High-quality fats are an important hallmark of a healthy diet. Fats contain essential fat-soluble vitamins, provide structure to our cells but most importantly – they’re what makes food delicious. There are many different types of oils with different processing methods available on shelves in commercial grocery stores - Coconut oil, olive oil, extra virgin, refined, cold-pressed, avocado, sesame, canola, soybean, expeller-pressed, sunflower, safflower oil….How is anyone supposed to know what to use, or what cooking methods they are best suited for? To make things a little clearer, I am going to break down the most common cooking oils and the different processing methods to make choosing the right oils for the right occasion a little easier. Next time you are shopping for cooking oils, refer to these 3 simple rules to select high-quality oils appropriate for your cooking method of choice.
Rule #1: The less processing the better.
A significant problem in the standard American diet is the over-consumption of refined and partially hydrogenated oils. The problem with refined oils is that the fatty acid composition of the oil is compromised, corrupting the oil. **Warning! To explain why this is a problem we have to talk a little about cell structure. Skip ahead if science talk bores you to tears! Refining or hydrogenating oils changes the chemical structure of the oil, making it less effective at providing structure to the cells once it has been digested. While this doesn’t sound like a big deal, cells with a faulty structure start letting nutrients come in and out that shouldn’t. Eventually, this can lead to serious health problems.
Processed oils also have a high amount of Omega 6 fatty acids, which are not ideal for human health. Because they are much more abundant, the ideal ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3s is 4:1. However, the typical American diet eating person has a ratio of 14:1!
Omega 6 fats are found in common vegetable oils and are stored in the body as arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is involved in many inflammatory pathways in the body. Long-story short, excess Omega 6s = inflammation! And we don’t need that.
There are a few ways oils are processed. They can be heated or treated with solvents to yield a highly modified product that is tolerant of high temperature cooking and has a long-shelf life. These oils are labeled as “refined” or “partially hydrogenated” and should be avoided – especially “partially hydrogenated” which often contain trans-fats - the worst of them all! Oils labeled as “virgin”, “extra-virgin”, “expeller-pressed” and “cold-pressed” have not been treated with heat or solvents. They are the closest to finding the fat in it’s natural state and are what you want, regardless of the type of oil you are buying.
Rule #2: Choose oils with healthy fats.
As I stated above, Americans greatly over-consume omega 6 fats because of the abundance of processed vegetable oils in convenience foods. Vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, safflower and soybean are all rich in Omega 6 fats and do not contain the highly desirable Omega 3 and Omega 9 fatty acids. These fats are found in avocado oil, extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil, flax oil and fatty fish. When choosing convenience foods, opt for products made with olive or avocado oil whenever possible.
Coconut oil is a bit controversial. Admittedly, I cook with it at home sometimes because it has a high smoke point and is a good choice for high temperature cooking – which I will get into next. However, coconut oil is a saturated fat like what is found in butter or meats. Saturated fat is a known culprit in driving cholesterol production and is discouraged in large amounts for heart health. Coconut oil is unique because it mostly contains medium-chain triglycerides - which is just a fancy term to describe the length of the fatty acid. The length of the fatty acid tail will change how it is utilized by the body, and medium-chain triglycerides are thought to be readily utilized and not stored as fat. There is also some evidence indicating that MCTs increase HDL cholesterol and not LDL cholesterol usually associated with saturated fat – but more research is needed to say definitively. Coconut oil has been sensationalized by health gurus as a cure all and is now found in many convenience products instead of processed vegetable oils. Although we definitely need more research, I generally think this switch from canola to coconut is a good thing. But like any good thing, too much can be a bad thing so the key here is moderation. I generally alternate between avocado and coconut oil when cooking at home to moderate my coconut oil intake, just in case.
Rule #3: Choose the right oil for the right cooking method
This is an issue I have noticed for a lot of the people I work with. Most people know olive oil is a high-quality oil, so they use it for all stages of the cooking process. However, olive oil has a low smoke point, and does not tolerate high-heat cooking methods like frying or sautéing. Olive oil can be used in baking because the inside of the food will not be as hot as the oven, so the oil is protected. Olive oil is best used as a finishing oil, in salad dressings or sauces that will not be heated. Other delicate oils that should not be introduced to heat are flax, hemp and walnut oils.
The best oils for high-heat cooking are oils with a high smoke point. Oils that can tolerate up to 500 degrees are best for sautéing and frying. Use avocado, coconut, ghee or sesame oil for high temperature cooking. Use sesame oil selectively because it is mostly Omega 6 fats (see rule #2).
I hope you found this guide to buying the right oils helpful! Drop any questions about oils I didn’t cover in the comments!