Healthy Cooking Oils:
There is a lot of misinformation and/or maybe a lack of understanding about healthy cooking oils and just how bad some of the oils out there can be for our health. It is my hope to break down some of the most important bits of information so that you can learn to make better decisions about what you are not only spending your money on but also what may be contributing to some health problems.
Are fats really essential?
So the first issue I would like to tackle is that healthy cooking oils should be avoided altogether, because oils are fattening and fat is bad for us. Unfortunately this isn’t exactly the case and all fats are not created equal. You see essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are just that, essential for our health and because our bodies cannot make them, we need to ensure we are getting the right EFA’s from our diet to ensure optimal health. For example, fats are essential for brain health, as fats are a part of the myelin sheath, which is a fatty material that wraps around our nerve cells allowing for electrical messages to be sent. Fats are also responsible for transporting fat soluble vitamins through the bloodstream to where they are needed (this includes Vitamins A, D, E and K). Fats also help to form steroid hormones that are needed to help regulate many body processes and also provide a source of energy that our body uses. These are just a few of the important roles that fats play within our bodies, so yes, we all need fat.
So how do you know how much fat to consume or which ones are best to include in your diet? As I truly believe everyone is different, I can’t provide a definite answer to the first question; however, I hope to answer the second part of that question for you now. I chose to focus this on cooking oils, because everyone uses them fairly often and I really do want people to be aware of what oils are best to use and what are best to be avoided.
What oils to include and how?
Coconut Oil: This one has definitely been getting positive reviews for many reasons the last few years and it is a personal favourite of mine for several reasons. First, it has a fairly high smoke point, which means it is safe to use for baking and cooking at temperatures up to 450 degrees. If you buy virgin coconut oil, it doesn’t impart a strong coconut flavour which is definitely beneficial when cooking. It is a completely saturated fat that has been shown to actually increase your metabolism, thus possibly helping with weight loss. Coconut oil has also been shown to reduce cholesterol, kill harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses and fungi (thanks to the lauric acid), increase energy and promote a healthy digestive tract! Now back to the fact that this oil is a complete saturated fat usually makes people question how healthy this fat can be. Well, coconut oil contains Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) which just means that the fatty acids in the coconut oil are of medium length, but this also means they are metabolized differently by the body. This means they actually go straight to the liver from the digestive tract where they are used as a quick source of energy and can have a therapeutic effect on the brain. In fact, studies have shown some positive results with the use of coconut oil for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy.
Which one to buy? I would recommend buying an organic extra virgin coconut oil and as with most things, especially oils, preferably in a glass jar rather than plastic to avoid any of the plastic leaching into the product. This is also better for the environment as well!
How to use? As I said earlier, this has a fairly high smoke point, so you can use it up to 450 degrees when cooking or baking. I use this for so many things, including: baking, cooking and even oil pulling (a whole other topic that I plan on writing about later!). If you are strictly dairy free and can’t use butter, or for dietary reasons you don’t use butter, coconut oil is a great replacement and I personally use it all the time when I make homemade stovetop popcorn.
Bottom line: There are hundreds of ways you can use coconut oil and there have been books written about the health benefits of using this oil that include everything from cooking to beauty and everything in between. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and it really is a fantastic product to keep in your pantry.
Avocado Oil: If you have perused my Instagram or even this blog, you know I love avocados and I find ways to sneak them into almost anything. But not many people are aware of how great avocado oil is for cooking and that’s a shame really. Just like regular avocados, the oil is just as good for you if you are sure to use one that is cold pressed and processed using low heat as this protects the nutrients and those delicate and so important EFA’s. One of the best things about using avocado oil is the super high smoke point, as it can be used up to 500 degrees! The light flavour of avocado oil also makes it great for cooking, sautéing, broiling, baking and in homemade sauces, dips or dressings. Similar to extra virgin olive oil, this is a monounsaturated fat which has been shown to be heart healthy and also due to the high Vitamin E content is also really good for the skin and is anti-inflammatory.
Which one to buy? I personally use an organic, cold pressed avocado oil, specifically this brand due to the way in which it is extracted and also the great taste.
How to use? Due to that high smoke point, you can use this for everyday cooking quite easily. Also due to the neutral flavour, it is great for preparing many dishes where you don’t want to have a strong flavour associated with it. It can also be used in dressings, sauces and dips similar to olive oil.
Bottom line: This is one of my favourite everyday oils that I cook with and have gotten several of my friends to ditch the canola oil in favour of this one for good reason. If you don’t buy any other oil, I would recommend this one, strictly for cooking because it is the most versatile and provides so many health benefits.
Ghee: If you are not familiar with ghee, it is clarified butter that is typically used in Indian cooking, where it originated from. According to Ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine) ghee is used to treat many diseases that can be caused by an overactive pitta dosha (dosha refers to one’s overall body type) and is used quite extensively for many reasons. So what is the main difference between this and regular butter? Due to the way in which ghee is prepared, the milk solids found in butter separate, which results in a translucent golden liquid which is cooled and then stored in a glass jar. The cooking process for ghee compared to other clarified butters is also different, as with ghee, the cooking process is usually extended for a longer period of time, eliminating more of the moisture and causing the milk solids to caramelize for eventual removal from the ghee through straining. Because of the way that it is prepared, the lactose and milk protein content is very minimal, making it easier for those with dairy sensitivities to enjoy. It is still high in saturated fat, however unlike butter, it has a higher amount of MCT (similar to coconut oil as described above). It also has a higher smoke point than butter, around 400-500 degrees. I would suggest using ghee in replacement of traditional butter.
