There is A LOT to consider when it comes to cooking oils. Did I emphasize that enough? A LOT. Smoke points (the point at which an oil smokes and becomes carcinogenic), types of fat (saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated), and the manner in which the oils are extracted, just to name a few!
What’s more, the facts about fat have changed quite a lot in recent years, as numerous studies have disproved the connection between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease. Complicating things even more, some of the oils that are touted as the most healthy are actually the most unhealthy.
Cooking oils to avoid:
Vegetable oils (including canola oil) are oils extracted from seeds including rapeseed (canola oil), soybeans (soybean oil), corn, sunflower, safflower, etc. These oils did not exist until the early 20th century, when new chemical processes were created to extract the oils from these seeds. They cannot be extracted simply by pressing or separating (like olive oil, coconut oil, and butter, which are discussed on the next page), but must be chemically removed, deodorized, and altered. As a result, vegetable oils are some of the most chemically altered foods in the modern diet. The final oils can also contain the chemicals used in the extraction process, including hexane, a known neurotoxin. Additionally, vegetable oils are extremely high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are extremely unstable and oxidize easily in the body (if they have not already done so during processing or while sitting on the grocery store shelf) and cause inflammation and mutation in cells. The average individual consumes 9% of her calories from these oils; omega-6 toxicity begins at 4% intake. This is a big problem.
Margarine (including vegan butter substitutes) is typically a mix of vegetable oils. See above. They can also contain other soy and corn products, which are likely GMO if not organic.
Grapeseed oil is touted as one of the healthiest cooking oils, but like vegetable oils, it is extremely high in Omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, this oil is about 70% omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Also like vegetable oils, most grapeseed oil is produced using hexane, trace amounts of which ends up in the final product.
The healthiest oils
Olive oil is rich in the healthy omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids and has been shown to improve cholesterol levels; decrease blood pressure; decrease the risk of diabetes, age-related dementia, blood clots, and cancer; and generally increase longevity. BUT it is important to remember that when olive oil is overheated, it does more harm than good and is downright unhealthy. The “smoke point” of oil is the temperature point at which it starts to smoke (makes sense). When an oil smokes, it begins to decompose and the antioxidants in the oil are replaced by free radicals, nasty little buggers that damage cells and are carcinogenic. → Smoke point: 325°F – 375°F, low to medium heat only.
Coconut oil is my personal favorite oil for just about everything. Nearly 90% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated fats, but don’t be scared! First of all, many studies that include hundreds of thousands of people prove that the whole “artery-clogging” idea was a myth and that saturated fats are not likely associated with heart disease. Secondly, coconut oil’s saturated fats are “Medium Chain Triglycerides” (MCTs), medium-length fatty acids that go straight to the liver from the digestive tract, where they quickly become a source of energy. For this reason, coconut oil helps speed the metabolism and has been shown to aid in weight loss (counter intuitive given it’s fat content, eh?). It also helps regulate blood-sugar levels, helps regulate cholesterol levels, boosts the immune system, may negate the effect of free radicals, and can reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes. Best yet, it is ideal for high-heat cooking. Unrefined coconut oil has a stronger coconut taste and is best for medium-high cooking while refined coconut oil has little taste and is best for very high heat cooking. → Smoke point (unrefined coconut oil): 300°F – 350°, low to medium heat only. Smoke point (refined coconut oil): 400°F – 450°, medium to high heat.
Butter has developed a bad rap, but for the wrong reasons. Cholesterol is necessary for the body to function properly, and numerous studies have disproved the “cholesterol myth” that linked cholesterol to heart disease. In addition, butter from grass-fed cows is high in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2. → Smoke point: 350°F, low to medium heat only.
Ghee (a.k.a. clarified butter) was traditionally used in India. As with butter, grass-fed ghee is high in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2. (This ghee is produced from pasture-raised cows.) It is also high in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), the essential fatty acid that is believed to protect against cancer, inflammation, heart disease, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes. Since the milk solids have been removed from ghee, it has a high smoke point and is easily tolerated by those with dairy sensitivities, since it does not contain casein or lactose. Ghee is a great option for both high heat baking and cooking. → Smoke point: 450°F – 475°F, medium to high heat.