The Gift of Fat
by Sandra Brandt
Our modern North American culture seems to be the first in history that, for some strange reason, has developed an assumption that eating fat is not a good thing. However, there is a growing and vocal minority in the scientific, as well as the culinary, world that passionately believes in the value of high quality traditional dietary fats.
It is probably safe to say that of the foods that were available to them, virtually all traditional cultures especially prized animal fat. “Hunting societies’ preference for meat with fat on it wasn’t just a matter of flavour; it was a matter of nutrition. The quality of the traditional fats valued by traditional peoples was extremely high. Fats from animals that grazed on pasture growing in mineral-rich topsoil on expansive plains or pristine mountainsides were concentrated with vitamins and nutrients. These fats contained the life of the soil and the solar energy of the sun, harnessed by the grasses through photosynthesis. Carotenes in the grass are converted to vitamin A by the body of the animal, and then concentrated in that animal’s fatty tissue.”1 (Jessica Prentiss, New Moon Newsletters)
Natural animal fat is indeed a concentrated source of certain nutrients. Although plant foods are certainly good for us, they may in some ways be even more beneficial when they have been pre-digested, so to speak, by grazing animals, making certain essential nutrients more easily available to our bodies in larger amounts, as for example, vitamin A as mentioned in the quote above. Natural fats also contain substances that aid in defense against disease and harmful micro-organisms, as well as having numerous other vital functions in the body. Each type of fat has its own nutrient profile. The much warned-against saturated type of fat is actually an essential part of each cell in our bodies. The same can be said for cholesterol, which is not a fat, but which is often linked to saturated fat in popular advice, and although our bodies manufacture saturated fat and cholesterol internally as needed, there are additional benefits to obtaining them in the diet. For instance, researchers Mary Enig and Sally Fallon write that, “For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50% of the dietary fats should be saturated.” Also, “Omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats.” As well, “Dietary cholesterol plays an important role in maintaining the health of the intestinal wall.”2
So where does our current fat-phobia come from? The idea began to gain popularity in the 1950s when the authors of certain selective studies linked dietary fat with the increasing incidence of heart disease in North America. In their classic article, The Oiling of America, Fallon and Enig give an overview of the academic and industrial processes that established a new but misguided belief that fat consumption is the culprit in modern diseases. In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary in numerous populations of the world, the idea gained a prominent foothold, and was welcomed by the powerful interests of the North American food manufacturing industry, where costs could then be cut by replacing natural fats with cheaply processed substitutes, and from there it became virtually unstoppable. Today, this thesis is accepted unquestioningly by the vast majority in our part of the world, including the medical establishment and the public media.
Yale philosopher Charles Eisenstein believes that, “Fat, traditionally associated with nurturance and abundance, has become the focus of our deep-rooted urge to self-denial, which is founded on self-rejection, and a (lack) of unconditional self-nurturance.”3 In general, the common but unfounded fear of weight gain from rich food is based on our belief that we are not good enough as we are. However, the extra pounds many carry these days, as well as the increases in heart disease and diabetes, are almost certainly due not to eating fat, but rather to the prevalence of highly processed food; this is what actually distinguishes our modern diet from past times. It is true that we may need less food calories due to a less physically-demanding lifestyle; however, that does not mean the proportion of fats needed would have changed from earlier eras.
Although many scientific studies have claimed to show that a low fat diet is healthiest, in fact, it is very difficult to prove because there are just too many other factors that may influence the results. When a certain study, whose results were publicized several years ago, actually seemed to show strongly that full-fat dairy foods are more conducive to human fertility than low-fat substitutes, the general reaction was one of astonishment. Obviously, this fact would have been taken for granted in any other time and culture.
Whatever one’s stage of life, it is especially important to avoid any food products labelled as low fat. Such a label is generally an indication that undesirable ingredients have been added in order to retain the product’s taste appeal—usually additional amounts of refined sweeteners and/or chemical combinations that mimic the texture of fats. Dairy products are also a lot harder to digest when the fat is removed, so that is another reason to use only whole milk, yogurt, sour cream, etc, rather than the reduced fat versions.
Personally, I have long been enjoying the benefits of lots of butter, cream, olive oil, and coconut oil, while avoiding any kind of refined vegetable oils and products that contain them— which are many, unfortunately. My most recent cooking experience has been with using lard, purchased directly from a local producer of free range animals. This naturally-produced lard is wonderful to use in all types of cooking, and the end results are truly mouthwatering. And it is relatively light on the budget too, besides being a local product. Fortunately, naturally-raised free range products are becoming ever more accessible as demand rises.
In one of her Wise Food Ways articles, Jessica Prentiss describes the sad sight of a dumpster full of discarded fat from free range animals behind a health food restaurant. The patrons, as is typical, prefer their food cooked with imported vegetable oils, while large quantities of healthy, locally-produced fat go to waste.
How much fat should we eat then, one might wonder? The answer, as with any type of food or nutrient, lies in each individual’s personal needs. If we habitually consume natural, locally-produced foods, the body will tend to regulate its own appetite according to need.
PRACTICAL TIPS AND RECIPES
Save the fat from meat juices and broths to use in sautéing, baking recipes, and soups. It doesn’t take much to add a lot of flavour and hearty nourishment, especially welcome in the winter season.
If you make your own yogurt, use whole milk, and you can also substitute heavy cream for up to 3/4 of the milk. Or for even thicker and smoother results, use half-and-half cereal cream for the whole batch of yogurt.
Rich Pastry Recipe
(adapted from Nourishing Traditions Cookbook)4
Place in food processor:
1-1/3 cup flour (unbleached white flour preferred for best pastry)
3/8 tsp unrefined salt
pinch stevia powder (optional)
1/2 cup cold butter (or natural lard), cut into small pieces
Pulse processor several times, until butter is broken into pea-sized pieces and is well distributed.
Dribble in 2 beaten egg yolks
Pulse processor a couple of times
Turn on processor, and quickly pour in 1/4 cup cold water. Turn off immediately.
Turn out dough onto flat surface and gently squeeze together to form ball of pastry. Use as with any pastry dough. Makes enough for lattice-crusted 9 inch pie.
We are once again approaching the festive season which has traditionally been a time to enjoy special rich foods. For the adventurous, it might be fun to try a traditional suet pudding, if you can find real suet. Suet is the hard fat from around the kidneys of cows and sheep that was used in a variety of traditional recipes. It is sometimes available from butcher shops or from direct farm sales. Because suet has a lower melting point than other hard fats, no other ingredient can be substituted for the same smooth texture. Here is an interesting vegetable-rich version:
Steamed Fruit Pudding
(adapted from Mennonite Treasury of Recipes)5
1 cup EACH of unrefined sugar, grated apple, grated carrot, grated potato, bread crumbs, raisins, flour, suet (chopped)
1 tsp EACH of unrefined salt, baking soda, cinnamon
1/2 tsp EACH of cloves, nutmeg
Steam mixture for 3 hours in greased containers.
1. www.wisefoodways.com (New Moon Newsletters)
2. www.westonaprice.org: The Skinny On Fats and The Oiling of America by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig
3. Charles Eisenstein, The Yoga of Eating, New Trends Publishing, 2003
4. Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon, New Trends Publishing, 1991
5. Mennonite Treasury of Recipes, published by Derksen Printers 1962
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She is located in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (306) 359-1732. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 16.4 November/December
issue of the WHOLifE Journal.