Healthy Cooking Oils
There is a lot of confusion about healthy cooking oils, so in an effort to clear up some of the confusion, I want to touch on the cooking fats that I consider to be good and those that I’d avoid.
Here are seven oils and my recommended uses for them, along with three that I don’t recommend and why.
The “Good Guys” (In no particular order)
Lard is pork fat, the highest grade being “leaf lard,” and is solid at room temperature, indicating a relatively high saturated fat content, though probably not as high as the anti-saturated fat crowd would have you believe. Lard checks in at about 41% saturated fatty acids (SFA), 47% monounsaturated (MUFA), and 11% polyunsaturated (PUFA).
Tallow is rendered beef or mutton fat. Like lard, tallow is solid at room temperature and is slightly more saturated, clocking in at 52% SFA, 44% MUFA, and 4% PUFA.
The saturation of tallow and lard makes them highly stable when heated, which makes lard my predominant cooking fat. I usually melt 1-2 tablespoons in the pan before the meat and vegetables go in. As far as I know, lard was the fat of choice for baking long ago (i.e., before Crisco convinced people to switch) and many bakers still swear by it.
Find yourself a local farmer and get some good pastured lard. I buy it in 4lb tubs from my local pork guy for $8-12.
3. Coconut Oil
Delicious coconut oil. My precious! I am a big fan of coconut, coconut oil, coconut cream, and anything else coconut that you can think of. But the topic for right now is coconut oil. This oil is highly saturated, on the order of 92% SFA (6% MUFA and 2% PUFA), consisting mainly of medium-chain fatty acids. Medium-chain fatty acids pass directly from the GI tract rather than being transported and processed in the lymphatic system. Coconut oil is shelf stable for several years.
Occasionally I use coconut oil for cooking in the same way that I use lard/tallow, but I typically put it on sweet potatoes or fruit. On a warm sweet potato, it melts nicely, while on cold fruit, it forms a delicious hard coconut shell wherever it lands. It can also be used in baking or taken straight from the spoon. Coconut oil has a great mild coconut flavor that mixes well with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other “sweet” spices.
4. Palm Oil
Aside from soybean oil, this is the most widely consumed oil in the world. If you don’t count the United States, it is the most widely consumed oil. It is also a saturated tropical oil, very high in vitamin E. It is also high in vitamin K and magnesium. Palm oil is easily recognizable by its bright red color and consists of about 50% SFA, 40% MUFA, and 10% PUFA.
Palm oil is great for frying and sauteing. As opposed to the oils most people are used to, the deodorized vegetable oils, palm oil has a distinct taste that goes very well with vegetables and meats (but not with eggs!). The high level of saturation makes it a good oil for applying heat to. If you are a baker, I imagine that you could substitute palm oil into your recipes as well.
There is evidence that palm fruit production is detrimental to the environment, with people clearing out rain forests to open up land for plantations. However, that appears to be in certain areas of Asia, whereas West African palm oil is sustainable.
5. Olive Oil
Since anything that isn’t a saturated fat is regarded as “healthy fat” in many misguided camps and since olive oil is highly unsaturated, it is touted as the best fat for your health. It’s held out as the reason that the Mediterranean Diet is so healthful. So what exactly is it about olive oil that’s so great? Well, it’s only 14% SFA, with 75% being MUFA and 11% PUFA. Aside from that, it’s quite flavorful, enhancing every dish that you add it to.
I don’t hold olive oil out to be the best food ever created as some people tend to do. It’s a good, healthful oil, but it’s not going to save you from Eternal Damnation. Because it is very unsaturated, and therefore less stable than a saturated fat, I rarely cook with it and when I do, it’s over low heat. I add lots of olive oil to my salads with a bit of balsamic vinegar and basil and add it to most everything that I cook to add some extra fat calories.
Butter, another great fat of animal origin that has been used for ages, but suddenly became unhealthful in the 20th century. Butter is 63% SFA, 26% MUFA, and 4% PUFA. Whatever you do, do not substitute margarine for butter to reduce your saturated fat intake. Butter is real food. Margarine is not.
Butter from grass-fed cows is amazing. It adds an excellent flavor to anything you add it to, from eggs to sweet potatoes, from spaghetti squash to broccoli. Butter from properly-raised cows isn’t going to kill you, contrary to what the media reports, and isn’t something to be avoided unless dairy isn’t on your list of foods. It’s great for baking, can be used for sauteing, and is a nice stable fat due to it’s low PUFA content.
7. Toasted Sesame Oil
Toasted sesame oil is a very flavorful oil that I use only on occasion. It’s low in saturated fat at 14%, and evenly split between MUFA and PUFA at 43% apiece. While it’s highly unsaturated, it’s also rather stable over heat. It has a high smoke point and a high antioxidant content which help to stave off rancidity and oxidation.
When I use toasted sesame oil, it’s usually in something with an Asian flair. South India, Korea, and China all use the flavor of toasted sesame seeds in their cooking. Because it’s high in PUFA, which I try to avoid for the most part, I might only pull the sesame oil once every few months. But it does combine well with coconut oil for both flavor and stability, each contributing vitamins and minerals.
The Bad Guys
8. Canola Oil
Canola oil is another darling of the media, low in those unhealthful saturated fats and high in the unsaturated fats. CANadian Oil, Low Acid is 6% SFA, 62% MUFA, and 32% PUFA. It also contains about 10% omega-3 fatty acids, in the form of Alpha-Linolenic Acid.
While some people use it in place of olive oil in salad dressings and cooking, I don’t use canola oil. Here are several reasons I don’t include it in my diet:
- Too much PUFA without contributing any sufficient amount of flavor or vitamins (which sesame oil does on both counts)
- The omega-3s are the ALA that the body inefficiently elongates into the much-needed EPA
- Most of the canola grown in Canada and the US (80%) is genetically modified, which I also avoid
And no, I don’t avoid canola because it’s from the rapeseed, nor do I believe most of the claims about canola oil being poisonous. I just don’t find that it adds any value to my diet.
9. Flaxseed Oil
I wrote once before about why I don’t include flaxseeds as part of my diet. While it’s high in omega-3s with a 4:1 omega-3:omega-6 ratio, as in canola oil, the omega-3s are of the short-chain plant variety known as ALA. In the flax post, I discussed the various elongation and desaturation processes that ALA must undergo to become EPA and DHA, the long-chain fatty acids that the body requires.
If you do use flaxseed oil, you absolutely cannot subject it to heat. It oxidizes very easily. Even storing it outside of the fridge is likely to result in an unpleasant taste. If you want to boost your omega-3 intake, stick to fish oil.
10. Peanut, Corn, and Other Vegetable Oils
These oils, the so-called “healthy polyunsaturated oils,” should not be used. They are wholly unnatural fats, sources of incredible loads of omega-6 fatty acids, which most people already take in too much of. As discussed in the guest post at MDA, these oils are highly prone to rancidity and oxidation. To make them shelf-stable, they are refined and deodorized, that way, even when they’re “off”, you won’t know it because there’s nothing in them to stink.
What did I miss? What other oils do you use and how do you use them? What other uses do you have for these oils?