Healthy Cooking Oils: What You Need To Know
Could your “healthy” cooking oils be causing more harm than good? We’re here to clear up some confusion so you know which oils are best to reach for and when.
At Ascend, we want to help you get the most out of everything from fitness to food. This includes building strength and stamina with the most effective workouts for your time and energy and extends to the kitchen with tips to optimize the health of your meals. Cooking oils can be a great way to add healthy fats to our diet and boost the flavor of food, but there is some confusion over which oils to choose, especially as more options become available. Even oils considered healthy could become toxic. Read on to learn which oils to stock in your pantry, and when to use them.
But first, let’s talk fat
Fat is one of three macronutrients in our diet (along with protein and carbohydrates), and is essential for our health. We need fat for proper functioning of our brain cells, hormones, and immune system. Fat is important for cellular health, is needed for the proper absorption of certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K), provides long-term energy reserves, and cushions and protects our internal organs.
Of the three macronutrients, fat is the most nutrient-dense providing 9 calories per gram (whereas a gram of carbohydrate or protein each provide 4 calories). It’s a common misconception that eating fat will make you fat. Healthy fats have an important place in the diet but type of fat matters—and therefore, type of cooking oil does too.
The good, the bad and the ugly
There are two types of fat, saturated and unsaturated, defined by the type of bonds they contain. Saturated fats are made up of single bonds, which are more stable to higher cooking temperatures. Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) are made up of double bonds, which are less stable to heat. This is important because when you choose cooking oil, you want to factor in nutrient profile as well as cooking stability.
Good fat often refers to unsaturated fats and include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which are usually liquid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are a good source of vitamin E. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce inflammation and lower risk of heart disease and dementia. Omega-6 fatty acids are also polyunsaturated and can have some immune benefit, but can be pro-inflammatory when eaten in a distorted ratio with omega-3’s. Most people can benefit by eating more omega-3’s due to the high levels of omega-6’s found in the standard American diet (mostly processed foods).
Saturated fat was once labeled bad fat but now there is more debate in the health community. It was thought that eating saturated fat would raise the levels of fatty acids in blood and tissue. Researchers have found that fats in the blood that cause heart attacks stem from eating carbs and sugar, not fat. That said, saturated fat should still be eaten in moderation.
In addition to animal products, saturated fat is found in coconut oil and palm oil. Coconut oil is considered healthy because it is mainly comprised of MCTs (medium chain triglycerides), which are processed in our body differently than other forms of saturated fat. MCTs are more readily absorbed and used as energy than longer chain fatty acids (more common in our diets), which need to be modified prior to digestion and absorption. Some research suggests that saturated fat in coconut does not negatively affect cholesterol levels as once thought – and also provides other benefits. Read more about why coconut is considered a superfood.
Trans fat is found in many processed foods as well as margarine, Crisco vegetable shortening, and fake butter spreads. Trans fats provide no health benefit and experts agree it’s best to skip them altogether. The best way to avoid consuming trans fat is to limit intake of processed foods and avoid products that contain partially hydrogenated on the ingredient list.
Smoke point: what it is and why it matters
Oils have a smoke point, which refers to the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke when heated. As mentioned, the type of bonds dictate how stable oil will be at higher temperatures, thus having a high or low smoke point. When oil reaches its smoke point, it will continuously smoke and have an unpleasant odor. At this point, beneficial nutrients can be destroyed, the flavor changes, and the oil will begin to break down and oxidize causing the release of harmful free radicals (which can lead to premature aging, cellular damage and inflammation). Not good. The last thing you want to happen when taking the time and energy to prepare a healthy meal is to incorrectly use healthy cooking oil leading to loss of nutrients of your food and potential harm to your body! Exposure to light and air can also cause oxidation, so make sure to secure the lids on tightly and store in a cool, dark place in your pantry or cabinet.
Best and worst cooking oils
The method of oil production influences its nutritional quality and stability. Minimally processed oils (cold-pressed) have a higher nutrient content than refined oils, meaning they keep more vitamins and antioxidants but they break down at lower temperatures. Refined oils are heated during production versus pressed and combined with other chemicals to increase stability and shelf life, but nutrients are compromised during this process.
So what to choose?
First, try to avoid or limit the use of man-made, industrial seed oils such as canola, sunflower, safflower, corn oil, soybean and vegetable oil. Not only do some of these oils come from genetically modified crops, they contain excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. Don’t cook with them and limit the consumption of processed foods—check the ingredient list!
Next, consider the use of oil and desired cooking temperature. Are you planning to roast, sauté, make a stir-fry or salad dressing? Our top picks for healthy cooking oils, include:
For cooking at high temperatures (temperatures listed in degrees Fahrenheit):
· Smoke point 520
· Benefit: contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat (similar composition to olive oil), oleic acid, and can be used at high temperatures.
· Smoke point 480
· Benefit: contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamins A, E and K2, lactose free (great for those who are sensitive) and a good choice for searing or sautéing at high heat.
· Grass-fed butter is another good option, but with a lower smoke point of 350.
For cooking at lower temps:
Virgin coconut oil
· Smoke point 350
· Benefit: a plant-based sat. fat, contains MCTs and lauric acid (fatty acid beneficial for immunity and may help improve cholesterol).
· Great for baking.
Extra virgin olive oil
· Smoke point 375
· Benefit: a staple in the Mediterranean diet, EVOO contains a high amount of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants helpful for heart health and disease prevention.
· Also great for salad dressing and finishing. The less processed, the better.
For salad dressings, or finishing oil:
· Smoke point 330
· Benefit: adds a nutty favor, contains vitamins and minerals, and a good ration of omega 3:6 fatty acids.
· Smoke point: 325 (best used as a finishing oil or dressing)
· Benefit: rich flavor. High in omega-3 fatty acids.
· Smoke point 225 (very low, best used as a finishing oil or dressing)
· Benefit: healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Hopefully this information will give you a boost of kitchen confidence in knowing which cooking oils should be a staple in your pantry and how best to use them.