Best Cooking Oils for Good Health?

"What type of oil (or fat) is the best cooking oil to use?"  That's a common question for anyone looking to eat healthy.

Over the last 50 years, there been a slew of marketing campaigns designed to convince you that polyunsaturated fats are the best cooking oil to use. We're constantly being encouraged to consume more polyunsaturated fats as a way of preventing heart disease. First, it was margarine, then corn oil, then soy, then canola — the latest darling of the anti-saturated fat proponents.

Polyunsaturated fat refers primarily to vegetable and nut oils that are not saturated like most tropical oils (such as coconut oil) and animal fats. Many of you reading this are under the impression that polyunsaturated fats are indeed heart-healthy.

You need to realize that this line of thinking is patently false, a result of decades of advertising by the edible oil industry and pharmaceutical companies. They want to convince you that saturated fat and cholesterol are the culprits, so they can sell you more of their processed vegetable oils and cholesterol-lowering drugs. You might be amazed to find out that there is no credible science that supports this theory! How did this come to be?

The Lipid Theory of Heart Disease

The role of fats as a contributing factor in heart disease was first examined by a researcher named Ancel Keys in the late 1950's, and has been considered the accepted standard ever since. Based on Dr. Keys' conclusions, there is a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease. It made sense — since the deposits that were clogging people's arteries were made of fat, too much fat must be the culprit. This became known as the "Lipid Theory" of heart disease.

Before 1920, coronary heart disease was rare. Back then, people cooked with butter and lard, both high in saturated fat. However, by the 1950's, the rate of heart disease had grown so dramatically that it became the leading cause of death among Americans. It was this statistic that spurred the research into the causes of heart disease. Scientists reasoned that if you reduced the saturated fat in the diet, the rate of heart disease would go down correspondingly. So Americans went more and more to a lower saturated fat diet.

During the sixty-year period from 1910 to 1970, the proportion of animal fat in the American diet declined from 83% to 62%, and butter consumption dropped from eighteen pounds per person per year to just four. Since the 1930's, dietary cholesterol intake in the U.S. has increased only one percent. If heart disease is a result of dietary saturated fats, one would expect to find a corresponding decrease in the rate of heart disease.

Instead, the rate of heart disease continued to climb, and is still rising. Today, it causes about 40% of all deaths in the United States. Clearly, the saturated fat theory is rubbish.

What else changed dramatically in the standard American diet in that time? Well, the population is now consuming four times as many vegetable oils in the form of margarine, shortening and refined oils. Consumption of sugar and processed foods has increased about 60 percent. About 100 years ago, when heart disease was unheard of, the average person ate less than a pound of unsaturated oils per year. Now people in most industrialized societies consume around 75 pounds per year. These statistics all indicate that polyunsaturated fats aren't the best cooking oils to use for good health. These are the foods that are contributing to the epidemic of heart disease we see today, not the saturated fat everyone thinks of when they hear foods described as "artery-clogging."

Recent studies show that an excess of the polyunsaturated fats actually contributes to the development of degenerative diseases: cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and more.

What Types of Fat are There?

Basically, there are four types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Polyunsaturated fats, like vegetable oils, are the most unstable, then monounsaturated (olive oil), with saturated fats like butter and coconut oil being the most stable. Hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, are unnatural fats and should be avoided altogether. So what is the best cooking oil you can use?

Oils Spoil Easily. Because polyunsaturated oils are so unstable, they must go through a great deal of processing, including deodorization and bleaching. Even small amounts of light, moisture, air or heat damage polyunsaturated fat.

Canola hydrogenates so easily that this even happens inadvertently during the oil's steam-injection deodorization process. Because of this unintended hydrogenation, any refined canola oil is going to be partially hydrogenated and thus will contain trans fats. Nonetheless, many formulations of canola oil are promoted as having no trans or partially hydrogenated fats, because they weren't present prior to the refining process.

Polyunsaturated oils can't withstand exposure to heat when used for cooking, but they're still the main choice for restaurants because they're cheap. The label "cooked in pure vegetable oil" is used to imply that they're using the best cooking oil available. Don't buy into it.

When oil is heated to a high temperature, the chemical composition of the oil changes, sometimes with effects that are harmful to health. Highly refined oils are popular because they can resist higher temperatures without smoking, but that doesn't mean they're the best cooking oil for your health.

