Facts on Fat: Choosing Cooking Oils

Apr 18, 2023
Choose your yummy - pictures of butter, sesame seeds, coconut oil, lard, olive oil, sunflowers,

Fat is an essential part of the human diet. It helps us feel full, stabilizes our energy, carries flavor, and is vital for the absorption of many nutrients. How to choose fats is a common question we get from patients in the clinic and folks doing the 21 Days to Better Health program. The answers depend on a lot of factors, and like all health information, there’s no one-size fits all advice. Your health, your tastes, what you grew up with, and your lifestyle will all influence what to reach for when you’re cooking dinner.

There is a LOT of information out there about fats and health. Some ideas have thankfully been debunked (ultra-low-fat diets!), but others can cause confusion and overwhelm even the savviest health conscious cook. Saturated, unsaturated, trans fats, Omega 3 vs Omega 6, poly vs. mono unsaturated, fatty acid chains and more - to be honest, I found myself struggling to write this article! After a few discarded drafts, I realized I didn’t have to be a biochemist to share the fat facts; I could keep it simple with advice from author Michael Pollan; “Eat food.” ‘Food’ comes from farms and kitchens, not from laboratories.

Fats that are not really ‘food’ include trans fats, which have been processed through hydrogenation to extend their shelf life. Once touted as a healthy alternative to naturally stable fats like lard and coconut oil, trans fats are linked to a myriad of health conditions and are no longer legal in the United States, but other types of altered fats are still found in processed foods. I prefer to stock my kitchen with fats used in traditional diets rather than newly developed oils that use chemical solvents, extensive hybridization or genetic engineering, such as soybean, cottonseed, corn and canola.

Oils are sensitive to oxidation, which produces chemical compounds that can be harmful. Oxidation can occur from light, heat or the passage of time. Always keep oils out of sunlight, and throw them away when they’re past their expiration date, if they smell ‘off’ or rancid, or if the oil feels sticky rather than slippery. Pay attention to ‘smoke point’ which is the temperature at which the oil will burn, producing harmful compounds; this can help you choose which oils to cook with and which to reserve for drizzling and dressing.

Here’s a few of my favorite kitchen oils and when to choose them.

Olive oil has a rich flavor and long shelf life. Look for the terms ‘extra-virgin’ and ‘cold-pressed’ on olive oil, which means it was produced by a mechanical press, not with the use of chemical solvents, and was not refined after production. Olive oil has a relatively high smoke point and can be used for sauteing or oven roasting. Drizzle it over cooked foods or enjoy with salad for a boost of unctuous flavor that will also help your body absorb nutrients from veggies! Avocado oil has a similar profile to olive oil; look for cold-pressed and unrefined. A bonus for us in the Bay Area is that both olive oil and avocado oil can be found from local suppliers.

Sesame oil, like peanut oil, is a relatively stable oil with a fairly neutral taste, and can be a good choice for stir-frying and sautéing. Look for cold-pressed and unrefined. Light sesame oil for cooking is made from raw sesame seeds, unlike toasted sesame oil, where the seeds are toasted before pressing. Toasted sesame oil is best as a condiment, adding rich and complex flavor when drizzled over cooked foods or in salad dressing.

Butter, ghee and clarified butter; accept no substitutes! Look for organic or pastured if possible. Grass-fed animals create butter with a golden color and added nutritional value from their diet. Clarifying butter by cooking it removes milk solids (proteins) giving it a higher smoke point and longer shelf life. Further cooking clarified butter turns it into ghee, with a delectable flavor and even greater stability. Ghee and clarified butter are great choices for cooking due to their high smoke points, while butter is hard to beat melted on veggies or grains. Traditionally, butter was salted for preservation, and contained live bacterial cultures, much like yogurt. It’s relatively easy to find cultured butter these days, marketed as French or European style. Try it on your next baked potato!

Palm and coconut oil are vegetable oils that are solid at cooler temperatures - coconut oil melts at about 75 F and palm oil at about 95F. I often gauge the start of summer by the liquidity of my coconut oil! Both palm and coconut oils have been eaten for millennia, and have relatively high smoke points, making them good choices for cooking, especially when their flavors will enhance the dish. Look for organic and unrefined for maximum flavor and nutritional value. Palm oil has a spotty environmental and ethical record, so be sure to choose a supplier that uses sustainable farming practices (I like Nutiva, located in the East Bay).

Animal fats like lard (pork fat), tallow (generally beef fat), goose and duck fat, have had a renaissance in recent years after decades in nutritional exile. Incomparable richness and high smoke points make them a delicious choice for frying (duck fat fries, anyone?). Pesticides and other toxins in an animal’s diet can accumulate in fats, so choose organic and pasture raised.

There are many other fats and oils from around the world that can enhance your health and the pleasure of your dinner table. Please let me know your favorites and here’s to enjoying Food!

Sautée in good health!

Kirsten Cowan is our Energy Matters Clinic Manager, an acupuncturist and herbalist and passionate home cook. She lovingly keeps our shelves well stocked with natural and effective skin and health care products.

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