When was the last time you thought about your cooking fat? The fat you choose to use in cooking can make the difference between a meal that supports health and a meal that throws off free radicals, thought to be a primary cause of the degeneration we refer to as aging. The higher the cooking heat, the more likely you are to be bombarded with free radicals, set off by breaks in fatty acid chains. There are only a few fats that can defy oxidation and its cousin, rancidity. What’s the determining factor? It’s the stability of the fatty acid chain.
- Saturated fats are the most stable fats because their fatty acid chains are short or medium in length and they contain no double bonds between the atoms of the chains, making those chains highly secure and stable.
- Monounsaturated fats are long chain fatty acids, but because they have only one double bond in between the atoms of their fatty acid chains, they are able to remain fairly stable.
- Polyunsaturated fats are long chain fats with two or more double bonds between their atoms, making them the least stable of all.
Before we go farther, please note this is not a ‘good’ fat verses ‘bad’ fat article. All naturally occurring fats are good fats when used correctly, and there is no need for competition.
Learn to use cooking fat and oil with confidence
Coconut oil – The medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil top the list of fats suitable for cooking at high temperatures because more than 90% of them are saturated. Coconut oil can maintain its integrity, changing form from liquid to solid repeatedly for years without sustaining damage. Extra virgin coconut oil is the best for cooking because it has been only minimally processed.
Coconut oil confers a range of health benefits that include supporting the immune system, heart and thyroid gland, proving energy, regulating metabolism, promoting healthy skin, and improving insulin secretion. Coconut oil has antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties.
Butter – Yes, butter is slowly making a comeback as the healthy food it always was. Butter’s short and medium chain fatty acids are 68% saturated, putting it in second place for high heat cooking. But there’s more to butter than the frying pan.
Butter is one the best sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a known cancer fighter. In a study, women who consumed 4 or more servings of butter or other high-fat dairy foods lowered their risk of colorectal cancer by 41% compared with those who did not. Butter is also a good source cancer-fighting selenium and vitamins A and E. Like coconut oil, butter is protective of the heart.
Other animal fats – This group includes the much maligned bacon grease and lard, with its saturated fatty acids running about 40%. These fats should be a consideration for medium heat cooking because they abound in nutrients such as vitamins A,D and K, and choline, DHA (the same nutrient found in the popular and expensive fish oil), and arachidonic acid, all necessary for optimal brain functioning.
Eating these foods helps keep people trim, because short and medium chain fatty acids are used as energy, not stored as fat. As a result, eating them boost energy levels. Think about those people in the history books who always looked so thin and fit, and were regular eaters of these foods.
Olive oil – This is a long chain monounsaturated fat that is 14% saturated, making it a good candidate for cooking a low temperatures. Probably the best way to use this oil is by adding it to foods after they have been cooked. Be sure the olive oil you buy says it is 100% extra virgin. One of the biggest scams around is the alteration of olive oil.
Olive oil is one of the mainstays of the Mediterranean diet, the only diet known to reduce risk of death across the board. It has also been shown to be one few successful treatments of HER-2 breast cancer.
Nut and peanut oils – These oils are predominantly polyunsaturated, and lack the stability needed for cooking. They taste great, so use them in salad dressings or as additions to foods that have already been cooked and have cooled a bit.
Four oils to avoid
Oddly enough, these are the oils usually recommended as being ‘healthy’ in mainstream media. They are corn, soybean, cottonseed, and canola, each of which has been genetically modified, has undergone extensive processing, been grown under intense pesticide use and has produced trans fats in their processing. These oils are not fit for consumption whether they have been heated or not.