According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death globally. More than seven million deaths per year are attributed to coronary heart disease, with unhealthy diets and obesity listed among the major risk factors. Many health-conscious consumers who are concerned about the role of fats in their diet have been confused by media reports about recent studies showing no connection between saturated fat and heart disease. Although eating saturated fat isn’t very good for you, neither is replacing it with refined carbohydrates that lack fiber and phytochemicals. Research shows that these foods are just as bad for you, if not worse, than foods high in saturated fats. Meanwhile, the health benefits of oils high in polyunsaturated fats—such as soybean oil—are sometimes lost in the forest of information.
Choosing healthy fats is one way to establish a more healthful eating pattern. Until recently, some nutrition experts thought this meant choosing olive oil, a monounsaturated fat high in oleic acid. However, research shows there is a better choice—consuming oils high in polyunsaturated fat. Although a number of oils are high in polyunsaturated fat—soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil among them—only soybean oil provides both types of essential polyunsaturated fats, including omega-6, polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fat, alpha-linolenic acid.
While there is no study showing the importance of consuming more vegetable oils, some research shows that the coronary benefits of oils with both types of essential fats are greater than oils providing only omega-6 fat.
Mark Messina, PhD, MS, the executive director of the Soy Nutrition Institute, says, “The message is that the impact of saturated fat on risk of heart disease is dependent on that which replaces it. Replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates and simple sugars and no benefit is gained. Replace saturated fat with vegetable oils and foods like soyfoods, which are high in polyunsaturated fat, and risk is reduced.” He adds that high intake of polyunsaturated fat also may allow our bodies to use insulin more efficiently and may reduce the incidence of diabetes. In addition, higher blood levels of polyunsaturated fat are associated with lower blood pressure.
As part of its public education initiative, USSEC publicizes soy-related research and highlights the work of experts conducting studies on the health effects of eating soy. Regarding healthy fats, Harvard University researchers recently examined the relationship between the type of fat consumed and the risk of coronary heart disease in 84,628 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study between 1980 and 2010, and 42,908 men who took part in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, 1986-2010. Every four years, their diets were assessed by a food frequency questionnaire.
During the 24 to 30 years of this study, there were 7,667 incident cases of coronary heart disease. Results showed that replacing 5 percent of saturated fat calories with an equivalent caloric intake from polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fatty acids or carbohydrates from whole grains was associated with 25 percent, 15 percent and 9 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, respectively. Replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates from refined starches or added sugars did not lower the risk of heart disease.
“Nutritionists have moved from focusing on nutrient needs to focusing on foods. The thinking is that if you eat the most healthful foods, nutrient needs will be met in the most healthful way,” Dr. Messina points out. “Knowing that some foods are good sources of particular nutrients is still important, but the focus should be on overall dietary pattern. Foods are more than just a collection of individual nutrients. This is the approach taken by the recently released U.S. Dietary Guidelines,” he continues.
In addition to the health benefits of consuming oils high in polyunsaturated fat, soybean oil offers culinary advantages over many other oils, including its higher smoke point and its neutral taste.