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There's a lot of information floating around out there about "good" oils, "bad" oils, which oil you should cook with, which oil you shouldn't. I've done quite a bit of research so you don't have to.
Here's a guide to help you understand the facts and make educated decisions about which oils to eat (and which to run from).
First, let's talk about the different kinds of fats.
- Foods high in saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Their molecular structure is strong, and less prone to being damaged by heat. Examples: butter, lard, tallow, coconut oil.
- Foods high in monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. They have one double bond, and are weaker than saturated fats. Examples: avocado, canola oil, olive oil, macadamia nut, cashew, pecans.
- Foods high in polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. Their molecular structure has more than one double bond, which makes them the weakest of the three, and therefore not as stable for cooking. Omega-3s and Omega -6s are examples of polyunsaturated fats. Examples: nuts, seeds, fish, corn oil, soybean oil.
It's important to note that most foods have all three types of fats (saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated) in varying percentages. Looking at their breakdown will be helpful in determining which oil to cook with, and which to eat raw.
Here's a helpful chart I found on Healthline.
12 Things You Need To Know
1. Fat is good
In the 90's fat got a bad rap. Fat in our diet was blamed for heart disease and premature death. And the food industry jumped on this claim as an opportunity to market low-fat foods.
But now we know better. We know fat is absolutely essential for healthy brain activity, and we need to pay attention to which kind of fats we are eating.
Here's an article by NPR about how the fat-is-bad mantra came to be.
2. You Shouldn't Use Olive Oil For Everything
We've all heard about the health benefits of olive oil. And it's true that unrefined, extra virgin (extracted from the first pressing only) or virgin olive oil is incredibly nutritious. It contains a high percentage of heart healthy monounsaturated fats and phenols (protective compounds), as well as antioxidants.
These monounsaturated fats in olive oil are really nutritious in their raw form. But heating them too much can take that away.
The process of refining oil involves heating it to a very high temperature. And in doing so, the composition of the oil changes and the antioxidants are destroyed. Not only that, when we ingest the refined damaged oils, they are likely to release free radicals in our body, which can cause all sorts of diseases.
With a smoke point of 375 degrees (F), extra virgin olive oil is best used for salad dressings, dipping bread, drizzling over hummus, or low heat cooking.
3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil Should Always Be Kept in A Dark Container, Preferably In the Fridge
When any oil that's high in Omega-3s (like olive oil) is exposed to light, oxygen, or heat, it oxidizes (releases free radicals) and will go rancid quickly. We don't want free radicals in our body.
This is why you'll see extra virgin olive oil in dark containers. It keeps the light out, so that the oil won't oxidize. If you see extra virgin olive oil in a clear container, it's either gone rancid or it's not actually extra virgin olive oil.
Because of its sensitivity to temperature, it's best to store olive oil in the fridge.
4. Saturated Fats Don't Cause Heart Disease
According to this study, the adverse health effects that previously have been linked with saturated fats are most likely due to factors other than saturated fats.
5. High Cholesterol isn't Necessarily Bad
Cholesterol is an antioxidant that protects our brain. And in fact, it's been shown that high levels of cholesterol in the elderly have been linked to lower rates of dementia.
Cholesterol is the precursor to many of our hormones, and is used to make vitamin D. And, 25% of our body's cholesterol is found in the brain. Here's an article that I found pretty interesting about how we've gotten cholesterol wrong.
6. Just Because an Oil is Cold Pressed, Doesn't Mean You Should Eat It
Let's say we have a fruit like an olive or an avocado and we want to extract the oil from the it. There are two ways to do this; mechanically or chemically.
- Cold Pressed (mechanical extraction): This method preserves the flavor and nutrients. This is a mechanical method of extraction...meaning the fruit is literally squeezed until the oil comes out. Since heat can be created in the squeezing process, the temperature is monitored in the cold pressing process to ensure it doesn't gets too high. And because of that, these oils retain their flavor, color, and nutritional value.
- Expeller Pressed (mechanical extraction): This is similar to cold pressing, but without the temperature control. The oil is squeezed right out of the fruit (olive, avocado, etc.). No heat is added. Sometimes heat is produced by the friction in the squeezing process though. This type of extraction is common for soft fruits like olive, walnuts, and avocados.
- Conventional (chemical extraction) : No mention of the extraction method probably means the oil was extracted chemically or by very high heat, which damages the oil.
