There are so many different types of oils and fats to cook with these days, and for every one there’s a different opinion on which is healthier. Many fats that were previously considered categorically bad for us have now been proven to be acceptable and even beneficial for us. Below are some of the factors to keep in mind when choosing a fat, and my favorites for cooking.
In general my favorite fat sources for cooking and using in food are:
- Coconut oil
- MCT oil (medium chain triglycerides)
- Grass-fed butter, ghee
- Omega 3 sources: fish oil, walnut oil, flax oil
- Monounsaturated sources: avocado oil, olive oil, macadamia oil
HIGH HEAT COOKING
If you’re cooking with high heat (e.g. frying and stir-frying), the best oils are saturated and second best are monounsaturated because they have a higher smoke point and don’t produce chemicals that are potentially harmful when heated. Coconut oil is the winner for high heat cooking – it’s 92% saturated and 6% monounsaturated with only 1.6% polyunsaturated. Coconut oil is full of other health benefits, which you can read about in our previous blogpost here.
Butter and ghee are also good saturated fats for cooking. However regular butter contains tiny amounts of sugars and proteins and so tends to get burned during high heat cooking. If you want to avoid that, you can make clarified butter or ghee. That way, you remove the lactose and proteins, leaving you with pure butterfat. You can buy ghee or make your own. Check out our product review of Pure Indian Foods grass-fed organic ghee. You can also read more about the benefits of ghee here.
Butter used to be the enemy of anyone claiming to live a healthy lifestyle. But studies are now proving that belief obsolete. Butter contains Vitamins A, E and K2. It’s also rich in the fatty acids conjugated linoleic acid and butyrate, both of which have powerful health benefits including lowering body fat and inflammation. If you’re cooking at lower temperatures (or not using in cooking), choose butter from grass-fed cows when possible. Grass-fed butter contains more of these healthy nutrients including Omega-3 fats, compared to butter from grain-fed cows.
And in case you were wondering, stay far far away from margarine.
LOW HEAT COOKING AND CONDIMENTS
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are good for low heat cooking like stews and for adding to foods like salad dressings, mayonnaise and cold foods. Because they are most chemically reactive and sensitive to heat, I avoid using them for stir-frying and other high heat cooking methods.
Polyunsaturated fats include the Omega fats that you may be familiar with: Omega 3, Omega 6. Omega 9 is a monounsaturated fat.
- Omega 3 (found in fish oil and flax oil) is healthy and anti-inflammatory.
- Omega 6 is the base of many vegetable oils and is inflammatory.
- Omega 9 is already naturally produced by our body, so it’s not as important to get it from food sources. However, oils that are higher in Omega 9’s are usually lower in inflammatory Omega 6.
Most people eat way more Omega 6 than Omega 3. The average American diet contains 15 times more Omega 6 than Omega 3. This ratio should be 2-4 to 1 Omega 6 to Omega 3! Although Omega 6 fats have some health benefits, they are inflammatory, so too much is very unhealthy. Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory and much healthier. Most of us need to eat more 3s and 9s and less 6s.
Of the vegetable oils, the ones with the best Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratios or high Omega 9 content are olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, high-oleic safflower oil and macadamia oil.
Canola oil often comes from GMO sources and is chemically processed with hexane, so I generally try to avoid it. If you can find organic, non-GMO, cold-pressed, expeller extracted canola oil, that should be fine.
Other oils that are high in Omega 6 should be limited—soy, safflower, sunflower, corn, grape seed, cotton seed and wheat germ oils.
THE BOTTOM LINE?
Fats are no longer the bad guy, but you should still pay attention to the types and quality of fats you use in your cooking. When I choose oils for cooking, I look for ones that are fresh, organic when possible, cold pressed and expeller extracted (not processed with heat and chemicals). I store most of my oils, in the fridge to keep them from becoming rancid.
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at DearLea@tastefulpantry.com