What oil should you cook with? Before we get into that answer, it makes sense to talk about the myth around saturated fats and all dietary fat in general. Current conventional wisdom states that saturated fats clog your arteries and dietary fat will make you fat. I constantly hear someone referring to a burger and fries as "a heart attack waiting to happen." It has become SO normal and so widely known that fat will kill you. Or will it? It turns out that we have been wrong all these years. What's worse, is that all the dietary advice that we've followed in the last 30 years has actually worsened our health, and led to more heart disease and more girth around our waists. So where did this start from? Well, it all started with a man named Ancel Keys, and his theory called the Lipid Hypothesis.
Keys believed that dietary fats caused chronic disease, and specifically, heart disease. Gary Taubes, in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, describes Keys in this way: “Key’s abilities as a scientist are arguable – he was more often wrong than right – but his force of will was indomitable.” Keys firmly believed that dietary fat caused heart disease, and in the 1950’s went about to try and prove it. It turns out however, that he used extremely questionable practices to prove his theory. For example, Keys had data from 22 different countries, but used only the results from 6 of them to prove his hypothesis. Originally, even the American Heart Association came out criticizing Keys, but suddenly, changed its stance in 1957 based on a report from 6 men, including, (gasp) Ancel Keys. Once this report was released, Time Magazine reported it and it suddenly became gospel. Saturated fat and cholesterol were targeted as culprits, mainly in animal and dairy products, and there was a nation wide push to lower the total percentage of dietary fat.
Many people, however, have opposed the Lipid Hypothesis from the beginning. In recent decades, more people have come forward to dispel this myth. Michael Pollan, in his fabulous book In Defense of Food, spells it out by quoting a Harvard article from 2001. “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.” Ooof.
The same article did come up with a link between trans fats and heart disease. Which, unfortunately, is exactly the type of fat that is promoted in supposedly “heart healthy” foods. Margarine and vegetable cooking oils are the primary culprits.
Which leads us back to….what oils SHOULD you be using at home?
It turns out, that saturated fats, which have been so villainized in the past, are the best oils to use. To make sure that you don’t create trans fats in your very own home, stay away from polyunsaturated vegetable oils while you are cooking. Oils like corn, soybean, sunflower, and safflower are extremely delicate and will oxidize, or become rancid when you cook with them. Imagine the molecules of these oils as squiggly lines, and at every curve and bend is a weak spot. At these points, oxygen and heat can penetrate and damage the molecule. You’ve heard of antioxidants. We eat them to combat the oxidative stress that happens in our bodies. When you eat these oils, it’s like eating a heaping bowl of oxidative stress.
The best oils to cook with are saturated fats, whose molecules look like nice flat bricks that line up nice and tight when stacked together. (That’s why these fats are solid at room temperature) This also means they are more stable when exposed to heat; examples are coconut oil, butter, beef tallow, and ghee. Second best are oils that are mostly monounsaturated (imagine just one curve or bend in the molecule) such as lard, macadamia nut, and olive.
Follow the helpful chart below:
The Best Cooking Fats
(Adapted from Nina Planck’s book Real Food)
Heat Stable and Ideal for Cooking
Cook only at moderate heat
Only use COLD!
Macadamia Nut Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
It’s always important to think about what you are cooking in deciding which oil to use. Temperature and flavor are important things to think about, as the wrong oil could add a contrasting flavor to your dish. Or conversely, it can add an incredible flavor. Remember that if the oil smokes, it’s being burned. Throw it out. Furthermore, don’t be afraid of these oils! Fat, in the right proportions, is extremely healthy and it is what helps you feel full and happy.
So try a new, safer, healthier, yummier oil. Remember, fat adds flavor! Don’t be afraid to throw out your vegetable oils, or maybe just use them to grease your bike chain.
Note: Many people ask about grapeseed oil and peanut oil because of their “high heat” properties. I do not recommend using either of these oils because they both have an extremely high Omega 6 content and very low Omega 3. This can lead to excess inflammation in the body…..which is another interesting, but lengthy topic.
Planck, Nina (2006) Real Food; What to Eat and Why. New York; Bloomsbury.
Pollan, Michael (2008) In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto. New York; Penguin Press.
Taubes, Gary. (2008) Good Calories, Bad Calories. New York; Anchor Books.