We’ve all heard by now that fat does not make you fat. In fact, many of the trendiest diets are now centered around fat. But fats are not all created equal. When we look at how we evaluate fats, we need to look at things like how stable they are, how they were processed, the quality of the source, and the roles they play in our bodies. I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to cooking with fat – what to use and when, and what fats we should always avoid.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.
WHAT TO AVOID
“Vegetable” Oils like Canola, Soybean, Cottonseed, Sunflower, + Corn
Vegetable oils are actually seed oils that have been highly processed with heat and chemicals. The result is oil with fatty-acid profiles entirely new to humans within the last 70 or so years, with a greater ratio of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats to omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. The ideal ratio for omega-3 and omega-6 fats is 1:1 or 1:4, but the average Western diet now contains closer to 1:16, which can largely be attributed to our increased intake of vegetable oils. While both types of polyunsaturated fats are necessary, an imbalance can lead to major troubles, and the amount of vegetable oil we are now consuming may be at the root of many of our chronic diseases.
Vegetable oils are also highly unstable and prone to oxidation. Oxidation creates degradation products that are toxic, and possibly carcinogenic, and have been shown to cause cardiovascular disease. Oxidation can occur during improper storage (if your oil smells rancid, like a strong, off odor), or when heated above 210 degrees, which is a lower temperature than we typically use to cook. Oxidation can also happen inside the body, and the structure of omega-6’s make it more likely to occur than with saturated or monounsaturated fat.
Where are we getting a lot of vegetable oils? Restaurants and packaged/prepared foods. Most restaurants use vegetable oil in their cooking, especially deep-fried food. This oil is oxidized, and often used again and again, and should be avoided. Most packaged foods will contain some type of vegetable oil, and many prepared foods in the deli section, even those from grocery stores like Whole Foods, use nearly all vegetable oil. So, while most of us can’t avoid vegetable oil altogether, we can minimize our consumption. We can do this by not cooking with it at home, cooking for ourselves more often than eating out/ordering takeout, and when we do eat out, being mindful about skipping the deep-fried foods.
Trans fats – Partially Hydrogenated Oils
This has become pretty widespread knowledge in recent years, but big food companies are still sneaking trans fats into processed foods. Always make sure you read the list of ingredients and look for the term “partially hydrogenated.” Nutritional labels may show 0g trans fat, but if the food contains less than .5g, the company can legally list it at 0g. Your best bet? Eat whole foods and packaged snacks with less than 5 ingredients!
Okay, so now that we’ve gotten the bad ones out of the way, let’s look at why fat is awesome! Fat is essential to support health; fat gives us energy and it’s also a major building block for basic structures of our bodies. Now, that doesn’t mean that we should go crazy. These cooking fats are added fats, and scooping giant portions of coconut oil or butter onto everything we eat may have a negative effect – just as eating too many carbs, or all protein would. It’s about the right macronutrient balance. But adding fats to, say, a vegetable dish, will allow us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in those veggies so much better – plus it makes them taste amazing! So what fats should we use, and when?
Ghee (Clarified Butter)
Fat profile: 62% saturated, 29% monounsaturated, 4% polyunsaturated
Cooking heat tolerated: High-heat cooking
Butter’s clarified counterpart, also known as Ghee, is butter with the milk solids removed. It has a similar flavor to butter, and can actually be used for cooking at high temperatures because of its higher fat content.
Pork Lard + Beef Tallow
Fat makeup: 40-55% saturated, 48-50% monounsaturated, and 3-12% polyunsaturated
Cooking heat tolerated: High-heat cooking + frying
This will make some of you recoil, as we’ve been so conditioned to believe that animal fat is what clogs our arteries and makes our cholesterol shoot through the roof. While there is a very small percentage of the population that is genetically wired to experience hypercholesterolemia from eating high saturated fat, most of us can eat a moderate amount without issue. Actually, with great benefit and protective qualities! Now, the source of the animal fats we use are important here. When we consume pastured animal fat, we are getting a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. Also, toxins are stored in fat, so buying animals/animal fat that haven’t been fed feed tainted with pesticides is important here.
Coconut + Palm Oil
Fat makeup: Coconut: 92% saturated, 6% monounsaturated, 2% polyunsaturated; Palm/palm kernel oil: 86% saturated, 12% monounsaturated, 2% polyunsaturated
Cooking heat tolerated: High-heat cooking
Both coconut and palm oil are rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCT’s), which are a special type of short-chain fatty acid. They don’t require bile salts for digestion and can be metabolized very easily, even for people without a gallbladder. They don’t oxidize easily, so these oils are great for cooking and can be stored for longer periods of time. I use these primarily for sauteing in Asian-inspired dishes or for something sweet, like pancakes. It’s also a great substitution for vegetable oils in baked goods. I just melt the portion called for and add it in.
Fat makeup: 12% saturated, 76% monounsaturated, 12% poly
Cooking heat tolerated: medium-high heat (refined can be higher)
We are seeing avocado oil more and more as its benefits are touted, and as more people are looking for mild-tasting alternatives to more inflammatory “vegetable oils”. Showing up in a few store-bought salad dressings and mayonnaises, it’s becoming the go-to substitution for “vegetable” oil. Unfortunately, because it’s so new to the market, there’s not much regulation about the quality or even the contents of the commercially sold avocado oil. In a study done recently by UC Davis, 82% of 22 different store-bought avocado oils were found to be either rancid before their expiration date or mixed with something other than avocado oil. Three of the samples were actually found to contain no avocado oil at all! They instead contained soybean or some cheaper vegetable oil. The brands found to be of high-quality in the avocado oil study were Chosen Foods, Mariannes, and CalPure.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Fat profile: 14% saturated, 75% monounsaturated, 9% polyunsaturated
Cooking heat tolerated: Moderately high heat cooking, if using a high-quality e.v. olive oil
There has been a lot of conflicting information on the use of EVOO for cooking. The idea was because it’s a virgin oil, it shouldn’t be heated, but a high quality extra virgin olive oil is actually very stable to use up to 450 degrees! It’s the high polyphenol content that gives it protective qualities and reduces the possibility of oxidation. I personally use EVOO in a lot of my cooking, including sauteing and roasting.
Deceptive labeling is an issue with extra virgin olive oil. Look for domestic brands, buy oils only in dark glass bottles, and note the taste; it should be pungent or peppery (this is a sign of high polyphenol content). As with all oils, it’s important to store it in a dark, cool place, and use it within six months to ensure it stays fresh.
Fat profile: 34% saturated, 16% monounsaturated, 2% polyunsaturated
Cooking heat tolerated: Low-medium heat cooking
A staple in our diets for many years, butter lost favor for decades due to the rising popularity for what was considered the healthier alternative at the time, Margarine. Well, now we’re welcoming butter back with open arms! Butter is great for low-medium heat sauteing and baking. Buy grass-fed to get the most nutrient-density and the healthiest fat ratios.
Other oils to use in moderate-heat cooking:
- Sesame oil
- Walnut oil
- Macadamia oil
- Hazelnut oil
Finishing oils – do not heat! Store in the fridge for longer life:
- Flaxseed oil
- Hempseed oil
- Pinenut oil
- Pumpkin seed oil