The Cooking Oils That Are Best For Your Health
What Oils Should I Be Eating And How?
There is so much conflicting information in the nutrition world regarding good fats, bad fats, and just how much fat we should be eating. This lens cuts through the fluff explaining which oils you should be focusing on in your kitchen and why. You might be surprised to learn that conventional wisdom has a few things wrong. You may be surprised at what I advocate.
Confusion abounds in the world of fats and oils. First, fat was bad. For years, we all tried hard to make sure we ate as little of this essential nutrient as we possibly could. But then we realized the error of our ways; we figured out that fat is essential to a properly-functioning, healthy body.
Today, we all know that we should be eating plenty of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and avoiding saturated fats. Saturated fats, we're told, clog arteries and make us die of heart disease. Aside from that, they are found mainly in animal foods and we all know that eating animal foods in all but the most minimal quantity is bad for us.
Is it possible we're making another huge mistake?
Fats are composed of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone, hence the term triglyceride. Let's look at this picture to see an example. We can use the same picture to show what saturated fats and unsaturated fats look like.
The top two fatty acids are saturated; that is, there is a hydrogen atom attached to every point possible on the carbon chain. The bottom fatty acid is monounsaturated as there is one set of carbon atoms with a double bond and therefore, it is not "saturated" with hydrogen. A polyunsaturated fatty acid would have two or more of those double bonds.
So What's Up With The Chemistry Lesson?
Yeah, I know, discussing atoms probably wasn't on your mind when you started reading. But it's important in understanding what fats to eat and why. Double bonds in molecules are weak, susceptible to being broken. When you break a double bond in a fat, you end up with oxidized, rancid fat, not something you want roaming around in your body. And how do you speed up the breaking of these double bonds and oxidation of your fats? Light, heat, and oxygen.
But who cares, right? What's the big deal about oxidation? Everything. You probably know the term oxidation by three far more common words: oxidation is called "rust" in relation to metal, "ripening" in relation to fruit, and "aging" in relation to living things.
Let's look back at that saturated fatty acid. As you can see, there are no weak double bonds. Saturated fats are inherently stable fats. When you put them in the presence of light (like in your kitchen), heat (like on your stove), and oxygen (it's everywhere), they are able to stand up to the onslaught remaining as pure as the day they started.
What do you think happens to a polyunsaturated fat with all of its two-plus double bonds? Bingo! Highly prone to oxidation. Monounsaturated fats only have the single double bond and are therefore more stable than polyunsaturated fats, yet not as stable as saturated fats.
But Won't Saturated Fats Kill You?
The short answer is "No!" There has never been a clinical trial that proved that saturated fat was harmful once you dig down into the actual data rather than sticking with the title and abstract. The saturated fat hypothesis was based on the faulty Cholesterol Hypothesis as proposed by Ancel Keys.
Mr. Keys undertook a study known as the Seven Countries Study where he showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that cholesterol levels were highly correlated with heart disease. Unfortunately for us, he picked the data that fit with his biases, ignoring sixteen other countries that showed cholesterol to not be correlated with heart disease, blowing his hypothesis to smithereens. But his hypothesis became dogma and since saturated fats raise cholesterol, they were deemed to be bad. If the base a hypothesis is built on is faulty, then the hypothesis itself is also faulty, right?
Get On With It! What Fats Should I Eat?
In my kitchen, I stick to seven oils (#s 1-7), specially chosen for their nutritive and flavor properties. I also shun three other types of oils (8-10) due to their instability and other detriments.
- Lard - This is pork fat, delicious and nutritious. Your relatives ate it just a century ago until Crisco convinced them not to. Lard is 41% saturated fatty acids (SFA), 47% monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and 11% polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), making it highly heat stable.
- Tallow - Another animal fat, this time from beef or mutton. Clocking in at 52% SFA, 44% MUFA, and 4% PUFA, tallow is also exceptionally heat stable.
- Coconut Oil - This is the most saturated fat on the list, coming in at 92% SFA, 6% MUFA, and 2% PUFA. As you'd guess, this oil is highly heat-stable and highly shelf-stable. It can be stored for years. Because it is so stable, it retains all of its natural vitamin content.
