saturated plant butters

A look at using oils based on their fatty acid structure

Oils, fats, and waxes, the lipids, come from living plant and animal sources and make up a large and important part of our body. Our cellular structure including the skin, is half fats and our brain cells are sixty percent fat. Fats are necessary to life processes in all forms and at all stages of life. Without the fats and oils produced by our bodies, the animals, and the plant world, we could not survive.

Seeds, Nuts and The Oils they Produce

oil producing seeds and nuts
Oil producing seeds, nuts and kernels

Take the lowly seed, small usually, hard, compact, and yet full of the potential for life. As the source of a plant’s regeneration, the seed carries all that the young plant needs to become a mature and independent shrub, or tree, or grass. Botanical organisms make seeds for procreation. In those seeds is stored sun energy, the lipids, and the non-lipid compounds, the vitamins, minerals, polyphenols that color, scent and flavor the oil. This combination of fat and other nutrients nourish the seedling toward growth and independence until the plant can survive on its own.

Seeds from all geographic regions excepting the extreme polar regions produce oils. The variety and type of plants that grow in each region from the tropical and semi tropical nearing the equator, to the temperate climates further north and south, are specific to their native regions. There are potentially many more seeds than those that we know that can be pressed for their oils, and the list grows annually.

Tropical Oils

saturated plant butters
Oils from tropical regions tend to be more saturated,

Seeds from the tropics produce oils suited for that environment; often solid, or semi-solid, non-liquid vegetable butters: coconut, cocoa, mango, illite, sal and shea butters. The oils are solid because their fatty acid structure is saturated; the carbon atoms of the oil’s fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen atoms. Being saturated, all the carbon atoms have hydrogen atoms attached creating straight, or flat chains that fit tightly together giving the appearance of solidity. These butters and solid oils are stable in warm climates, which means the fatty acid chain doesn’t have spaces where oxygen can attach to the carbon atoms. They do not go rancid or oxidize readily.

Oils from Temperate Climates

flax seed oil
Flaxseed oil in high in unsaturated fatty acids.

Further north and south, temperate climates produce the liquid oils: almond, apricot, flax, olive, even oils from raspberry and blackberry seeds. These fatty acid chains are not saturated; carbon atoms are missing hydrogen atoms along the chain. Where the carbon atoms are missing hydrogen the chain is bent like a necklace around a neck. The bent chains are kept from lying close to each other creating the appearance of liquidity. In addition, the missing hydrogen atoms allows oxygen to attach to the carbon called oxidation. Over time the oil will go rancid, oxidize, and some will dry to the touch. This is what oil paint is made from.

How The Structure of an Oil Indicates its Application

Understanding the rudiments of the differences of the oils’ structure will help you better care for your skin, protect it from damaging sun exposure and improve your health by choosing the best oils to cook and flavor foods. Using oils wisely in the kitchen helps create delicious meals that contribute to health and wellbeing. As oils and fats are such a large part of our body and life processes, knowing which ones to use and when, how to store and cook with and apply to the skin will help you live a more healthful life.

Saturated Oils, the Solid Butters

Tropical oils that serve local communities are shipped all over the world. With world wide transportation we can also take advantage of these oils and their properties. Coconut, shea, mango, cocoa, babassu are among the best-known tropical oils or butters. Produced by trees in tropical climates with warm temperatures and bright sunlight, nature has endowed them with compounds that offer protection from the extreme effects of sun, heat and UV exposure. Polyphenols like cinnamic acid and flavonols, ferulic acid with other antioxidants along with the fatty acids, are able to protect skin against damage from exposure of too much sun. By utilizing their protective properties the skin is shielded from damage and over exposure yet able to perform important functions like making vitamin D in the middle layer and maintaining barrier integrity.

Being resistant to heat damage, the solid butters like coconut oil are the best oils for cooking. Oxidation that occurs in the liquid oils by exposure to heat, light and time is a health issue creating toxicity in the body. By using saturated fats to cook with, the body avoids having to detox bad oils and fatty acids in the blood and liver and health is promoted by stable fatty acids that build health.

Unsaturated Oils, Liquid and Reactive

A representation of the center of an unsaturated chain where two carbon atoms are bound by a double bond in the absence of hydrogen atoms. There can be up to five of these double bonds in a fatty acid chain though one, two or three are the norm.

As a counterpoint, the temperate region oils’ ability to attract oxygen has the benefit of carrying oxygen and light energy inside the body through the metabolic system. What is harmful in one situation, consumption of oxidized oils, is necessary in another. What oxidizes outside of the body, transports necessary elements inside the body. Protection of the liquid oils before consuming them in food is important and necessary to maintain health.

In the realm of liquid oils there are varying degrees of reactivity to oxygen with names indicating numerical states: monounsaturated and multiple degrees of poly-unsaturation. The carbon chains of these oils aren’t saturated with hydrogen and can attach to oxygen, thus are increasingly fragile to oxidation and damaging to our bodies when consumed in a damaged state.

avocado seed oil
Avocado Seed Oil

The monounsaturated oils, like olive and avocado, remain fairly stable when handled carefully, kept cool and in dark bottles. The most common monounsaturated fatty acid is oleic, named for the olive. Olive is an oil used for thousands of years across a number of cultures in the Mediterranean region. It holds up well, and is used for light cooking, body care, skin protection, rituals, and food preparation. Other popular monounsaturated oils are macadamia nut, avocado, and almond. All nourish, protect and condition the skin. Oleic monounsaturated fatty acid is extremely common and a component of all oils. It keeps moisture from evaporating from the cells, and is one of the fatty acids created by our skin’s own oil production mechanism, the sebum.

The polyunsaturated oils make up the remaining general group of fatty acids. Poly meaning many, means that there is more than one point on the carbon chain that can attract oxygen making them fragile to heat, light, air and time. The essential fatty acids, EFA’s, discussed at length in health articles and blogs, fall into this category. Polyunsaturated oils include those missing hydrogen at two points along the chain and the even more unsaturated, super poly’s that have breaks at three points or more. The more places that the chain breaks, is missing hydrogen, the more reactive and fragile the oil.

This fragility however, is necessary for health as these fatty acids help the body move light energy and oxygen through the metabolic system. Being termed ‘essential’ the two essential fatty acids must be consumed in the diet as the body is unable to make them from other compounds. The challenge is protecting the fragility from rancidity with cold temperatures and careful handling. These oils, like hemp, chia, and flax deliver nutrients that are necessary to maintain our robust health and well-being.

  • Susan! I am fascinated by lipids and their role in the body and have studied them also. Few people understand that a wide variety of healthy fats is very beneficial in our diets. I have your book of course (2 copies, one for onbe to share with others) and just discovered your wonderful blog! As I am reading through it I have become curious about the possibility of cooking with the hard butters other that coconut and Ghee (my usual choices). Have you ever cooked with shea, mango, cocoa, babassu etc?

    • Hi Valerie, they are all possibilities for cooking. Cocoa butter is of course the fat in chocolate – or should be. Red palm oil has red carotenes that become vitamin A in the body and lots of vitamin E. Shea butter is a cooking oil in Africa. I haven’t used them all but yes they would be great supplements to the diet.


    • It’s hard to say one oil is better than the others. We are all individuals and our skin responds differently to what we put on it. I suggest that you use just a small amount of an oil for a few days, a couple of drops right after washing, and see how your skin responds. Then if it does well, try another and in time you’ll have several you can combine to make your own facial oil.

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