Are you confused about which fat to buy? Would you like to learn which is the healthiest cooking oil?
The Ultimate Guide To Healthy Fats will guide you through the confusion, ignore the nonsense and marketing mumbo jumbo. You will learn what to use, what to avoid and why.
This is a guest post by Michael Joseph who is a passionate nutrition educator with a master’s degree in Nutrition Education. He is the founder of Nutrition Advance where he frequently writes nutrition and health-related articles. He believes that nutrition advice has become overly complicated and that we need to get back to the basics and value our traditional food. Photo credits go to Nutrition Advance.
What Are Healthy Fats?
Just what is the healthiest cooking oil?
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There is a whole world of cooking oils out there and choosing the healthy option can be very confusing.
Pick up a newspaper, and you’ll hear a dietitian talking about how you should choose ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils.
On the other hand, read a few online blogs, and suddenly butter seems to be optimal.
The Ultimate Guide To Healthy Fats will reduce the confusion and go through the different types of oil in more detail.
Are Vegetable Oils Good For You?
Public health organizations usually urge us to eat these polyunsaturated oils, but is vegetable oil healthy?
One of the most important points in answering this question relates to the saturated fat content.
We often hear about the benefits of canola and sunflower oil, and perhaps the most familiar soundbite is that they are ‘low in saturated fat.’
Of course, this presumes that saturated fat is inherently bad for us – which it isn’t. In fact, large-scale studies over recent years show that saturated fatty acids have no relation to heart disease risk (1, 2, 3, 4).
So, when you hear people saying about how Canola oil is the healthy choice, remember that these comments are largely driven by a fear of saturated fat.
The irony here is that saturated fats are the best option for cooking due to their heat stability (5, 6).
On the other hand, the majority of vegetable oils are high in polyunsaturated fat — mainly omega-6.
What’s the problem with vegetable oils?
As mentioned above, this vast amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids in vegetable oil causes two major problems:
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are the least heat-stable of all fats, which means the cooking oil has a higher chance of oxidizing. Saturated fats are the most stable and monounsaturated fat comes somewhere in between. (7)
They have a significant amount of omega-6 fat (pro-inflammatory) but very little omega-3 (anti-inflammatory). In other words, regular consumption of vegetable oil imbalances our omega 3-6 ratio and promotes inflammation (8, 9).
With this in mind, if you want the best oil to cook with, then it’s better to stay away from all ultra-processed vegetable oils.
What does “ultra-processed” mean?
Well, if you squeeze an olive or an avocado what happens? Oil comes out.
A significant amount of the coconut, olive and avocado oil that you can buy is naturally cold-pressed.
Try squeezing a rapeseed (used to make canola) or a piece of corn and see what happens. I’m betting that you won’t see much oil!
No, to get oil out of a seed or grain requires a lot more work. To be specific, it involves the use of high-heat presses and the chemical hexane for extraction (10).
Also, the resulting oil looks and smells terrible, so the manufacturers use bleach and deodorizers to make it presentable (11, 12).
If you’re curious, you can see the process of making vegetable oils here:
The Fats To Avoid
Some people call LCHF ‘low-carb, healthy fat,’ and the ‘healthy’ part is essential. While some fats are extremely good for you, others are far from healthy.
To make it easier for you, here’s a list of some of the most unhealthy vegetable oils.
1. Canola oil
Canola oil is one of the most common oils to find in kitchens around the world. However, as shown in the video above, it is not something we want to be putting in our bodies.
2. Corn oil
Corn oil has a few uses – one is for biodiesel, and another is for cooking food. But studies suggest we are better to avoid it and show that it can promote cancer. Corn oil also contains a small level of trans fat, which increases when heated (13, 14).
3. Cottonseed oil
Cottonseed oil is easy to see in various junk food in stores; it’s often used to make trans fat and is one of the very worst oils for health. It’s extremely high in omega-6 and frequently contains pesticides and chemical contaminants used in the cottonseed industry (15, 16).
