“Hydrogenated” oils are stuffed full of hydrogen atoms and bad for your health. “Trans” fats are the result of heat and artificial hydrogenation, have an un-natural structure, and become incorporated into cell membranes and nerve tissue causing harm. Omega-6 oils lead to inflammation and Americans are getting too much omega-6 with not enough beneficial omega-3 in the diet.
Since the 1960s there has been a trend to avoid “saturated” fats because of the association with heart disease. However, most of the poor health outcomes with saturated fats are really the result of the hydrogenated and trans-fats found within the saturated fat classification. As you’ll see, some saturated fats are actually recommended, especially if cooking with heat.
No oil is 100% saturated or unsaturated as they contain mixtures of fatty acids. The ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids is used to determine whether oil is referred to as “unsaturated”. When the ratio is over 5 the oil is generally considered unsaturated oil, which would include in the order of highest unsaturated fatty acid proportion, canola, safflower, almond, flaxseed, grape seed, sunflower, corn, sesame, soybean and walnut.
Many unsaturated oils are high in omega-6, which causes inflammation plus the unsaturated double bonds make them very unstable when heated. This leads to the formation of trans-fats and other hazardous chemical reactions in the oil. Remember, saturated oils are more stable and less prone to oxidize and go rancid. They are also more stable when used in cooking. With this in mind, don’t apply heat to the highly unsaturated oils.
Health benefits of oil are also determined by whether it has very long chain fatty-acids which store as fat or medium chain fatty-acids which burn as fuel, what other compounds are found in the oil such as immune boosters or antioxidants, and the omega-6 vs omega-3 content.
For example, coconut oil is saturated, rich in the medium chain fatty acid called laurin, which is found in high concentrations in human breast milk. Laurin has been shown to support the immune system and the medium chain fatty acids are burned as fuel thus less likely to promote weight gain. Coconut oil is highly recommended to cook with as it is quite stable when heated.
Olive Oil: The Mediterranean Miracle
Olive oil is the pinnacle of heart healthy oils. It contains about 70% of the mono-unsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid. But it is potent polyphenols naturally found in olive oil that make it a health superstar. Tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein are compounds that give olive oil its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. A staple in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is best known for its benefits in lowering the risk of heart disease. It also lowers the risk of colon cancer and works similar to Ibuprofen type drugs to lower inflammation.
Perhaps the most versatile of all oils, olive oil can be used for just about any culinary dish. Especially good for light saute and with salads, it is also delicious when used as a condiment for dipping bread. I recommend a few tablespoons daily, preferably used at room temperature, and when used in cooking take care to keep on low to medium heat as the unsaturated nature of olive oil makes it unstable over about 350 degrees.
Sunflower and Safflower: Good for Salads
Both of these oils are light in texture and delicate in flavor. Sunflower oil is pressed from seeds and safflower comes from a thistle-like flower. Each lightly coats crisp, fresh vegetables, and neither solidifies when chilled. You can recognize a hint of the natural sunflower seed flavor in sunflower oil. They’re perfect for garden or cold veggie salads – they won’t compete with or overpower other strong flavors. But overall, both oils are bland compared with the hearty olive oil.
Coconut, Sesame and Peanut: Good for Stir-Fries
These sturdy oils can be heated to a high temperature without smoking or breaking down. I prefer dark rather than light sesame oil, made from roasted sesame seeds, as it has a strong, distinctive, almost smoky flavor. Peanut oil is bland, so it’s a good choice if you’re using other strong ingredients such as ginger or chile paste. Coconut is the new health champ and is dynamite for cooking. Use it for stir-fry, saute, and baking, as well in salads. Try it on popcorn in place of butter.
Grape-Seed, Almond and Walnut Oils: Good for Flavor
Grape-seed extracts are very healthy but the oil lacks some of the healthy compounds such as resveratrol. It does contain healthy phenols and steroid chemicals and due to its clean, light taste, and high polyunsaturated fat content, it is generally best used as an ingredient in salad dressings and mayonnaise and as a base for oil infusions of garlic, rosemary, or other herbs or spices rather than for cooking. Almond and walnut oils are also light oils best used for flavoring.
Shopping for oil
The ideal oil is organic, with no added chemicals, bleaching or deodorization, no hydrogenation, and made without heat processing. Canola, corn and soy oils are off my list due to high omega-6 content and lack of beneficial co-factors – never-mind the issue of these food sources being increasingly genetically-modified which in general is proving to be a health hazard.
Spend a little more for “extra-virgin” oils. This means they are from the first pressing and contain the highest amount of flavor and health benefits. They also have a longer shelf life. All oils oxidize and go rancid with time so store them in a dark and cool location. The delicate sunflower and safflower oils can spoil quickly, in about 6 months; olive oil is usually good for a year; while the more stable oils such as coconut or sesame are ok for a few years.
After many years I’ve settled into purchasing our olive oil in one gallon sizes from Lucero Olive Oil via the online store. The gallon jug is economical, protects the oil from light, and is stored in a cool place in the pantry. We keep a pretty dispensing container out on the counter for day to day use.
Shopping for oils is a bit like shopping for wine, with wide variations in quality and flavor reflecting the methods of production as well as the regional differences in climate and ‘terroir’. Experiment with using different brands and types of oils in the kitchen – you will expand your palate while improving your health!
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.