FAT


cooking-oil

Yo, to all of y’all who didn’t realize the underlined words in my other posts were web links: go back and read that stuff again!

Half of them are YouTube video clips, and you are seriously missing out.

Now, I tried not to make this post about how much I love Vermont Creamery butter. (See those underlined words? Click on them!) It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done not to go on a poetic tangent; I would eat it an entire stick of that stuff by itself.

No, I set out to write an entry about cooking fats, and cooking fats is what I will write about.  I was inspired by a friend’s Facebook post the other day and also because it’s been on my mind a lot lately…I know, I’m a thrilling individual. Unfortunately, I was immediately waylaid, upon starting my research, by contradicting information. I find dietary statistics to be even more difficult to navigate than the realm of body care because, while it seems fairly cut and dry to refuse topical synthetic chemicals, it’s nearly impossible to find commonly agreed-upon and scientifically supported dietary advice. With the US in the midst of its “War on Obesity,” (why does everything have to be a war?) food corporations are constantly jockeying to make sure they stay abreast of the current fat-fighting trends. These trends usually go the way of vilifying a particular food category; in this case, while researching cooking fats, I fell into the controversy surrounding saturated fats, cholesterol, and heart disease.

After all, the first question that arises when discussing dietary fat, in general, is “how much should I be consuming, and of what kinds?” Here’s a good article discussing the “informational cascade” effect, and how it influences the scientific information that the American public receives. The article mentions Gary Taubes, whose books are a great resource for studying convention and controversy surrounding the Western diet. (Though, to be fair, he seems to be quite biased towards the Atkins diet, of which I’m not a fan. Complex carbohydrates are needed, yo.)

I’ll try to make this simple and easy to follow. I’ll talk about different kinds of fats first, and then I’ll explain which foods contain those fats. I’ll go into some more detail about saturated fat controversy, since I feel that there is a lot of misinformation floating around. I’ll then talk about omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, their characteristics, and where to find them. Then I’ll segue into the point of my post, which is oil for cooking. Ready? Let’s go!

Kinds of Fats
Here’s a breakdown of the different kinds of fats. I’m not going to venture into the realm of chemistry jargon because I have a very limited background, so please bear with my layman’s knowledge.

Monounsaturated Fats (MUFA)

  • liquid at room temperature and solid or semisolid when refrigerated
  • less vulnerable to rancidity than polyunsaturated fats
  • help lower cholesterol
  • found in red meat, whole milk, nuts, olives, and avocados (olive oil = 75% MUFA)
  • also found in “high-oleic” oils like sunflower and safflower, though this is because they have been genetically modified

Polyunsaturated (PUFA)

  • liquid at room temperature
  • the two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6, which are the two essential fatty acids
  • these fats have fewer calories than saturated fats
  • help lower cholesterol
  • found in salmon, sardines, walnuts, flax seed oil, and fish oil supplements

(I’m going to go around asking all of my friends if they’ve had their MUFA and PUFA for the day, so prepare yourselves.)

Essential Fatty Acids

There are only two known essential fatty acids (required for biological processes) for humans, though there are many other fatty acids. These are alpha-linoleic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6).

Omega-3

  • EPA or DHA (and ALA, from plant sources, which can be converted to EPA and then DHA by the body; EPA is a precursor to DHA, but DHA can be obtained directly from fish oil)
  • polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in marine and plant oils
  • anti-inflammatory

Omega-6

  • main omega-6 that your body requires is linoleic acid, which is an unsaturated fatty acid found in the oil of seeds and grains
  • The Standard American Diet provides too high a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. The Omega-6 is obtained primarily through the high consumption of vegetable oils, (such as canola, sunflower, safflower, and corn oils). Additionally, most livestock have much higher ratios of omega-6 to omega-3, due to a primarily grain-based diet. I’m not advocating that anyone go out and eat a ton of grass-fed beef, but this article  explains why it’s more beneficial than grain-fed. This article describes a more in-depth study. And if you feel like getting REALLY in-depth about essential fatty acids, you can read through this massive text (but I won’t judge if you don’t).