The extraction method is only one piece of the puzzle. What happens after we get the oil out of the fruit is important, too.
After the oil is extracted, it can either be refined, or left unrefined. Refined oils will have a milder taste, and less nutritional value. Typically the refining process involves heating the oil to high temperatures.
When reading labels, pay attention to the extraction method AND whether it's been refined or not. Both are important in determining whether you should eat it.
7. An Organic Label on Oil Doesn't Mean It's Good For You
"Organic" oil means that the fruit was grown by organic principles. It doesn't mean anything about how the oil was extracted, or whether it has been refined.
Be an informed consumer and don't fall into the trap that "organic" means it's healthy. This just states something about how the fruit was grown. And while it's great that the fruit was grown according to Organic principles, it doesn't tell the whole story.
8. When Oil Starts Smoking...Stop and Throw it Out
The smoke point of an oil is the temperature that it begins to smoke. When it smokes, the oil changes its composition and the nutrition is severely compromised. If your oil starts smoking, throw it out and start over. Either turn the heat down, or choose a different oil with a higher smoke point to cook with.
9. Most Vegetable Oil is Made From GMO Soybeans
We start with something seemingly healthy, douse it with chemicals, press it, bleach it, deodorize it, and heat it so high that any nutrition that was once there is no where to be found. And what you end up with is something that doesn't look anything like what you started with.
Right now, most vegetable oils are made with soybeans, or a combination of soybeans, corn, and canola. Most of these crops are genetically modified, if grown in America.
10. Sunflower Oil is Not a Healthy Alternative to Vegetable Oil
In recent years, sunflower oil has been added to processed foods instead of vegetable/canola oils. Sunflower seed oil is very high in Omega-6 fatty acids (more than 70% according to this article). This means it is NOT a healthy alternative to vegetable oil.
11. The Food Industry Doesn't Have a Choice
Why are these crazy food processing plants even using these terrible oils in the first place? Processed food is made with refined oils because unrefined oils oxidize and go rancid quickly. The business of processed food relies on food being able to sit on a shelf for a while.
12. Avocado Oil is A Great Option That Can Be "Naturally Refined"
If you're looking at buying avocado oil, you might see something about "naturally refined" on the bottle. This is a relatively new process that refines the oil mechanically, rather than chemically.
Naturally refined avocado oil is not as nutritious as unrefined avocado oil, but there are still some health benefits that remain after the refining process has been completed. Avocado oil is unique in that the smoke point of the unrefined version is 480 degrees (F). The refined version can get as hot as 520 degrees (F).
Plus, avocado oil is composed of 71% monounsaturated fatty acids, 13% polyunsaturated fatty acids, and 16% saturated fatty acids. Remember, the saturated fats and the monounsaturated fats are strong and can handle some heat.
What does this all mean for me?
The best option, when you're trying to decide which oil to cook with, or which oil to use on your skin/hair, is to choose one that's as close to nature as possible. This means organic, cold or expeller pressed, raw or extra virgin or virgin, unrefined.
For cooking at high temperatures: Unrefined or naturally refined avocado oil is a great option because of its high smoke point and fairly low percentage of polyunsaturated fat (13%). Coconut oil is also a great option. Because of its high saturated fat content (90%), it is very stable when heated.
Another option for cooking is ghee (clarified butter). It's basically butter without some of the particles and moisture, so it can be heated to a higher temperature. You can make it at home, or buy it on Amazon.
For salad dressings, dips, and low temperature cooking: unrefined extra virgin olive oil is a great option with great health benefits and flavor.
So how do you feel? Enlightened? Empowered? Ready to take on the oil aisle with a little more confidence? I hope so. Let me know in the comments below if you learned something new.
Now that you know more about oils, you can make more informed decisions. If you choose to avoid refined oils altogether, buying any processed snack foods or eating out at restaurants will be nearly impossible. Here is a step-by-step guide to avoiding processed food.
I think an appropriate balance is key. Focus on nourishing your body with nutritious, unrefined oils at home, and have grace with yourself when you can't help but eat a chip...or ten.
Ready for some recipes?
Avocado oil or olive oil work great in my Five Minute Homemade Mayonnaise. Be prepared for an olive-ey taste if you use extra virgin olive oil.
Or maybe eggs aren't your thing. Try this Tangy and Creamy Avocado Mayonnaise. As the name suggests, it's tangy and creamy and full of avocado goodness.