Which one to buy? It is really important that if you are purchasing ghee or even if you are making your own, you use a high quality product. This means a grass-fed butter (if making your own) or grass-fed ghee if purchasing one already made. Grass-fed ghee is particularly high in vitamins A, D, E and K and contains a higher amount and better ratio of omega 3 and 6. Also, because toxins are also fat-soluble, it is important to consume organic ghee. A brand that I have come across that is made in Toronto is Lee’s Ghee where they use butter that is sourced from local, Ontario dairy farms that is made from high quality, grass-fed butter. So I would recommend this brand if you are looking for a good one to try and you live in the Toronto area.
How to use? You can use this similar to how you would use butter. For some extra bit of indulgence, I sometimes like topping my homemade popcorn with ghee rather than coconut oil, it tastes like a dream!
Bottom line: Ghee has been around for centuries and has a unique flavour that can really bring out a different side to your dish. If you are lactose intolerant but still crave butter, then definitely give this a try. Remember to pay attention to the quality of the butter you are getting in order to ensure you getting the best product out there.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): This is one that I am sure everyone is familiar with and has used for all sorts of things. However you definitely want to make sure that you are buying a high quality extra virgin olive oil that is high in those important antioxidants and isn’t processed or cut with cheaper oils. EVOO is high in omega 6 fatty acids, vitamin E and vitamin K and contains numerous antioxidants that can help fight serious diseases. EVOO also contains anti-inflammatory substances primarily oleocanthal which has been shown to work similar to ibuprofen, which is a popular anti-inflammatory. Also, as I am sure many people know EVOO may help to protect against cardiovascular disease due in part to the olive oil protecting the LDL particles from oxidative damage. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure and prevent unwanted blood clotting. Overall, EVOO has definitely shown itself to be quite heart healthy and for that reason among others it remains as one of my go-to oils.
Which one to buy? I would recommend buying a high quality EVOO that is stored in a dark glass bottle as this will help ensure the oil is not exposed to light and protect it from oxidation. It should also be stored in a cool area, away from direct heat or light. Also, a cold pressed technique ensures that there is minimal heat used and the way in which it was pressed allows for the strongest possible nutrient composition. I love using this brand.
How to use? I use EVOO in salad dressings or for drizzling on vegetables (after cooking) and in dips mainly. I wouldn’t recommend using it for cooking at all, however there are mixed reviews on the safety of doing so, I personally don’t use it for cooking, especially when there are other options available.
Sesame oil: This a great oil to use for many purposes and has many therapeutic effects when you start incorporating them in your daily life. I do like to use this oil for drizzling on foods, in sauces or dips, but I don’t generally cook with it as I am not sure how high the smoke point is with this oil. Regardless, the taste is superb and is a definite must when cooking Asian inspired meals. Sesame oil has been shown to be great for hair and skin health as it contains a decent amount of zinc which is incredibly important for skin health. It may also help to prevent dandruff because it kills the bacteria that causes the problem. Due to its ability to kill bacteria and pathogens, it is also a great oil to use for oil pulling as well. Due to the polyunsaturated fats, it is also great at keeping cholesterol levels low and may reduce atherosclerosis.
Which to buy? Sounding like a broken record by now, but I would suggest buying a good quality organic sesame seed oil like this one. Again, it is important to buy in glass and keep it away from heat, sun and too much light.
How to use? I use this oil mainly as a garnish when making Asian inspired dishes, drizzling it on veggies or in sauces or dips is my favourite way to use it. As I referenced above, it is also great for many other uses, like oil pulling, hair masks and included in DIY face oils or masks.
What oils NOT to use
Just as important as what oils you should be using, it’s equally important to be aware of what oils to avoid. Here are my thoughts on what oils to avoid altogether.
Canola oil: This oil has long been touted for its heart healthy benefits as it is high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, however in my opinion this is one of the worst oils to cook with and here is why. First, approximately 90% of the world’s canola crop is genetically modified. Since 1995, Monsanto has manufactured the canola plant so that it is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide RoundUp. This has caused a whole host of problems for the environment, workers/farmers and our health and for that reason alone, I would recommend steering clear of canola oil. If you are interested in seeing how canola oil is made, I highly recommend watching this video, it certainly is eye-opening and really shows you how processed this oil really is. I don’t think the video was meant to turn people off of canola oil, but it sure does! The way in which it is heated is also cause for concern, as this causes the fats to become rancid and damaged and a large portion of these fats turn into trans fats, not so heart healthy after all! Canola oil manufacturers and those that push for canola oil consumption also like to praise this oil for the high omega 3 content. However, the plant based omega 3 form that it is in (ALA) is actually useless because it is not in the correct form and our bodies are inefficient at converting that ALA form to EPA and DHA. Regardless, during that intense manufacturing process, these fats have been so badly damaged that they have turned into trans fats anyways.
Corn /soybean /safflower/sunflower oils: Similar to the issues with canola oil, the way in which these vegetable oils are processed makes it extremely unstable and can increase inflammation within your body. Furthermore, the way in which these vegetable oils are processed (using a solvent called hexane) results in even further issues. If you watch that video link above, you can see for yourself how much processing is involved in making these types of oils. The solvent that is used to extract the oil, is called hexane and is quite volatile and has been listed as a hazardous air pollutant by the EPA. Occupational hazards aside, are consumers at risk? Big industry and government tend to advise that although small amounts may be present in products, the amounts in the oil are too low to have any effect on people. However, with the abundance of processed foods and the amount of unhealthy oils people are using, the long term risks of including these types of oils made with hexane are unknown.
I hope that this was useful to you and cleared up some pesky misconceptions regarding canola oil being at all healthy. Healthy cooking oils do exist and can be a part of your everyday diet. I would love to know what oils you use for cooking or otherwise and of course if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them here.