Cooking fats are an essential part of many recipes. Whether you’re pan searing a steak, frying up some scrambled eggs, or sautéing some veggies, you’re going to use some kind of animal fat or vegetable oil in the recipe.
However, after you’ve finished consuming that very tasty meal, do you know if that fat you used to cook with was healthy or if it was doing serious damage to your body?
To answer this question, let’s delve into the world of cooking fat. Don’t be surprised if the answer contradicts most of what mainstream health practitioners have been advising for decades.
I Remember Mama & Crisco
When I was a child, my family’s Sunday dinners, especially during the cooler months, often included some type of roast. My particular favorite was roast beef. However, what made that roast beef meal extra special was the delicious Yorkshire pudding my mom made with it.
If my sister and I knew she was making roast beef, we would literally beg her to make Yorkshire pudding with it. It was that good. Sometimes though she would say that there weren’t enough drippings from the meat to make it. After seeing our disappointment, she soon turned our sadness to joy by saying she could use a little Crisco as a replacement. Yay, Crisco to the rescue!
I can still picture that blue can with the red letters spelling out CRISCO. Inside that can was a product that was advertised as a convenient and cheap substitute for lard and, as advertised, just as good. Nobody at the time questioned whether consuming partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil was a healthy choice. To see how Procter & Gamble marketed Crisco click here.
Trans Fats Are Dangerous
We now know that the Crisco of my mom’s era was packed with trans fats. Trans fats have since been implicated in an increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke. They have also been associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It seems Crisco wasn’t as good a deal as P & G said it was.
This past year the FDA, acknowledging the scientific data, took action to ban the use of artificial trans fats in all processed consumer foods. The FDA has given food manufacturers until June 18, 2018, to comply with their mandate.
Consequently, most food manufacturers currently use some combination of vegetable oils in their food preparation. For instance, McDonald’s now uses a blend of canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil and hydrogenated soybean oil. It’s claimed, however, that this blend still contains some trans fats. See here.
Obviously, we should stay far away from trans fats. However, while vegetable oils may be a healthier option for cooking than trans fat oils, are they the best options for healthy eating and cooking?
Let’s look at the USDA and FDA health recommendations concerning fats and vegetable oils.
The USDA and FDA Recommendations On Healthy Cooking Fats
To reduce your risk for heart disease, cut back on saturated fat and trans fat by replacing some foods high in saturated fat with unsaturated fat or oils.
The USDA’s problem with saturated fats is that in their opinion they are linked to heart disease. They suggest, therefore, that we limit saturated fats in our diets and replace them with “healthier” unsaturated fats or oils.
This is what the USDA recommends concerning oils,
Oils provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E. They are found in different plants such as soybeans, olives, corn, sunflowers, and peanuts. Choosing unsaturated oils instead of saturated fat can help you maintain a healthy eating style.
The oils the USDA recommends we consume are all unsaturated oils. The also advise limiting the intake of two saturated oils: coconut and palm.
The FDA has offered similar guidelines on dietary fats. In their publication Key Nutrients and Your Health, they also recommend consuming less saturated fat. This is their reason why,
Diets higher in saturated fat can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat can raise the levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol in the blood.
The FDA, like the USDA, links saturated fats with heart disease. The FDA is a bit more specific. They suggest that saturated fat can raise levels of cholesterol which in turn can cause cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Some of the saturated fat foods the FDA suggests we should limit to avoid CVD are beef fat (tallow and suet), butter, chicken fat, pork fat (lard), shortening, and tropical plant oils (such as coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil). These are all highly saturated cooking fats.
The FDA recommends replacing cooking fats high in saturated fats with vegetable oils high in mono and polyunsaturated fats such as canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, and soybean as cooking fats.
So we see that both the USDA and FDA recommend that we reduce saturated fats in our diets and choose a cooking fat low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fats.
If these agencies are correct and saturated fats are unhealthy, then we should absolutely not cook with them. But are saturated fats the villains they are made out to be? Does the scientific data confirm the cardiovascular dangers of saturated fats? If not, then cooking fats composed of saturated fat may be an acceptable healthy choice.
Saturated Fats Are Not Unhealthy
It appears that the USDA and FDA recommendations on saturated fat rely heavily on research done by Ancel Keys back in the 1950s. According to Keys’ research, saturated fats raised blood cholesterol which in turn led to cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Keys’ theories have since been refuted and it seems that his conclusions were based on inaccurate data and faulty correlations. In this video, journalist Nina Teicholz explains why Keys’ conclusions were wrong.
Teicholz, in her book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, stated that when researchers went back and analyzed some of the original data, heart disease was most correlated with sugar intake, not saturated fat.
Current research suggests that the intake of saturated fats, in fact, does not lead to CVD. An important meta-analysis published in 2010 reviewed 21 studies with a total of 347,747 participants. From the data, it was concluded that there is absolutely no association between saturated fat and heart disease. See also here, and here.
