We all have some kind of oil in our houses to cook with.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly hearing this and that about which cooking oil is healthy, and which is not. The debate over the health of saturated fat, or fat in your diet in general is still a hot topic.
We have come a long way from the 90’s where the fat-free and low-fat diets were all the rage and were considered healthy. We had made the assumption that fat in our mouths meant fat on our bodies.
But… thanks to science we know that having fat in our diets is essential to being healthy and that its more about the types of fat we eat that is important.
So what kind of fats are there?
Generally speaking, the nutrition community still believes that limiting saturated fat is essential for a healthy diet. But, there is much debate over whether there is a difference between saturated fat in animal fats or non-animal fats (like coconut oil).
The breakdown of carnitine (found in animal fat) in your gut by trimethylamine to produce trimethylamine-N-oxide may be the true culprit of the rising incidence of heart disease, not necessarily the saturated fat content.
Trimethylamine-N-oxide is associated with plaque buildup in the arteries, eventually leading to heart attacks and strokes.
When it comes to cooking fats, high amounts of saturated fat can be found within butter and lard.
The debate about trans fats is pretty much over. THEY ARE TERRIBLE FOR YOU.
Trans fats became popular because they were cheap, had a long shelf-life, and gave certain food products great flavor and texture. When reading a label, you will see the most common source of trans fats listed as “partially hydrogenated oils.”
Essentially, trans fats are the type of fat that’s created when hydrogen is added to the chemical structure of a fat, (most often vegetable oil). The addition of this hydrogen helps to make the fat more stable, which prevents it from going rancid when left out at room temperature.
But why are they so unhealthy?
Because trans fats raise your bad LDL cholesterol and lower your good HDL cholesterol. This increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes (type 2), and stroke.
Luckily, thanks to bad press and some recent legislation, the U.S. government is working towards eliminating all trans fats from our foods by 2018. Many restaurants and companies have already made the switch to avoid loss of diners and bad press that could hurt product sales. This was definitely a win for Americans.
Foods that often contain trans fats are fried and/or baked goods like doughnuts, cookies, muffins, pies and cakes.
Limit your consumption of trans fats. They are not part of a healthy diet.
Unsaturated fats are the healthy fats we should all get excited about.
They contribute to good heart health by improving cholesterol. Both mono and polyunsaturated fats lower bad LDL cholesterol, but monounsaturated fats also help to raise good HDL cholesterol. Generally speaking, the only difference between the two fats are the number of hydrogens in the fatty acid chain, both are part of a healthy diet.
Nuts are touted to be healthy despite their fat content due to their high unsaturated fat content.
Other foods high in unsaturated fats are avocados, salmon, natural peanut butter, and olive oil.
Cooking Fats and Oils: Smoke Points and More
Not every cooking fat can be used in every situation.
There are different situations in cooking where you wouldn’t want to use every oil interchangeably. Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to use a certain oil because of flavor, but also something called a smoke point.
Ever heard of a terrible grease fire that burned down a restaurant?
Cooking oils can be VERY flammable! When an oil or whatever fat source you are cooking with reaches a heat higher than it’s smoke point, the fat begins to burn which produces smoke (like FIRE!).
Do not throw water on a grease fire though, that will just make it worse!
Since water and oil do not mix (just like you wouldn’t chase shots with your glass of red wine…I hope…), if you throw water on a grease fire, the water will sink to the bottom below the oil and allow the smoke and fire to spread.
It’s like when you drive in the rain, the water can make your car slide (hydroplane), in this case the oil on fire is the car.
If you ever have a grease fire on your hands, the best way to put it out is to cut off the oxygen supply to the fire by throwing baking soda or salt on it.
Choosing The Best Cooking Fat:
Now that you have a little background on the different types of fats, it’s time to discover which options are the best for which cooking situations. I’m going to break this down for you by nutritional value, the type of dish you are creating, and smoke point.
Let’s get into it.
Evil butter! That thing that everyone replaced with margarine for years, until we figured out that the Frankenstein butter that is margarine was more terrible for you than pretty much any other option…
Butter is one of those things that has a bad rap because we don’t have much self-control and moderation when it comes to foods as delicious as butter (I once ate just straight butter off a charcuterie board when I really thought it was a good soft cheese).
Health Benefits of Butter:
Butter does have some health benefits despite it being high in saturated fat. It contains some fat-soluble vitamins (A,E, and K), butyrate (fatty-acid known to be anti-inflammatory), and it is not associated with obesity. Butter is just one of those foods that can be healthy when in moderation, but detrimental in excess.
The balance is necessary.
When to cook with butter:
Butter is great for sauces, frying up some eggs, and baked good galore!
Canola oil is low in saturated fat (the least of all common cooking oils) and high in both mono and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids (known for their anti-inflammatory effects in the cardiovascular system).