Saturated

  • fully “saturated” with hydrogen atoms
  • found in high concentrations in full-fat dairy products, animal fats, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, chocolate, cottonseed oil, and eggs
  • lauric and myristic acids are found in tropical oils (coconut, etc)
  • stearic and palmitic are found in animal fats, nuts, eggs, and chocolate
  • Since the 1950s, the consensus between the American Dietetic Association (and the World Health Association, etc) has been that saturated fat intake is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and high blood cholesterol levels. This conclusion can be mostly attributed to a study by a man named Ancel Keys, who conducted a famous study in 1953. There have since been other meta-analyses that have declared that saturated fat is not nearly so terrible as we thought, and is, in fact, beneficial when consumed in moderation.
  • Here’s a good explanation of why saturated fats have been vilified by the media, most specifically related to blood cholesterol.This book is especially well-known and well-researched. You can read an interview the author, Dr Mary Enig, here.

Trans fat

  • I’m not going to explain it, because I think you just shouldn’t go near this stuff. It’s terrible for you (something that everyone in the world actually seems to agree upon).
  • Here’s a bit of reading about butter versus margarine.

Which foods contain which kinds of fat?

The Mayo Clinic has this list of  foods, the types of fat they contain, and their suggested serving sizes. (Though who has ever eaten only 1 slice of bacon at a time?!?!) It’s not super detailed, but gives a general smattering of common foods. They also, weirdly, list “salad dressing” as a fat. The last time I checked, you could make salad dressing from any number of oils. Whatever, Mayo Clinic.

Fats for Cooking

All of this fat talk brings me to my main point: cooking fats! Lately, there has been much media attention about fats and their various levels of degradation when heated. I was astounded to hear that olive oil wasn’t great for sautéing at high heats, since that had always been my oil of choice. (I’m a maniac with the saute pan–I basically begin 95% of my cooking by sautéing onions.) I had heard that it was better to use oils with higher smoke points, but I hadn’t really given much thought to what was in my parents’ cabinets.

Unrefined vegetable oils have lower smoke points and are much healthier for you than refined oils.  Yet, they go rancid more quickly when exposed to air and the passage of time, and that lower smoke point means they degrade quickly when heated and release carcinogenic compounds. So, your first cold pressed, extra-virgin olive oil is great when eaten on salads, but is actually crappy for you when heated.

On the flipside, refined vegetable oils can be heated to a much higher temperature without degrading, but the methods used to refine them are extremely questionable. The refinement process for canola oil is particularly disturbing, involving solvent extraction, bleaching, de-gumming, and deodorization. I don’t know if any of you are okay with putting something like that in your bodies, but I’m certainly not.

I found a few charts and infographics that should make it easier to figure out the best oils for cooking. Some, like this one are actually quite visually confusing and are too anti-saturated fat for my tastes. This one is the simplest guide, though it doesn’t list the oils by their individual smoke points. It also places avocado oil in the category with oils that should be consumed unheated, yet avocado appears to have a very high smoke point, according to this and several other charts.

Based on all of this exhausting information, I’ve decided to use only the following oils for cooking:

Coconut oil: Coconut oil is composed of roughly 50% lauric acid, which is a saturated fat that has antimicrobial properties and that increases HDL (good) cholesterol. It also has Vitamin E, Vitamin K, and Iron.

Butter or Ghee: Here are some facts about butter that might convince you to eat it.

Avocado oil: As I said earlier, avocado oil has the highest smoke point of all vegetable oils when refined (520 F) but also has a fairly high smoke point when unrefined (400). This brand of avocado oil is “naturally refined,” without the use of chemicals or solvents, according to their website. Avocados are high in potassium and b vitamins.

Palm kernel oil: I still haven’t tried this one and I don’t really feel the need at this point, but I’ll keep it in the back of my mind as something to research further.

I love olive oil and the real stuff is super healthy and beneficial, but I’ve decided to only use it for very low-heat cooking and for cold applications like salad dressings and for adding flavor to finished dishes (or for bread dipping–yummy).

I don’t use many other oils in general. I’ve used peanut oil for Asian cooking in the past, but it was probably of the refined variety, and so I’ll have to think of the best alternative. I’d like to try other cold oils such as walnut for dressings, but I’m not feeling particularly pressured to seek them out at the moment, since they’re expensive.

That’s all I can think of for now! I hope that wasn’t completely overwhelming. Please let me know if you find any inaccuracies or have any further questions for me, or if you just disagree outright.

I’ll just be in the corner over here, gnawing on a stick of butter. 

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