4. Grapeseed oil
Again, grapeseed oil is very high in omega-6, and the extraction process typically uses hexane. People promoting the oil often claim that it has a ‘high smoke point,’ but this is far less important than the fatty acid composition.
Unbelievably, margarine once held the status of a ‘healthy butter substitute.’ For anyone with interest in business, this is an excellent example of what marketing can achieve.
Thankfully, people are now swapping margarine out and going back to butter.
6. Peanut oil
The nutritional profile of peanut oil is better than most vegetable oils, as it is mainly monounsaturated fat rather than polyunsaturated omega-6 (19).
However, in most cases, peanut oil is the result of a harsh chemical extraction process and is better to avoid.
7. Safflower oil
Extremely high in omega-6 oil, this industrial product is another to avoid. In a study that replaced saturated fat with safflower oil in CVD patients, the result was higher mortality (20).
8. Soybean oil
Soybean oil is also highly refined and a significant source of omega-6. Recent studies even show it as “more obesogenic and diabetogenic than sugar” (21).
9. Sunflower oil
Similar to peanut oil, sunflower oil has more monounsaturated fatty acids and is better than most oils on this list. However, it still contains a reasonable amount of omega-6 and is usually industrially processed.
On the other hand, if you can find cold-pressed high OLEIC sunflower oil, then that one isn’t too bad. It’s very low in polyunsaturated fats and has the same fatty acids as found in olive oil, meat and lard (22).
All in all, these oils are highly processed and damage the body.
How To Choose a Cooking Oil
Many people promote the ‘smoke point’ of oil as the most essential factor.
However, this is far from the most important thing to consider.
It’s common sense not to let the food smoke, and if we emphasize lower heat cooking, then this will never be a problem.
In reality, the most important thing to consider is the type of fatty acids in the cooking oil.
Saturated fat is found in animal products, as well as tropical fats (coconut and palm oil).
All fats are made of carbons and surrounded by hydrogen atoms.
Saturated fats have no double bonds, and the carbons are fully surrounded (saturated) by hydrogen. This saturation gives the fat higher stability against oxidative damage.
Saturated fats are therefore the most heat stable and the best choice for high heat cooking.
Read more: Low fat vs low carb
Monounsaturated fats are a little different in that they have a single double bond. This bond makes them slightly less resistant to oxidation compared to saturated fats.
However, these fats tend to be extremely high in antioxidants and polyphenols which help protect the fat against oxidative damage.
Overall, they are relatively stable during cooking.
Polyunsaturated fats contain more than one double bond, which makes them the most prone to oxidation.
It is best never to heat polyunsaturated fats.
Why is Oxidation Bad?
So, what’s the big problem if heat oxidizes our cooking oil?
Well, oxidized fat causes inflammation in the body, which has links to almost every modern chronic disease (23).
Oxidation can turn good oil into an unhealthy one.
What Are Good Vegetable Oil Substitutes?
So, maybe now you’ve decided that your omega-6 vegetable oil isn’t the best option, but how can you replace it?
The good news is that if you’re looking for a replacement for vegetable oil, there’s a huge range of choice.
Here is a quick list of healthier choices for cooking:
- Avocado oil
- Bacon fat
- Coconut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Goose fat
- Red palm oil
All of these fats are very natural, either coming from animals or plants without needing vast industrial production processes.
Just a quick note regarding red palm oil: while it is a healthy source of fat, look for a certified sustainable source. Sadly, many palm oil products are unsustainable and result in widespread deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats (28).
Choosing the Right Fat
Precisely which fat you choose may depend on the situation and, if following a recipe, may involve making smart recipe substitutions.
For example, the best fat for baking would be butter or ghee. So, if you see vegetable oil or margarine in a recipe, you can use butter as a healthy substitute for it.
If you want the tastiest food possible, then bacon fat, lard, or goose fat is hard to beat.