- Palm Oil - With 50% SFA, 40% MUFA, and 10% PUFA, palm oil is another saturated oil, solid at room temperature just like the three above. It is very high in vitamin E, hence it's bright red color, and also features high levels of vitamin K, magnesium, and Coenzyme Q10.
- Olive Oil - Whew! Finally something you've heard is good for you! And here you probably thought I'd lost my mind. Olive oil is 14% SFA, 75% MUFA, and 11% PUFA. Because it is very unsaturated, olive oil should only be subjected to very low heat, if any heat at all. I don't cook with olive oil, using it instead for dressings or for coating vegetables after cooking.
- Butter - Here's another supposed bad guy, featuring 63% SFA, 26% MUFA, and 4% PUFA. Of course, butter is a natural fat, the ingredient label reading "cream, salt" as opposed to the myriad ingredients in "heart healthy" margarine.
- Toasted Sesame Oil - This one is 14% SFA, 43% MUFA and 43% PUFA. It's a very flavorful oil that features prominently in Asian cuisines, especially Chinese and Korean. While it is highly unsaturated, it possesses a high smoke point and lots of antioxidants to make it a relatively stable fat.
- Canola Oil - And now for the three that I avoid. We're told that canola is good for us with its low saturated fat content (6%), and high unsaturated fat content (62% MUFA, 32% PUFA). However, it's a fat I avoid for three reasons:
- Too much polyunsaturated fat (explained after #10)
- Its omega-3 content is the wrong kind (explained below)
- 80% of canola is genetically modified
- Flaxseed Oil - A good source of omega-3 fats we're told. What we aren't told is that the omega-3 fats are the wrong kind (see below). Flaxseed oil is highly unstable and has a very short shelf life even in the refrigerator.
- Vegetable Oils (Corn, Safflower, Sunflower, etc) - These are the fats we're told to use for cooking. Bags of chips proclaim "Fried in safflower oil!" But these oils are the exact fats you should be avoiding. Nowhere in our evolutionary history was this much polyunsaturated fat available to the body and we aren't built for it. These oils are so unstable due to their highly polyunsaturated nature that they have to undergo extreme refining and deodorizing that removes every bit of their vitamin content.
What's This Nonsense About Omega-3s and Omega-6s? There are two classes essential fatty acids (EFAs): omega-3s and omega-6s. These are both polyunsaturated fatty acids, with the three and six referring to where the first double bond occurs. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6 are inflammatory. The body requires both to function properly.
The body works best with a ratio of about between 4:1 and 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3. But modern US citizens eat a diet of between 15:1 and 20:1 in favor of omega-6. This is mostly attributable to our high intake of vegetable oils, which are unnatural by evolutionary standards. Corn just doesn't have much fat in it, so to get a bottle of corn oil, you have to use a whole lot of corn. Olives and coconuts on the other hand have a lot of fat, making extraction of their oils very simple.
Big deal again, right? Wrong! Too much omega-6 predisposes to all kinds of diseases, from depression to Parkinson's to Alzheimer's. And these omega-6 rich polyunsaturated oils are also known to be highly immunosuppressive, reducing your ability to fight off diseases.
So just eat more omega-3s, like those in fish and flax, right? Well, yes and no. Fish and grass-fed meats are good sources of two omega-3s known as EPA and DHA (you really don't want me to spell that out), while flax and canola are rich sources of ALA. The body requires EPA and DHA, requiring several steps to convert the unusable ALA to the needed EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, this conversion process is highly inefficient, on the order of 5-10%. That means you should be increasing your omega-3 intake with fish, fish oil supplements, and grass-fed meats rather than with oils that give you the wrong kind of omega-3. And never, ever cook with fish or flax oils.
So there you have it, my guide to which oils you should be cooking with and which you shouldn't allow in your home. Hopefully you learned something about the structure and function of fats that will help you cut through the marketing hype, picking oils that enhance your health rather than detract from it.