For years, we have been told that fats are bad for us, causing everything from obesity to heart disease, diabetes and degenerative conditions. It could not be further from the truth, and slowly science and even mainstream media are offering a different picture. Fats offer a concentrated source of energy in our diet. They provide satiety and help us go longer without feeling hungry or crashing blood sugar levels. Fats are the building blocks of our cell membranes and essential to a variety of hormones. In addition, they act as carriers for a number of fat-soluble vitamins, (A, D, E, K). As such, they are essential for many functions in our body.
Roughly since the 1950s, we have seen a trend towards low-fat diets, and an increase in the consumption of vegetable oils (soy, corn and canola), and away from saturated fats from animal sources (butter, lard etc.), assuming a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat or cholesterol in the diet and coronary heart disease. Interestingly enough, heart disease was quite uncommon in the US in 1920; now, it is rampant. This can be directly linked to the excess consumption of refined vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats as well as refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour
With the decrease of fats from animal sources came an increase use of refined and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Although by now there is scientific evidence of the dangers of trans fats, still most processed foods including cookies, crackers, cakes and breads use hydrogenated vegetable oils. In addition, many available vegetable oils are highly processed to make them more heat stable and provide a longer shelf life.
As a consumer, it is difficult to navigate all the contradictory information. Therefore, I will briefly explain the different types of fats and then provide you with a table that shows which oil is best used for what in the kitchen. You will see that fats are essential and that the quality of the fat you consume is much more important than whether it is saturated or unsaturated. A healthy mix of saturated fats such as ghee or extra virgin coconut oil and unsaturated fats such as olive, avocado and flax oil is a great combination.
Hydrogenated/Trans Fats (NOT Recommedned)
Hydrogenation is a process that turns polyunsaturated fats, which are normally liquid at room temperature into solid fats — margarine and shortening. This entails the use of various metals, chemicals, emulsifiers and bleach, which cause chemical changes in the oils (before hydrogenation, pairs of hydrogen atoms occur together on the fatty acid chain; with hydrogenation, one hydrogen atom of the pair is moved to the other side so that the molecule straightens, called trans formation). Most of these trans fats are toxins to the body but not recognized by the digestive system as such and thus incorporated into cell membranes, where they severely disturb cell metabolism. Consumption of hydrogenated fats is associated with a host of serious diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, immune dysfunction etc. However, due to their prolonged shelf-life and cost-effectiveness, hydrogenated oils are the choice of oils for the processed foods industry, and can be found in almost all commercial cookies, ice-creams, cakes, and crackers.
(Refined) Vegetable Oils (NOT Recommended)
Even when not hydrogenated, refined vegetable oils such as corn, soy or canola oil pose a great health risk since their oil-bearing seeds are usually heated, crushed and exposed to damaging light and oxygen. This high-temperature processing causes the weak carbon bonds of unsaturated fatty acids to break apart, thereby creating dangerous free radicals. In order to extract the last bit out of the seeds, a solvent (usually hexane) is used, which even though boiled off at the end still remains in substantial amounts in the oil. Lastly, because the seeds’ inherent Vitamin E (a great natural antioxidant) is often destroyed at high temperatures, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), both considered carcinogenic, are often added as preservatives. The solution is to buy only expeller- or cold-pressed unrefined oils in dark bottles, such as olive, avocado, sunflower, and store them in a cool dark place. Avoid corn, soy and canola oils since they are often highly refined and almost always made from GMO seeds unless otherwise stated.
Saturated Animal and Vegetable Fats
Animal fats such as butter or ghee, lard and tallows, and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oils, are called saturated because all available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom. This makes them solid at room temperature and highly heat-stable. If you buy extra-virgin coconut oil or make your own ghee from organic butter, you can be sure to have a non-processed, high-quality natural oil with many healing properties at hand, which you can safely use for high-heat cooking and baking. In addition, tropical oils such as coconut or palm oil contain high levels of lauric acid, which has strong antifungal and antimicrobial properties.
Mono-and Polyunsaturated Cold-Pressed Vegetable Oils
Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond in the form of two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other and therefore lack two hydrogen atoms. Like saturated fats, they don’t go rancid easily and are relatively heat stable and hence can be used in low-temperature cooking. The most common monounsaturated fatty acid is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil but also found in almond, sesame, peanut and avocado oil.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more pairs of double bonds and therefore lack four or more hydrogen atoms. The two most common examples are double-unsaturated linoleic acid (omega 6) and triple- unsaturated linolenic acid (omega 3). The body cannot make these fatty acids and hence they are called essential fatty acids (EFAs). The unpaired electrons at the double bonds make these oils highly reactive, and easily rancid. Therefore, oils like flax seed or hemp oil should never be used in cooking and always kept stored in the refrigerator.
Oils in the Kitchen
In general, avoid purchasing and using all hydrogenated or highly refined oils such as margarine, shortening, corn, soy, and canola oils. Remember to store cold-pressed vegetable oils in dark bottles, and keep them in cool dark place. Pumpkin seed, walnut, flax and hemp oil are best kept in the refrigerator, while you can keep ghee, coconut, olive, sesame, sunflower and avocado oils at room temperature in a dark cupboard.
High-heat cooking (Frying) & Baking:
Ghee (clarified butter)
Extra Virgin Coconut or Palm Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Organic, grass-fed Butter
Organic, cold-pressed Sesame or Avocado Oils
No Heat (salads etc.):
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pumpkin Seed Oil
Flax Seed Oil
Outside at Room temperature: Ghee (clarified butter), Coconut or Palm Oil
Outside at room-temperature in dark bottles: Extra Virgin Olive, Sesame and Avocado Oils
In the refrigerator: Pumpkin, Walnut, Flax and Hemp Oils (especially flax and hemp oils must be used within 1 month after opening).