I was recently asked to write an article for the Health Cafe, an online health magazine serving the Indian market www.healthcafe.in.
Much of this information I have written about before, but I thought I would post again as this is such a confusing and often queried subject: Vegetable Oils – Good or Bad? The Great Oil Debate.
There is so much confusion about fats and oils, which are good, which are bad and which are best to cook with. There is so much conflicting information on this subject it is no wonder that consumers are really unsure about which fats and oils are safe and healthy and which are seriously damaging to health.
To establish the answer, we need to look at science, specifically the biochemistry of how different fats and oils are formed and how they are affected by heat.
Firstly, let’s establish some terms: in general, a fat is solid at room temperature such as butter, ghee, and animal fat, or in other words, saturated fats. Coconut oil also comes in the category, so should really be called coconut fat – yet more confusion! An oil is liquid at room temperature i.e. sunflower, corn, vegetable, olive oils etc. These oils are either poly-unsaturated or mono-unsaturated.
All these terms, saturated, poly and monounsaturated refer to how much hydrogen is present. Saturated fats are fully saturated with hydrogen, in a sense, they are full up with hydrogen. This makes them very stable i.e. not easily damaged. Polyunsaturates are the opposite to saturated. They are very unsaturated by hydrogen and this makes them very vulnerable to damage by exposure to light, heat and oxygen. There are some oils that are super poly unsaturated such as the essential fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6 – essential to health, but very, very easily damaged. This is very important, as you’ll see below.
Before we look at what fats & oils are best to cook with, it is important to understand that a fat-free diet, even a low fat, is a very unhealthy diet as there are so many critical roles for fat in the body – without the right fats coming in to the body, we die!
- Every cell in every single part of the body is made up of fats.
- Over 60% of the brain comprises fats.
- Many hormones, including the stress & sex hormones, neurotransmitters and other active substances in the body are made of fat.
- Fat is a shock absorber for our vital organs.
- Vitamins A, E, D & K are transported in fat.
- Fat in food helps to keep blood sugar levels stable.
- Fat in food keeps us satisfied for longer.
- When fat is removed from food, a lot of flavour is lost. This is usually replaced with unhealthy sugars and artificial flavourings.
- Fat is the preferred source of energy in the human body.
- Eating healthy fat results in less sugar cravings.
It is widely believed that the healthiest fats / oils to eat, and cook with, are the polyunsaturates such as corn oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil etc. However, through extensive research and unpicking of the marketing propaganda that surrounds so many foodstuffs, I will explain why this simply cannot be true.
Saturated fats have been massively maligned as the cause of heart disease and obesity. This belief came from some very bad science conducted by an American, Ancel Keys, in the 1950s. As a result of this mis-information, saturated fats rapidly lost popularity and food manufacturers quickly responded by promoting vegetable and seed oils as a healthier alternative.
Saturated fats contain are found in animal fats like butter, ghee, lard, suet, goose fat etc. They are not exclusively saturated but contain a majority of saturated fats. I00% saturated fat would be really solid, similar to hard wax. Coconut oil is 90% saturated and remains very hard at room temperature. The fat in beef, chicken, eggs, milk etc. is a mixture of poly-unsaturated, mono-unsaturated and saturated fats in varying amounts but generally animal fat is mostly saturated.
If you are worried about eating animal fat, consider this … we know that humans are designed to eat meat because of the shape of our teeth and the enzymes we produce in the digestive system confirm this. So, if we are designed to eat meat, how can we not be designed to eat the fat in meat? The body has many uses for saturated fat, so if it is coming from a healthy source i.e. free range, grass fed animals, then they are safe to eat.
Palm oil and coconut oil are non-animal saturated fats. The structure differs slightly from animal fats making these saturated fats the lowest calorie of all fats and oils and the most readily of all the dietary fats to be burnt for energy in the body. In fact, coconut oil is proving to be a real fat super star:
Benefits of Coconut: Coconut oil is very, very readily converted to energy in the body. It is great for hair and skin health; it helps lower blood pressure; it is a great digestive aid containing anti-fungal properties; it is highly anti-bacteria and anti-viral, hence supporting immune functioning; it helps blood sugar balance, liver processing and getting essential nutrients in to the bones. Recent studies have also revealed that coconut oil may help prevent diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
So, saturated fats, because they are very stable and not readily affected by exposure to heat, light or oxygen, makes them ideal for cooking with as they do not damage when heated and they remain in a natural form that the body readily uses in the body for many metabolic and structural functions.
Polyunsaturated fats behave very differently to saturated fats. They are found in large amounts in seed, nut, grain and vegetable oils. As explained above, these oils are not stable, as they are not fully saturated. This makes them very vulnerable to damage by heat, light and oxygen. Cooking with these fats is a bad idea. If you use standard cooking oil like corn oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, soy oil, bought from supermarkets in thin, clear plastic bottles, I can guarantee you are buying a damaged, unhealthy cooking oil. Because polyunsaturated fats are easily damaged, as soon as they are extracted from their source using heat, and then exposed to light and oxygen the oils start to turn rancid. Therefore, these oils are bleached, de-gummed and deodorized to disguise the fact that they have become damaged. So before you even start cooking with these oils, they are already dangerously altered, de-natured and as a result, full of cell-damaging free radicals, cause good cholesterol level to drop and bad cholesterol levels to rise and are known to cause hardening of arteries.
Even if you buy a seed or vegetable oil that is unrefined, cold pressed and sold in dark bottles it will damage very, very readily, becoming toxic and harmful as soon as it is exposed to heat. These good quality polyunsaturated fats should be used for salad dressings and non-heated dishes only.
Standard cooking oils should be avoided as much as possible. It is important to remember that these cheap polyunsaturated fats are used in the vast majority of packaged goods, including bread, ready meals, take aways, snacks, sauces, dressings, spreads etc. and are used by fast food outlets and the vast majority of restaurants, at whatever price level so avoiding them can be tricky, but avoid them you should.
Monounsaturated fats are far more stable than polyunsaturated but can still be damaged at high temperatures so olive oil, one of the most frequently used monounsaturated fats, can be used for medium to low-heat cooking. Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a low smoking point. Used to dress cooked foods and for salad dressings but it is best to use a lesser quality olive oil for cooking or use ground nut (peanut) oil, another monounsaturated that is fine for low – medium heat cooking.
Rapeseed oil is also largely monounsaturated and is often considered super-healthy as it is low in saturated fat and high in omega 3. However, just like the other cooking oils, rapeseed oil is highly processed, making it an unnatural, manmade fat that is highly damaging to the body. The fact that it contains omega 3 – a super healthy essential fat, but one that is extremely vulnerable to damage, makes rapeseed oil of any kind, very unsuitable for heating.
Any high heat cooking should be done only using good quality saturated fats i.e. butter, ghee, coconut oil, free range goose or chicken fat, grass-fed beef fat. Remember, saturated fats are absolutely essential to health. This is so hard for many people to take on board because we have been brainwashed in to believing saturated fats are evil and cause all sorts of health problems.
Eating saturated fats has been shown to be one of the best ways to curb sugar cravings and because they add great taste and texture to dishes, they significantly improve levels of satiety, leaving you feeling full and satisfied more quickly and for longer. Seriously, embrace the butter, get out the ghee and stir fry those veggies in delicious coconut oil, your body and your taste buds will thank you.