This article is adapted from the book 150 Healthiest Comfort Foods on Earth by Dr. Jonny Bowden and Jeanette Bessinger.
Choosing the right oil for cooking depends greatly on the job you want it to do. Almost all cooking oils or cooking fats contain a mixture of the three types of fatty acids: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated. Each has certain advantages.
Polyunsaturated fats include both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s, like flax seed oil, are terrific for using on salads, but can’t be used for cooking at high temperatures because of the delicate structure of the fats—any health benefit will be destroyed during the heating. On the other hand, omega-6s (found in corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and the like) are “pro-inflammatory,” and thus, should be used sparingly, if at all. Most vegetable oils are highly processed and refined, meaning many of the natural antioxidants have been destroyed in the processing.
Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil and macadamia nut oil and are fantastic for cooking. Macadamia nut oil stands up to heat quite well, and is extremely heart-healthy. Extra-virgin olive oil is the least processed of the olive oils, and is also an excellent salad dressing.
One oil to stay away from is canola oil despite the media hype. It’s a highly refined oil that has to be chemically bleached, degummed, and deodorized at very high temperatures (much like many other refined vegetable oils). It’s so-called health benefits are likely seriously over played.
An important consideration when choosing an oil for cooking is smoke point.
- Low smoke point oils like flax seed should, as mentioned, never be used for cooking, though you can certainly use them on salads or even cooked vegetables.
- Medium smoke point oils (like corn oil, which has a smoke point of 350°F) can be used, but it’s not great since it’s a very refined oil and extremely high in inflammatory omega-6s. Peanut oil (smoke point 275°F—300°F for unrefined peanut oil), would be a better choice as it is higher in monounsaturated fats and lower in omega-6s.
- High smoke point oils include macadamia nut oil, coconut oil, almond oil, and palm kernel oil (non-hydrogenated).
In terms of saturated fats, such as butter, lard, tallow and coconut oil, there’s really no need to avoid them, so long as you get pure fats that are not hydrogenated. Saturated fat is very resistant to oxidative damage, so these fats can be used without creating carcinogenic compounds. On the other hand, vegetable oils, with their high concentration of omega-6s are actually the oils most prone to oxidation.
Coconut oil is an especially good choice, despite the recent article from the American Heart Association, which was terrible. Keep in mind that saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50% of human cell membranes, giving them their necessary stiffness and integrity. They play a vital role in the health of our bones and they lower certain “bad” substances in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease.