthier, obesity disappeared and diabetes was unheard of.
No. Our waistlines increased and our cooking suffered. We now know that lard’s replacement, margarine, did more harm than good. Lard has no trans fats, and it turns out that lard has more mono-unsaturated fats than sunflower or corn oil, more polyunsaturated fats than olive oil and 30% fewer saturated fats than butter.
What’s more, as our intake of all fats reduced, we increased our intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates. And eating in between meals increased in relation to our girth. We needed something to replace all the loss of flavour.
The Institute of Food Technology, an international non-profit food organisation, advises us to consume no more than 65 grams of fat a day and to have high-quality sources of plant-based unsaturated fat, such as flaxseeds, rapeseed and walnuts. Good advice and worth heeding, but perhaps the issue is not which fat is better or worse to eat, but how to create a balance in our diet where fat once again plays an important role.
Maybe we can learn from the French
The French are so much better at this than us – and certainly no heavier – so maybe they can teach us some lessons: fatty duck liver, meat terrines, the odd chunk of confit. A few rich, dense cheeses one day; the next, salad slathered in walnut oil and a glass of Perrier. French foods generally are seasonal, local and loved.
So perhaps it is time for us to create our own balance: chuck out the rubbish of refined carbohydrates and sugar-laden drinks and start to embrace the marbling in a slab of beef, the snap of crackling on roast pork, the creamy ghee-drenched sauce on a tikka masala.
We need to remember that a Victoria sponge needs butter; that our cuisine was made great by our puddings, scones, dumplings and pies – and can be again. Our butter, lard, beef dripping et al are never going to become health foods, but we can still savour a suet pudding or crumpets with butter. Because we can always eat salad tomorrow.