Healthy Fats and Oils Part 2

It’s Friday: time for another “One Simple Change” post! If you are new to my One Simple Change series, here’s the deal: every Friday in 2012, I am blogging about healthy lifestyle tips gleaned from my years studying and practicing naturopathic medicine. As much as I love sharing recipes, I enjoy sharing other information related to health and wellness, too; these posts are a way for me to do just that.

Today I’ve got a follow up to last week’s discussion of fats and oils. I received a bunch of questions about which fats and oils to use when, so I felt it made sense to spend more time on this topic.

If you read part 1 last week, you know that I am all for the use of natural fats and oils (aka traditional fats and oils), and that I don’t recommend using the more processed, newer, “man-made” fats and oils that are touted as healthy (ie margarine, shortening, and certain vegetable oils), but which in reality, are not.

The information here is based on my own research and experiences cooking and eating this way for many years now…I hope this post helps to clear up any confusion you have about how to use healthy fats and oils in your kitchen, but if not, shoot me your questions and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Healthy Fats Part 2 | Healthy Green Kitchen

Let’s start with general cooking: i.e. sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, etc…techniques where you are using heat that ranges from low to high (but not as high as deep frying). The best fats and oils for these purposes are going to be those that are saturated and monounsaturated, as these are the most stable (ie they have a pretty high smoke point) when heated to moderately high temperatures: butter, organic coconut oil, and olive oil.

When I was growing up, I always felt bad about eating butter. And coconut oil? I wouldn’t have touched it with a ten foot pole. You’ll still find many sources that say you shouldn’t eat these fats because they’re saturated, but there is also a ton of recent evidence that says not only are these fats not harmful, they are actually health promoting. I use butter and organic coconut oil all the time in my kitchen. Last week I told you that it’s best to use organic butter and I stand by this statement, and if you can get not just organic, but grass-fed butter, you are extremely lucky indeed…it’s full of vitamins and a special fat-burning nutrient called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). But if you can’t get grass-fed butter or you just can’t justify spending the money on organic butter, then it’s still better to use regular butter than it is to use butter substitutes and some of the vegetable oils.

Organic butter to me is like a treasure- it’s expensive, yes, but that just makes me savor it all the more. It’s really the best fat for baking, and the flavor is incomparable. As for organic coconut oil, I just adore it: I use it in dishes with an Asian flavor profile (stir-fries, Asian soups and stews, etc), and I like experimenting with it in baked goods, too. It’s also great for cooking eggs. The only potential issue is that it does have a somewhat pronounced coconut flavor which not everyone loves (my husband, for example, is not a fan). That said, if you enjoy the taste but are still wary about using butter and/or coconut oil, know that these are said to be the best fats to ingest if you have blood sugar issues (even better than olive oil); organic coconut oil also has a reputation as being useful for weight loss: this one is my favorite.

organic coconut oil

Unlike some of the other traditional fats and oils, olive oil has always a good reputation health-wise. It isn’t saturated; it’s a monounsaturated fat. While many people think that olive oil is not suited to high heat cooking, olive oil has long been used for every type of cooking in countries like Spain. This makes sense because olive oil has a high smoke point. I personally use olive oil a ton in my kitchen. I cook with it daily, bake with it on occasion, and use it just about every time I make salad dressing. I am happy to see that Diana of A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa wrote a post and made a video about the right way to cook with extra virgin olive oil. Note that to preserve the healthful properties of olive oil, it’s very important to bring it up to higher temperatures slowly (if the oil starts to smoke, it’s too hot), and that it’s not appropriate for deep frying.

Now let’s talk about animal fats like lard, duck fat, and tallow (rendered beef fat). These are quite suitable for cooking and baking, and in some circles (among those who eat “paleo”, for example), these fats are actually preferred to butter and olive oil for general cooking, especially high heat cooking. This article by Pete Wells for Food and Wine entitled Lard: The New Health Food sums up cooking with lard quite nicely; it’s really time people let go of the fear of cooking with this useful fat. I am not talking about the highly refined lard, etc. you can find in a typical grocery store, though. I am talking about lard rendered from the fat of grass-fed pigs, and the other animal fats need to come from pastured animals in order for them to be healthy, too. Always remember that when eating animal fats (and all animal foods in general), the environment in which the animal was raised has everything to do with whether or not the fat or meat of that animal will be good for you. The fats (and meat) of pastured/grass-fed animals have a completely different nutritional profile than the fats (and meat) of animals raised on a feedlot.

If you want to eat animal fats (and meat) that are healthy, you need to buy them from a local farm or a butcher that sells grass fed animal products. I personally don’t use animal fats in my kitchen all that much, but pie crust made with pastured lard is fantastic, as are potatoes roasted in duck fat. I don’t have any experience with tallow. I will say that I was previously using grapeseed oil for frying (which I only do on occasion for latkes and a few other foods), but in researching this piece, I’ve decided not to use grapeseed oil at all anymore (because it’s rich in vitamin E which really shouldn’t be heated; it also likely contains GMOs); from now on, whenever I do fry something, I am going to use pastured lard.

What about cooking with peanut and sesame oils? My feeling is that these are fine, though peanut oil is high in omega 6 fatty acids, and most people already consume too much of these. Sesame oil is better drizzled onto foods then it is as a cooking oil because it’s pretty fragile, and what you’re really after is its wonderful intense taste, which gets lost when you cook with it. Macadamia, pumpkin seed, and rice bran oil are other examples of oils that are fine for cooking at moderate temperatures; avocado is yet another, and I was surprised to learn it has a very high smoke point. Make sure that any oils you buy are cold pressed and unrefined, and don’t contain GMOs.

I often see recommendations that it’s healthy to cook over high temperatures with canola, cottonseed, soy, sunflower, and safflower oils. I don’t agree with this at all because all of these cheap oils are generally refined, bleached, and deodorized. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to put stuff like that into my body. “Vegetable oil” is generally a mixture of refined oils- and is best avoided, too (note that unsaturated oils like canola oil are actually quite fragile, and really aren’t suited for high temperature cooking because they are prone to oxidative damage at high heat…I don’t recommend using canola oil at all in the kitchen, but if you really want to use it, only use it uncooked; if you do cook with it, don’t use it over moderate heat).

Unlike the refined, mass-produced, cheap oils mentioned above, flaxseed oil, as well as almond oil, walnut oil and other oils from nuts and seeds you would eat, are quite healthful, and are perfect for using cold: these are best in salad dressings and drizzled over cooked dishes. These oils are quite fragile, so should not be heated, and should be purchased and used when they’re as fresh as possible. Flaxseed oil, in particular, must be kept refrigerated and should be used up within a month or so because it goes rancid quickly. A good quality flax oil will always have the bottling date and the “best before” date printed on the label. As for flax seeds- I think these are best ground fresh, and used raw. Though I have added them to baked goods on occasion, I don’t think this is ideal.

One last note: don’t forget that along with figuring out the best ways to use healthy fats and oils in your kitchen comes the need to be aware of what fats and oils are in prepared foods you buy, as well as food you eat when you’re not at home. Read labels of all packaged foods and be sure to avoid anything with partially hydrogenated oils and/or trans-fats, and know that when you eat in a restaurant, the fats and oils used might be questionable (depending on where you eat).

Did I leave anything out? Please let me know if you still have questions. Is having this information helpful for you? Will it change the way you cook and eat? Are you “in” to this weekend One Small Change?

Sources consulted for this post:
The Diet Cure
Real Food: What to Eat and Why
Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats
The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book: Protect Yourself and Your Family from Heart Disease, Arthritis, Diabetes, Allergies – and More