A simple guide to what oils to use and why
By John Meadows, CSCS, CISSN
We have come a long way in terms of recognising and acknowledging that certain fats are healthy. We are also starting to understand that saturated fat isn’t all that bad and is necessary for the proper functioning of a cell membrane, and that monounsaturated fats can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. We certainly know that there are essential fatty acids as well, like alpha-linolenic acid (Omega 3) and linoleic acid (Omega 6) that are required for life itself! Furthermore, we now know that saturated and monounsaturated fat intake is positively associated with important hormonal functions, so thankfully fat-phobic diets are losing steam, as they rightly should.
Oils are healthy and are a fat source that is easily assimilated, but certain fats are better to cook with, while some are better as a topping and others have extra nutrients that make them powerhouses. Let’s examine how and what oils you should be using, and then rate them with a star rating, where four stars is the best rating.
Factors to consider when assigning a ranking
Usefulness for cooking
The more saturated a fat is, the less likely it is to go rancid when used in cooking. Conversely, the more polyunsaturated a fat is, the faster it will go rancid. Rancidity means that the fat is “rusting”, so to speak, as it is breaking down chemically due to oxidation. Rancid fats are a major reason why we see increased rates of heart disease and atherosclerosis. Look at the table below to see what the percentage of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are in each oil. The lesson here is that you should be cooking with oils higher in saturated fat to avoid eating rancid fats. For example, coconut oil would not likely go rancid very quickly, as it is 91% saturated, but safflower oil would as it is 75% polyunsaturated.
Do not let oils reach their smoke-point during cooking. The higher the smoke point of the oil, the better off you are. The smoke point is when the oil reaches the temperature at which it rapidly breaks down and degrades chemically or goes rancid. The oil may turn darker in colour, get thicker or even stink. So how do you tell when your oil reaches this temperature, as you can’t just lay a thermometer on the skillet? There is no easy answer, which is why I recommend taking the conservative route and using the most stable oils to start with.
Usefulness as a topping
When I say a topping, I mean the ease with which it can be added to a shake or salad, toss on top of a meal or just drink.
Use to get heart healthy monounsaturated fat and essential fatty acids. The nice thing about using oils this way is the fact that you have now expanded what you can use the oils for. You know, based on the above, that you should not cook with oils that are highly polyunsaturated due to their fragile state and propensity for oxidation. You also know that you need certain essential fatty acids, like omega-3 and omega-6. This is the perfect way to get your essential fatty acids if you don’t like the more superior form found in fatty fish like salmon. This is also a great way to add monounsaturated fats to enhance your health.
Evaluate the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. In recent years, everybody who is anybody in the nutrition world has been talking about this ratio. Fat expert Dr. Eric Serrano advises a 3:1 ratio, which is actually quite different to the standard Western diet, which is closer to 20:1. Oils too heavy in omega-6 should not be used at all as they promote an inflammatory environment and, in case you are one of those folks who think that arterial plaques are mostly saturated fat, over 50% are actually polyunsaturated, largely consisting of omega-6 fatty acids (30% is monounsaturated and only 20% are saturated).
What oils contain additional nutrients that make it a powerhouse?
This is where you have to look beyond the poly-, mono- and saturation percentages. Some oils contain high levels of natural antioxidants, while others contain virtually none. Some strengthen our immune systems and promote healthy skin, while others are pro-inflammatory and can lead to degenerative diseases. This is the part where I feel the biggest knowledge gap lies, nutritionally speaking, with regard to oils.
Important point #1 – I am referring to unrefined oils only! Do not use refined oils, as they are put through commercial processes such as bleaching and deodorisation that strips nutrients out and reduce omega-3 concentrations. The chart below only references unrefined oils, as refined oils are not even up for consideration in this ranking.
Here are my top 6 oils and their rating:
1. Red Palm Oil – This is an incredibly misunderstood oil. Most people advise that you should avoid this oil, but I couldn’t disagree more. The oil has a very unique, reddish orange colour caused by the fact that is it loaded with carotenoids. It actually has a large amount of alpha carotene (35% of carotenes), which offers better protection from cancer than beta carotene (55% of carotenes). To put this into perspective, palm oil has 300 times more carotenoids than tomatoes! It is also pertinent to remember that even though vitamin A levels can get too high, this is not true for their precursors, the carotenes. It doesn’t stop there – the vitamin E in it contains all forms, namely tocopherols, and tocotrienols. There continues to be mounting evidence that the tocotrienols are very powerful antioxidants (that can possibly even stop LDL oxidation). You can cook with this oil as it is very heat stable as well. Personally, I like to add a tablespoon or two onto my eggs in the morning.
