What fats to use for cooking and why?
I get this question a lot. “What fats do you use for cooking Mihaela?” This is a controversial subject to say the least. There is a lot of confusion and conflicting information when it comes to fats. So here is the scoop on fats.
Everybody is familiar with these statements: “cholesterol and saturated fats are clogging up your arteries”, or “cholesterol and saturated fats are the cause of heart disease and stroke”. For decades health care practitioners educated you that it’s best to avoid cholesterol, to choose low fat and fat free products versus full fat once and so on.
How it all started and what should you do now?
Our ancestors for millennia where using animal fats and tropical fats for cooking; they didn’t have access to margarines nor vegetable oils. They ate food found naturally in their environment. It all changed around 1950s when the diet-heart hypothesis was formulated by Ancel Keys. He managed to show that there was a correlation between the type and amount of fats and cholesterol consumed and the incidents of heart disease. Dr. Natasha Campbell-Mc Bride states in her book Put your heart in your mouth: “It is completely baffling as to why on earth the scientific community at that time accepted this kind of scientific evidence”, and George Mann, eminent American physician and scientist said: “The diet-heart hypothesis is the greatest scientific deception of this century, perhaps of any century”.
Even today main stream medicine hasn’t quite fully accepted that the diet-heart hypothesis is false. This is why we have conflicting information about fats. You may hear from your doctor that saturated fats and cholesterol are bad for you while other practitioners such as Dr. Perlmutter the author of The Brain Grain book just to give you one example, will tell you to bring butter back and to stay away from vegetable oils and margarines.
My goal today is to help you understand how fats are affected by heat, oxygen, and light. I’d like for you to make informed decisions next time you go shopping, to know what fats to buy and how to use them to support your health and wellness.
Heat and oxygen cause structural changes and oxidation to fats. They then become detrimental to our health, contributing to inflammatory processes in the body. Not all fats are equally denatured by heat however. By the end of this article you’ll understand what fats are heat sensitive and therefore not your best choice when it comes to cooking.
There are 3 main categories of fats:
- Unsaturated (poly and mono-unsaturated fats)
- Trans Fats
In this article I’ll touch on the first two groups. Let’s talk Saturated fats first:
They are the best fats to use for cooking and here is why.
Some properties of saturated fats (SF) that makes them suitable for high temperature cooking are:
- SF are stable at high temperature
- Have a high smoking point, meaning the temperature at which they catch fire is high
- Don’t get easily denatured by high heat, oxygen & light
- They have a longer shelf life and are more resistant to rancidity
The above characteristics make saturated fats the least affected by heat and make them your best choice when it comes to frying, baking, roasting and sautéing.
How do you recognize a saturated fat?
- SF are solid at room temperature & solid in the refrigerator.
Some examples of saturated fats are:
- Butter and ghee (clarified butter). Choose those from grass fed, pasture raised cows
- Lard (fat coming from pork)
- Tallow (fat coming from beef)
- Other fats saved from roasting chicken, duck, goose
- The visible fat on red meat and under the poultry’s skin
- Coconut oil/butter
- Palm kernel oil/butter
Now let’s take a look at the unsaturated fats or fatty acids. There are of two kinds: poly and mono – unsaturated, also known as PUFA & MUFA.
First let’s clarify what makes a fat saturated or unsaturated. Saturation is determined by the amount of hydrogen atoms that are feeding into the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. The more hydrogen the more saturated the fat is and the more stable, the less hydrogen the more unsaturated the fat is and the more unstable.
Poly-unsaturated fats lack many hydrogen atoms making them very unstable and vulnerable to becoming denatured by oxygen, heat, and light.
Vegetable sources of PUFAs:
- Vegetable oils such as canola, corn, soybean oil, peanut, etc.
- Seeds oils such as flax, hemp, chia seeds, sunflower, and safflower seed oils, etc.
- All nuts and seeds contain PUFAs
Those are your main sources of the essential fatty acids omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid). They are considered essential because we can’t manufacture them, hence we must get them from the foods we eat.
