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There are so many different choices for cooking oils. In a large natural foods store, there might be an entire aisle full of bottles and tins from all across the world. With nutritional studies emerging all the time that seemingly contradict eachother, it can be hard to know exactly which oil is the best choice for your family. I decided it was time to find out for sure. I'm not an expert but I thought I would share what I found out.
It all comes down to organic chemistry. There are four basic types of dietary fatty acids, which are molecular chains of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. These are saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Your body breaks apart the chemical bonds and the energy is either used or stored away for later.
You hear a lot about "good" fats and "bad" fats. The good fats are generally considered to be plant based and are liquid at room temperature. The bad fats are usually recognized as being solid at room temperature. This has included saturated fats, found in butter, cheese and red meat, but this viewpoint is changing as we learn more. Many people can use ghee or coconut oil for everyday cooking with no health problems, as long as moderation is used. Nutritionists recommend getting no more than 10% of your daily food intake from saturated fats. They should be avoided if cholesterol levels or heart disease are a concern, just like red meat and cheese.
What hasn't changed is a recommendation to avoid "trans fats", or trans fatty acids. These are often manmade partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, found in things like margarine and some oils used for deep frying. Unlike saturated fats, they have very little benefitThis type of fat has been banned in many countries.
This category contains all the essential fatty acids that are needed for a healthy body. Monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, and many other oils from nuts, seeds or grains. Because of the chemical structure, they are always liquid at room temperature. This is also true of polyunsaturated fats, that are found in fish and flaxseed (omega-3) and in corn, soybean and "vegetable" oil (omega-6). Many oils, like canola and avocado oil, contain both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fats, which have become the darling of the supplement industry, are an important type of polyunsaturated fat. The body can't make these, so they must come from food. The fatty acid works as an antioxidant in the body, clearing out cells and promoting healing. An excellent way to get omega-3 fats is by eating fish two or three times a week. Good plant sources of omega-3 fats include chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and oils such as flaxseed, canola, and soybean. Grass fed meat also have a higher percentage of omega-3 than commercially farmed meats.
Omega-6 fats are also needed by the body but our Western diet is full of this fatty acid so it is rarely necessary to worry about getting enough. Many nutritionists recommend a ratio of 4:1 (omega-6:omega-3) for the best health. Our standard American diet is more like 16:1, some report even higher amounts of omega-6. This fat works as an oxidant, which can cause inflammation in larger amounts, causing a whole host of health issues.
There are also omega-9 fatty acids but those can be created by the body so are not considered essential. One natural source is macadamia nuts.
Another factor to consider is the oil's smoke point. Although many people love to use extra virgin olive oil as a healthy option, the smoke point is much lower than a more processed oil. This means that it breaks down at a lower temperature, creating unwanted free radicals that your body will have to work harder to remove. Over time, these free radicals can cause damage or even diseases. It's better to use a lower temperature or an oil with a higher smoke point.
I personally like to use avocado oil for most cooking, which has a high smoke point of about 520 degrees F, compared to as low as 320 degrees F for extra virgin olive oil. It has a very neutral flavor. Olive oil is used for flavoring more than as a cooking medium. It's wonderful to drizzle on a dish at the end or for making dressing or sauces. If you really like to cook with olive oil, buy a version that is more processed than extra virgin. You will have a higher smoke point but not as much flavor.
I also like to use clarified butter or ghee, which has a relatively high smoke point (482 degrees F). This is a staple of Indian cooking and adds a nice flavor to meats and vegetables. I sometimes also use coconut oil as there is new evidence that this saturated fat can raise your HDL, which is the good cholesterol. It's great for making popcorn.
I have been avoiding canola oil, my old standby because it is highly processed, which can cause unintended trans fats to be created. I also avoid oils made from corn or soybeans, which are also extracted by using a solvent. My rule of thumb is to eat food with as little processing as possible.
Of course, I'm not an expert. This is merely my opinion after reviewing information on healthy oils from different sources. Be sure to talk to your own physician about your specific health concerns.
Source: When researching this article, I used many sites and sources to fact check. I found Wikipedia's chemistry pages to be invaluable. I also was grateful for the following link for refreshing my knowledge of organic chemistry and biology.