The Importance of Choosing Healthy Cooking Fats

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Today’s focus is going to be on cooking oils and how to choose the best oils for your health. I feel that this post is of vital importance, mostly because it seems that the majority of the population is unaware of the impact cooking oil choices can have on our metabolic health. For example, most people don’t realize that the consumption of trans fats exposed through the heating of products like margarine, canola oil, soybean oil and vegetable oils has been shown to increase ones risk for heart disease, stroke, endothelial dysfunction (including erectile dysfunction in males). I don’t know about you, but if simply using a more-stable oil will help me maintain a healthier heart, cardiovascular system, and reproductive capacity, I’d say it’s worth the switch. I will start by attempting to explain why certain oils (those that are unstable and prone to oxidation upon heating) should be avoided before moving on to the oils that are more stable and thus a safer bet for your kitchen.

Unstable Oils (Avoid As Much as Possible)

When I say “unstable,” I am referring to the stability of the chemical backbone of the oil. All cooking oils are made up of a certain percentage of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Now, if you take nothing else from this post, I want you to remember this: saturated fats are more stable than unsaturated fats. What does this mean? Simply put, those oils with the highest percentage of saturated fats will be able to maintain stability at high heats and are often more solid at room temperature, while those with the highest percentage of unsaturated fats will be liquid and more prone to oxidize. This is an issue for multiple reasons:

  1. Oxidation increases free radical production, which can lead to a variety of negative health effects, inflammation being the most obvious and dangerous.

  2. Many of the most used oils today (vegetable oils, canola oils, soybean oils) are partially hydrogenated and often heated at very high temperatures. During refinement and heating, the oils are often reach a point where portions of the molecule undergo a chemical shift to become a trans fat. Trans fat consumption is linked to increased risk of many diseases, such as CVD, cancers, and even obesity.

Generally speaking, cooking fats with the highest percentage of saturated fats perform much better at high-heat. These would include coconut oil, butter, ghee, and avocado oil, to name a few. Oils and fats that don’t perform so well upon heating or already contain trans fats and should be avoided are the following:

  1. Vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, soybean)- these oils consist of mostly polyunsaturated fats. In the unrefined state (before processing), they have very low smoke points. In the refined state (usually the case), they contain trans fats.

  2. Canola Oil- The processing of canola oil dramatically increased the trans fat content and limits the omega-3 content. **Note that often times the trans fat content of the oil is not listed on the label after refinement has occurred. Further, canola oils are very high in Omega-6 fats, which should be avoided in large quantities.

Best Oils for Dressings and Low-Moderate Heat Cooking (300-400)

Okay so now that you know which oils to avoid, let’s focus on the oils you should stock up on. Remembering what I said above, you can probably predict that oils in this category will contain more saturated fats and less polyunsaturated fats than vegetable and canola oils, but not quite as many saturated fats as some of the more stable oils that I will discuss below.

This is very important as some of the oils with the greatest health benefits fall in this category. However, if you heat these oils above their smoke point the same problems described above arise (free radicals get produced, which leads to inflammation, etc..). The oils that fall in this category are:

  1. Olive Oil- My favorite oil if extra virgin and unrefined. In it’s purest form, you should not heat olive oil above 350. I find it to be best used for low-heat simmering and salad dressings.

  2. Macadamia Nut Oil- Smoke point is fairly high at 410. Contains a good fat profile (low in polyunsaturated fats).

**Note that with all oils, the best bet is getting the unrefined version as these have not undergone processing like their refined counterparts.

Best Fats for High-Heat Cooking (400 and above)

Simmering some steaks? Roasting some sweet potatoes? Heck yeah! Just make sure you choose one of these super stable fats to avoid all of the issues described in the previous sections! Here’s my list of high-heat fats:

  1. Ghee- Smoke point is around 480. Contains primarily saturated fats with some monounsaturated fats. I’m a big fan of ghee because it also contains some vitamins and a compound called Butyric Acid, which is great for gut health.

  2. Avocado Oil- Probably my favorite oil with a smoke point around 520. Best in the unrefined form.

  3. Coconut Oil- I can’t say I love cooking with coconut oil, but it’s a stable fat. If you enjoy the coconut flavor, the unrefined versions will be best for you.