Animal sources of FUFAs:
- The marine fats coming from the cold water fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring, anchovy, salmon, and trout are also PUFA and they provide us with the EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA & DHA are also produced in our body from the plant sources of omega-3 (e.g. flax oil, or hemp oil). The conversion rate of the omega-3 fats into DHA & EPA however, is very low, so it’s best if one acquires the DHA & EPA from the sources mentioned above or in a form of high quality fish oil supplement.
How do you recognize PUFAs?
- They are liquid at room temperature and liquid in the refrigerator as well as freezer
- A good hemp or flax seed oil will be sold in a dark bottle in the refrigerator
Now knowing that those fats are highly affected by heat, oxygen and light and they degrade into highly toxic oxidation products when heated would you use them for cooking?
I don’t use and don’t recommend using PUFA oils for cooking and when it comes to vegetable oils (e.g. canola, soybean, corn, peanut) I actually do not recommend using them at all.
Here is why.
- These oils are primarily poly-unsaturated fats, which means they are extremely sensitive to the action of heat, light and oxygen, they get oxidized, become damaged contributing to the inflammatory processes in the body.
- They are high in omega-6 fats (the inflammatory fats). A good ratio of the omega-6 to omega-3 fats (the anti-inflammatory fats) is 1:1 or 2:1. Our modern diets today supply us with a ratio of 15:1 or as high as 30:1 inflammatory omega-6 to anti-inflammatory omega -3 fats. How is that possible? This is the direct result of increased consumption of vegetable oils. Take a look at the ingredients in any packaged food you buy (potato chips, tortilla chips, pita chips, crackers, cookies, etc.) you’ll always find one of these ingredients: canola oil, sunflower oil or soybean oil, etc. and the things get even more complicated if those fats are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated which brings up the issue of the trans fats. Today I won’t get into the trans fats, we can leave that for another time.
- They’re also highly refined “food like substances”. Eating seeds and nuts in their raw un-altered form, we only extract a minute amount of these oils. It is only through extensive industrial processing that we are exposed to high levels of these fats. There are numerous scientific studies that show a correlation between the consumption of these oils and the incidence of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other inflammatory related conditions
What about canola oil? Isn’t that healthy?
Canola oil is a rich source of the omega-3 anti-inflammatory fats. So you might assume canola oil is good for you. This, however, is why I do not recommend it.
- Canola oil is extracted from a rape seed/plant that’s been modified by Canadian geneticists to make it non-toxic. The original rape seed has a high euric acid content. Euric acid is toxic to humans and animals (in rats it causes fatty degeneration of the hearth, kidney, adrenals and thyroid). The Canadian scientists through hybridization methods created a rape seed plant with low euric acid content which allows the extraction of the canola oil.
- The bottom line is: canola oil you find today in the supermarket is extracted from a plant that didn’t even exist in nature it’s a man-made product from start to finish. A “food like substance”.
Last but not least, mono-unsaturated fats or MUFA.
They have more hydrogen atoms than the PUFAs but less than the saturated fats. Hence they are a bit more stable that the PUFAs and less stable tan the saturated fats, they fall somewhere I the middle. These fats are not as sensitive to heat, light and oxygen exposure, as the poly-fats are, however sensitive enough to suffer damage and denaturation while heated.
Food sources of MUFAs:
- Olive oil is a mono-unsaturated fat also known as omega -9 or oleic acid rich oil. Other plants that are good source of the oleic acid are almond, avocado, pecan, cashew, filbert and macadamia nuts.
How do you recognize mono-fats?
- They are liquid at room temperature and become cloudy when refrigerated (fun fact-when you refrigerate olive oil it gets a bit thicker and forms white clouds).
- A good olive oil will be sold in a dark glass bottle
My recommendation is to use those fats on cold meals (salads, in shakes) or low heat dishes such as on steamed vegetables. Store them in dark bottles away from direct light and heat exposure.
I like to say if you pay extra for a first cold press extra virgin olive oil, just keep it that wayJ.
At a glance:
|Best used for cooking||
Best used for cold dishes
|Best to avoid|
Ghee(from grass fed cows)
Lard & any other animal fat rendered from cooking
Hemp seed oils
Other Nut and seed oils