Saturated fats have a much higher resistance to spoiling because of their chemical nature. As it turns out, saturated fats are the best cooking oil to fry in (healthiest being a relative term) due to their ability to tolerate higher temperatures. Cooking, especially deep frying, in polyunsaturated oils is just a bad idea.

Types of Cooking Oils

Of all the different types of cooking oils, none of the most common ones — soy, corn, canola, sunflower, safflower, can be recommended as the best cooking oils to use. They've all gone through excessive processing, including the use of heat, pressure and toxic solvents such as hexane to extract the oil. Many of them are now being produced with genetically-modified crops as well.

Compounding the problem is that the vegetable oils become even more harmful when they're heated for cooking. Damage done by frying starts at about 320 degrees Fahrenheit and goes up exponentially as the temperature rises.

Avoid Margarine, Shortening and Spreads. These are the worst fats of all. These contain all types of harmful components such as: trans fats, synthetic vitamins, emulsifiers and preservatives, hexane and other toxic solvents used in the extraction process, bleach, artificial flavors and colors, and soy protein isolate.

If you need to use any oil for frying or baking, saturated fats are the best, including animal fats, butter and lard. Healthiest vegetable and nut oils include unrefined walnut, macadamia nut, avocado, olive or sesame oil. Still, because they're less refined than most oils, they won't tolerate higher temperatures, and should ideally be used at room temperature.

Butter has been unfairly condemned as well. However, not only is it a much more natural product, butter is a rich source of vitamin A, D, E and K2, which are often lacking in the modern diet. Butter is also rich in important trace minerals and provides the perfect balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats.

The best butter to use is raw butter from grass-fed cows, preferably organic. Next is pasteurized butter from grass-fed cows, followed by regular pasteurized butter from supermarkets, still a much healthier choice than margarines.

If you want to fry, coconut oil may be the best cooking oil of all. In fact, this is a fat so healthy, some health experts recommend eating it by the spoonful. Because of its unique composition, it doesn't even contribute to weight gain.

There's a significant property of coconut oil that distinguishes it from other sources of saturated fat and contributes to the health benefits of coconut oil. Coconut oil is comprised of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), also called medium-chain triglycerides.

Research has demonstrated that
medium-chain fats in coconut oil actually protect against heart disease — and may one day even be used as a treatment to cure it!

Discover the miracle properties of coconut oil at my page on
Coconut Oil Benefits

Storing Your Oils and Fats 
to Prevent Rancidity

All polyunsaturated oils need proper storage to prevent rancidity. First off, never buy oils that come in clear containers. Oils do not hold up well when exposed to light or air. Buy oils in opaque or dark glass or metal containers. Stick to smaller size containers, even though they're more expensive. You'll use up the oil sooner and prevent rancidity that occurs over time. Keep the container sealed tightly in a cool environment and replace the cap immediately every time you use it. Don't use a container like the one shown here for long-term storage.

A neat little trick that keeps oils from oxidizing (the process that causes rancidity), add a drop of the antioxidant astaxanthin to the container of oil. You'll have to prick a small hole in a capsule of astaxanthin to do this. Be careful, astaxanthin has a deep red color that will stain anything it touches. The astaxanthin will add a red tint to your oil; as long as you see this color, you know that your oil is still fresh.

To Summarize

  • avoid cooking your food by frying or sautéing
  • if you do fry, use an unrefined variety of oil, not the bleached and processed light varieties
  • keep the frying temperature as low as possible
  • fry with saturated fats such as coconut oil, butter or other animal fats. Don't buy into the artery-clogging-saturated-fat theory. It's nonsense!
  • buy oils in small, opaque containers that will get used up quicker than large size bottles
  • keep your oils safe from heat, light and air to keep them from turning rancid.

For Further Reading

The Weston A. Price Foundation has dozens of articles with excellent information on dietary fats

For further reading, the following books are recommended. They can all be found at my Health & Longevity Bookstore.

The Great Cholesterol Con by Anthony Colpo

The Coconut Oil Miracle by Bruce Fife and Jon J. Kabara

Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You by Uffe Ravnskov

Antioxidants Home Page from Best Cooking Oil


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