Interestingly, it seems the U.S. government has made a giant u-turn on its recommendation on dietary cholesterol. In 2015, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health in their new Dietary Guidelines for Americans dropped the strict limit on dietary cholesterol.
It appears that cholesterol is no longer the bad guy it was once thought to be. Considering that no link between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol has ever been established, it seems the U.S. government has done the reasonable thing.
Unfortunately, in spite of the evidence, government and “mainstream” health organizations have not changed their attitude toward saturated fats. Why they have refused, we can only speculate.
If saturated fat is not the villain it was once thought to be, where does that leave us? Can we safely use cooking fats that are high in saturated fats or should we, as suggested by the USDA and FDA, limit their use and consume fats higher in mono and polyunsaturated fats?
To answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at all fats.
Types Of Fats And Fatty Acids
There are basically three types of naturally occurring fats and they all contain the following fatty acids in various proportions:
Saturated fatty acid (SFA)
Monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA)
Polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA)
A fat is designated a saturated fat if it has a high percentage of SFAs. Likewise, monounsaturated fats have a high percentage of MUFAs, and a polyunsaturated fat has a high percentage of PUFAs.
These fatty acids are also distinguished by their chemical structure.
Saturated fats have no double bond between their carbon atoms, are straight in shape, and easily pack together.
Monounsaturated fats have one double bond in their carbon chain, are not straight in shape, and are less easily packed than saturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond in the carbon chain, are less straight than monounsaturated fats, and are the least easily packed.
These chemical properties of fatty acids are responsible for their physical form at room temperature. At temperate climates, high SFA such as butter or coconut oil will be solid at room temperature, whereas highly MUFA oils such as olive oil will be liquid at room temperature. However, olive oil will very slowly solidify in the refrigerator. PUFA oils such as corn oil will remain liquid in the refrigerator.
For our purposes, there is another reason why fatty acid bonds are important. SFAs have the most stable chemical bonds of the three while PUFAs have the least stable bonds. This will be extremely important when we look at what happens to fatty acids when they are heated.
Let’s take a closer look at each individual fatty acid.
Saturated Fatty Acid (SFA)
As we have seen, current research reveals that SFAs have no role in causing cardiovascular disease. In fact, SFAs appear to provide a beneficial role in human health.
The following are some health benefits of SFAs:
- Provide building blocks for cell membranes, hormones, and hormone-like substances
- Promote the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, and K)
- Are required for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A
- Act as antiviral and antibacterial agents (lauric acid, caprylic acid)
- Improve colon health (butyric acid)
- Resist harmful forms of oxidation within the human body (See here)
Foods that are high in SFA include meats, lard, full-fat dairy products, coconuts, coconut oil, palm oil, and dark chocolate. Cooking fats high in saturated fats are lard, tallow, duck fat, chicken fat, butter, ghee, palm oil, and coconut oil.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA)
Everyone agrees that MUFAs are healthy fats. Foods high in MUFAs include avocado and olive oil, nuts, some seeds, fruits, legumes, and some fish.
Cooking fats high in monounsaturated fats include olive, avocado, and canola oil.
Polyunsaturated fatty Acid (PUFA)
Foods with higher amounts of PUFAs are fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel and the following vegetable oils: peanut, corn, soybean, and sunflower. Remember the USDA recommends these as a good source of fat. However, in order to judge whether they are a good source of fat, it’s important to look at their Omega-6 and Omega-3 content.
The Omega 6 And Omega 3 Fatty Acid Content Of PUFAs
There are two main types of PUFAs: Omega-6(O6), and Omega-3(O3) fatty acids. These exist as a proportion in PUFAs.
A higher proportion of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids is found in fish and seafood while a higher proportion of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid is found in industrial oils such as corn oil, “vegetable oil,” peanut oil, soybean oil, etc.
The ratio of O6:O3 is extremely important when it comes to our health. It may determine whether the PUFA content of a cooking oil is helping us or harming us.
The Effect Of The Omega-6:Omega-3 Ratio On The Human Body
Omega-3 And Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. That means that though they are required by the body, the body itself cannot produce them. We must get them from our diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are recognized as promoting healthy cells and having beneficial anti-inflammatory properties. Several studies had been performed that show they help in reducing the risk of heart disease. See here, here and here.
Omega-6 fatty acids are important for maintaining cell wall integrity and providing energy for the heart. However, when the Omega-6 level is elevated, they become pro-inflammatory in a negative way.
Increased omega-6s have been associated with chronic inflammatory diseases such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, CVD, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. See here and here.
Today’s research suggests that Western diets have seen an increase in amounts of omega-6’s and a decrease in omega-3’s, to where this ratio has now increased to between 15:1 – 16.7:1 from a healthy ratio of between 1:1 – 4:1. See here and here.
A high O6:O3 ratio does have health consequences. For example, a ratio of 4:1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality, a ratio of 2-3:1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a ratio of 5:1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma, whereas a ratio of 10:1 had adverse consequences. See here.
In order to correct the O6:O3 ratio, we can do three things.
- We can consume foods higher in Omega-3. This means eating more fatty fish like salmon. It is also best to eat pastured or Omega-3 enriched eggs.
- Second, we can reduce our Omega 6 intake by avoiding processed foods that contain them.
- Third, we can avoid processed “heart healthy” PUFA vegetable oils high in Omega-6. Obviously, this is contrary to what the FDA, USDA, and American Heart Association have recommended. However, it is consistent with what research tells us.
Here is a chart showing Omega-6 and Omega-3 percentages in various cooking fats.
You can see that butter, coconut oil, lard, palm oil and olive oil are all relatively low in Omega-6. Sunflower, Corn, Soybean and Cottonseed oils are by far the highest. Even though some government agencies say these PUFA oils are healthy, I would avoid them like the plague.
A high Omega-6 content is not the only reason to avoid PUFAs. There are others.
What Happens To Cooking Fats When They Are Heated
Since we are going to cook with fats, it’s important to know what happens to them when they are heated.
The first factor to be concerned with is the smoke point. Obviously, the smoke point is the temperature at which the fat or oil begins to smoke. This smoke can be extremely toxic and should be avoided.
Secondly, at the smoke point, the oil will begin to degrade chemically and then oxidize. This is a major problem because oxidation of the oil results in the creation of free radicals and toxic oxygenated aldehydes. Those sound bad right? Well, they are. These products are known to be cytotoxic and genotoxic in the body. They are considered as markers of oxidative stress in cells as well as being causal agents of degenerative illnesses. See here.
Somes oils can even oxidize at temperatures lower than are needed for the oil to start smoking. Exposure to air, light, and even moisture can incite the process.
Consuming over-heated or rancid oils is an invitation to let free radicals run wild in your body.
The question is which oils are most susceptible to oxidation? Remember I mentioned that different fatty acids have different kinds of chemical bonds and indicated that polyunsaturated fats have the most unstable bonds.
PUFAs, therefore, will tolerate heat poorly. Not only do they oxidize if heated too high in a frying pan, they will oxidize in the body as well. See here.
Monounsaturated fats are much more resistant to oxidation than polyunsaturated fats with saturated fats being the most heat resistant.
What have we learned so far:
1. Trans fats are deadly
2. SFAs are not unhealthy but are beneficial to the body
3. MUFAs are healthy fats
4. PUFAs contain high amounts of problematic Omega-6 fatty acids
5. Smoke point is important when choosing a cooking fat
6. When heated PUFA’s are oxidized more easily than SFAs and MUFAs. This oxidation causes free radical mayhem in the body.
So when choosing a cooking fat we want to choose one that is low in PUFAs, high in MUFA or SFA, and has a high smoke point.
Candidates For The Best Cooking Fat
As you can see from the graph, oils with the highest PUFA content are on the right. That means the best oils for cooking are to the left of canola oil.
To narrow our choice for the best cooking oil, it’s important to consider their smoke point. Remember this is the temperature where the oil breaks downs and starts to oxidize. Here is a chart of the oils we want to use.
Coconut oil has the highest SFA content and the lowest PUFA content of all oils. This makes it very resistant to oxidation. Its smoke point is moderate. Frying with it should be ok as long as you don’t heat it over 350˚F. If you don’t like coconuts, you may not like this oil.
Nutrient wise, butter and ghee are also excellent choices. They both have very little PUFA and lots of saturated fat. Butter’s slightly lower PUFA content might be offset by its low smoke point of 302˚F. It does brown easily. Ghee’s smoke point of 485˚F makes it a better candidate for frying.
Tallow, palm oil, and lard are somewhat lower in saturated fat than the first three, but since their MUFA content is quite high, they still make good choices for an all-purpose cooking fat. Tallow with its high smoke point (420˚F) and lower PUFA makes it an excellent choice. Some people shy away from palm oil because of its possible connection to tropical forest depletion.
We now come to avocado oil. Avocado oil is packed with MUFAs. It has more than all the others except olive oil. It has a little more PUFAs but this is offset by its high smoke point (420˚F – 500F). Avocado oil is excellent for all around cooking. It’s one of our favorites.
Ok, what about olive oil? It seems that olive oil is acceptable as an all-purpose oil. It contains the most MUFAs of all oils. Its smoke point for a high-quality oil is 405˚F which is moderately high. The caution here is to make sure it doesn’t smoke.
Fats For Specific Applications
For sautéing and cooking at light to medium temperatures use coconut oil, ghee, butter, tallow, palm oil, lard, avocado oil, or olive oil. If you use olive oil, keep an eye on the stove.
For searing, or other methods of cooking that require high temperatures, ghee, tallow and avocado oil seem like the best choices.
For frying and stir-frying choose a high smoke point oil like avocado oil, ghee, or tallow.
Ok, that’s the lowdown on cooking fat. We’d like to know which one you use.
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