2. Coconut Oil – This is another very misunderstood oil. Early studies concluded that it raised triglyceride levels, but no note was made of the fact they used hydrogenated or refined versions which, in my mind, is a totally different food. This oil is almost all saturated, and a great deal of the fat is medium chain triglycerides, which are sent to the liver and converted into readily available energy. Interestingly, farmers in the 1940’s used coconut oil for a while thinking all the saturated fat would help their cows put on weight quickly. It didn’t work though. The cows were all active and lean, so the idea was deemed a failure. The thing I like most about coconut oil is it’s lauric acid (the main MCFA in this oil) content. This is a fat that is typically only found in breast milk and is a powerful immune system booster. This is part of the reason why breastfeeding is so healthy for infants. There is a huge body of evidence that also shows lauric acid to be a great anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial as well. For its ability to be used as a cooking oil and it’s overall health value, I give this oil a rating of four stars.
3. Macadamia Nut Oil – This is another powerhouse of an oil. This oil has even more monounsaturated fat than olive oil, at 85%. A large part of this is oleic acid, which is a key point to understand because that particular fatty acid helps to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into cell membranes. Many experts have talked in detail about the importance of these fats to help lessen your requirements for EFAs. Lastly, it is also very stable to cook with at high temperatures of up to 410 degrees Fahrenheit (210 degrees Celsius). This very versatile oil also gets a rating of four stars.
4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil – There is a mountain of evidence showing that Extra Virgin Olive Oil raises your good cholesterol, or HDL, due to the high amounts of oleic acid in it. This is my preferred oil for salads, but don’t be afraid to just drink it or you can simply put it in your shakes too. You can cook with it on low heat, but be very careful as it’s not as heat stable as the more saturated fats out there, or even as stable as other primarily monounsaturated fats like Macadamia Nut oil. This solid oil gets a rating of three stars.
5. Hemp Seed Oil – As crazy as it sounds, this oil has the ideal balance of omega-6 to 3. It has 57% omega-6 to 19% omega-3, which is exactly the 3:1 ratio that Dr. Serrano recommends. You must not cook with it though, but feel free to toss it into shakes or on salads. It even has GLA in it as well.
6. Walnut Oil – This oil is great to use as a salad topper as 59% of it is omega-6, while 16% is omega-3, so we aren’t that far off the recommended ratio with this oil. It has a really low smoke point, so again, stick to using it with salads.
Honourable mention – Avocado oil. This oil has an extremely high smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit (271 degrees Celsius), and is loaded with monounsaturated fatty acids (70%). The taste is a little odd though.
The Horrible Six
These oils weren’t allowed to participate in our game due to their horrendous omega-6 to 3 ratios. Do not consume these oils at all!
Target 1:1 up to 3:1 for Omega-6 to 3
|Oil||Omega 6 to 3 ratio||Oil||Omega 6 to 3 ratio|
|Safflower oil||78 to 1||
||34 to 1|
|Sunflower oil||69 to 1||
||31 to 1|
||59 to 1||
Pumpkin seed oil
||20 to 1|
||45 to 1||
||11 to 1|
Data for this chart was found at http://www.articleinput.com/e/a/title/You-can-cook-with-these-oils-only-at-your-own-risk/
These popular oils were booted out of the game due to the fact that they have a sort of “Frankenstein-ish” genetic manipulation to them. No cheaters were allowed into this game!
High Oleic Safflower
High Oleic Sunflower
|Oil||% Monounsaturates in total fat||% Polyunsaturates in total fat||% Saturated in total fat||Smoke Point (in degrees Fahrenheit)|
|Grape seed oil||17||71||12||400|
|Macadamia nut oil||85||6||9||410|
|Hemp seed oil||12||80||8||330|
|Red Palm oil||40||10||50||450|
Note: Smoke points can vary based on origin.
Important point #2 – You should also rotate oils. Just like with the food in your diet, variety will provide you with a broader spectrum of nutrients. Don’t get stuck on using one oil!