And if you’re making a salad, then extra virgin olive oil is the king (with a bit of balsamic vinegar of course!)
In other words, there may be a difference between the healthiest cooking oil and the best fit for each recipe.
The Healthiest Cooking Oil: My Top 5
In no particular order, here are five contenders for the ‘healthiest cooking oil’ title.
I use these different oils depending on the situation, and they are all delicious as well as healthy.
All nutrition data is based on a per 100g basis and sourced from the USDA.
Saturated Fat: 12g Monounsaturated Fat: 71g Polyunsaturated Fat: 13g
- High in beneficial antioxidants such as proanthocyanidins and carotenoids. These compounds support our overall body health and help with everything from eyesight to cardiovascular health (29, 30).
- While not a saturated fat, avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols; this gives it excellent resistance to high-heat cooking (31) .
- Various studies show that avocado oil protects against oxidative stress (32, 33).
- Avocado oil has a neutral taste, so it’s a great choice for many dishes (such as homemade mayo).
- The price: if it were not so expensive, then avocado oil might be the perfect oil. Because of its high cost, I favour olive oil.
Saturated Fat: 87g Monounsaturated Fat: 6g Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.8g
- Coconut oil is 87% saturated fat, and this makes it very heat stable, so it’s the healthiest oil for cooking (34, 35).
- Lauric acid is one of the primary fatty acids in coconut oil. Notably, lauric acid has antimicrobial properties and can protect the body against infection, bacteria, and other dangerous pathogens (36).
- Some people find that coconut oil gives their food a coconutty taste and prefer a blander flavor. However, others (including myself) don’t notice this.
Saturated Fat: 51.4g Monounsaturated Fat: 21g Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g
- For me, it’s the best-tasting fat in the world. Imagine butter but with a deeper, richer, and creamier flavour. It tastes delicious in these keto crepes.
- Ghee doesn’t contain any lactose (dairy sugars) or proteins – it’s pure fat. As a result, it is much less prone to burning than butter.
- Ghee provides a source of conjugated linoleic acid and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K. All of these compounds are essential for good health. Grass-fed ghee especially has these nutrients in greater qualities. (37, 38)
- The price: due to the extra time requirements, ghee is much more expensive than butter.
Extra virgin olive oil
Saturated Fat: 14g Monounsaturated Fat: 73g Polyunsaturated Fat: 11g
- A wealth of studies shows that olive oil is protective of the cardiovascular system (39, 40, 41).
- Similar to avocado oil, olive oil comes packed with health-protective polyphenols (42).
- Despite various myths that extra virgin olive oil is not suitable for heating, it’s one of the most heat-stable oils (43, 44).
- It gives food a great flavour.
- Be careful to choose a reputable olive oil brand. It’s rather shocking, but some dodgy manufacturers cut some olive oils with cheaper vegetable oils to increase profits (45, 46).
Saturated Fat: 27g Monounsaturated Fat: 35g Polyunsaturated Fat: 9g
- Do you know the fat in olive oil that everyone calls “heart healthy”? Well, the name is oleic acid – and it’s also the primary fatty acid in lard (47, 48).
- It gives food an incredible taste.
- Lard is full of beneficial fat-soluble vitamins and omega-3; again, these amounts are higher in lard from grass-fed animals.
- Saturated fat and monounsaturated fat are the main constituents of lard. Therefore, it is resistant to oxidation at high-heat temperatures.
- It can be difficult to find, depending on where you live.
While cooking oils from natural sources are healthy, the opposite is true for industrial vegetable oils.
Along with sugar and refined carbohydrate, these vegetable oils are some of the worst things you can possibly eat.
It’s also worth remembering that high heat cooking is not the healthiest cooking method. But when you do cook at high heat, using the fats in this article will make the food that much healthier.
Additionally, you can make all foods even more resistant to oxidation by using herbs such as rosemary and turmeric.
To sum up, the most important point to remember is to opt for a natural fat that contains predominantly saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids.
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