Canola oil is commonly used in commercial salad dressings and mayonnaise. But, because it has been highly refined, it doesn’t have many nutrients other than some vitamin K and E.
Is Canola Oil Healthy?
Despite the appearance of health, there are some that debate that in the long-term, high consumption of canola oil may not be as heart healthy as we hope and think. This is not the majority of opinion, but I will stand to say that suggesting moderation of any food is a good rule to follow.
The health benefits of cooking with canola oil can be seen if consumed in moderation.
When to cook with Canola Oil:
Very versatile because of its light/neutral flavor and smooth texture, canola oil is good for sauteing, stir-frying, grilling, and baking.
400 degrees F (which considered to be high)
It is no secret that olive oil is awesome not just in flavor, but in health as well.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil:
Like canola oil, olive oil is high in unsaturated fat, but has more monounsaturated fats than polyunsaturated fats.
This ratio is known to decrease the risk of heart disease by decreasing inflammation. There may also be some evidence that the omega fatty acids in olive oil may help decrease blood pressure, a characteristic not found in other plant oils.
When I talk about healthy olive oil, I am talking about the extra virgin kind. Virgin in reference to olive oil just means that the olives were just pressed, rather than undergoing any other industrial processes. With less processing comes better health benefits, but it also makes it easier for the oil to degrade. Your olive oil has a shorter shelf life than your other vegetable oil options, something to keep in mind if you buy your oils at Costco…
The flavor of olive oil is very neutral but the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil is much lower than others. When deep frying something (because you can’t be perfectly healthy all the time), olive oil is NOT an option.
When to cook with olive oil:
Olive oil is great in Italian dishes and other types of Mediterranean food. It’s perfect for making a vinaigrette, drizzle over cooked veggies, over pasta, or just dip your bread in it.
Be extra careful if you do cook with it because temperatures over 400 F will cause the oil to burn (and that is no good for a flavorful meal). If you use the non-virgin kind, you do get a higher smoke point with that selection, but consider the switch to canola if you’re working with very high temperatures.
Let me start by saying sorry to all those out there with peanut allergies. I love peanut oil (mostly due to my love for thai food), but the presence of peanut oil in restaurants is tough for our friends who are terribly allergic. I feel for you…
But if you are not allergic to peanuts, there are some great benefits of using peanut oil.
Health Benefits of Peanut Oil:
Peanut oil is actually devoid of ANY cholesterol, which is good for those who battle with their cholesterol intake.
It also contains important phytonutrients called plant sterols, that when consumed help to clear your body of cholesterol, which over time leads to plaque buildup and heart disease. The monounsaturated fat content also helps to increase your good HDL cholesterol, much like it’s other vegetable oil counterparts (this is considered a vegetable oil, since peanuts are a legume and not a nut).
As strange as it sounds, peanut oil also contains resveratrol (that antioxidant we love red wine for) and some additional antioxidants good for decreased inflammation. In addition, peanut oil contains a considerable about of vitamin E, which is good for maintaining healthy skin.
Again all these benefits can be seen with moderate consumption. Don’t over do it.
When you should cook with peanut oil:
When you want to deep fry something, roast some veggies, or make an Asian-style dish, peanut oil is a good choice!
As I have mentioned earlier, saturated fat is not good for you, but we are beginning to learn that the source of that saturated fat does matter. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but studies have shown that high consumption of it is not necessarily associated with heart disease. Fifty percent of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has shown to prevent heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Many vegans have been enjoying the now very trendy coconut oil, by using it as a butter substitute. It has great flavor and sweetness to be used in baked goods.
Outside of cooking, coconut oil is great for you hair by preventing protein loss, which would otherwise make your hair look less than sexy (dry, brittle, and dull is not what we aim for). People in India have enjoyed these hair benefits for years!
It also has benefits in your skin. Preventing dryness is important when it comes to aging, because dry skin wrinkles more quickly. Coconut oil can be used to keep your skin moist and slow down the development of wrinkles…
While I know that last part wasn’t about cooking, it seemed like information that should be shared and utilized.
Again, moderation is key here.
When should you cook with coconut oil:
When baking some goodies, making frosting, or sauteing meat or veggies (keep it away from the fryer).
These are just some of the cooking oil options that you have to pick from. There are at least 10 more I could talk about, but I’m not here to bore you with the small variances of each oil.
Bottom line? Don’t fear fat. Oil is your friend in the kitchen. Just keep moderation in mind.
Just like when you eat anything else, too much of a good thing can be bad (while a cliche, still very true).
If I had to pick a winner just from the standpoint of health, I still stand by olive oil as my go to. But it is not always the appropriate oil to cook with, so stock your pantry with a variety (just stay the HELL AWAY from those trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils).
Cheers and happy cooking!