Are you confused?
I’m talking about the selection, media attention, & varying viewpoints on the topic of fats & oils. I’m sure I am not alone in my confusion. So, I did some digging… for the sake of our sanity!
It’s interesting to look back at our beliefs (from a scientific standpoint) many years ago when lard, butter, & margarine were staples in everyday cooking. I grew up smoothing potatoes and rice in margarine because it was supposedly healthier than butter. Now, the plant based oils are taking over grocery store shelves in an attempt to help us be “more healthy”. But are they in fact healthier for us? Science continues to evolve and continually confuse us. Thanks science!
Here is a summary of what you need to know when it comes to choosing oils for the health of your family (according to scientific research today…which we know will probably change by tomorrow)
First, let’s talk about WHY you should care.
Without getting into a lengthy discussion on how important fats/oils are for our bodies to function, just remember that we need fat to transport important vitamins in our body, support cell membranes, and protect vital organs. Fat also stores energy in our body until we are ready to use it (think bear storing up for hibernation).
The first reason that you should start paying attention to the types of oils you use is that too much of the wrong TYPE of fat has been proven to contribute to your chances of being obese or suffering from heart disease, cancer, & atherosclerosis (plaque build up in your arteries).
The second reason you should care is that if you don’t pay attention to the type of oils you are eating, you could become deficient in important fats that your body needs. Over time your body processes may start malfunctioning. Think of it as being deficient in iron, your body needs it to function and over time serious problems can occur without it. Your body needs a variety of types of fats/oils also. For example deficiency in Omega 3 oils (hemp, flax seed, fish) can lead to slowing of brain function & memory loss. Over consumption of Omega 6 dominant oils (safflower, sunflower, canola) increase inflammation in the body and thus increase related diseases such as arthritis, obesity, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, & asthma.
What are oils & fats?
Simply put, oils are just fats that are liquid at room temperature (think olive oil or canola oil). Fat, as most of us are familiar with, is solid at room temperature (think lard or animal fat).
Oils are usually extracted from plant sources (nuts, seeds, vegetables) through a complex process. Fats are normally extracted from animal sources (butter, lard).
Types of oils/fats & terms you need to know.
Saturated fats are called so due to their molecular structure. I like to think of the fat molecule as a parking lot. Saturated fats have all of their parking stalls filled by cars (hydrogen molecules), making them the strongest parking lot in the neighbourhood. To save you from the boring details, just remember that saturated fats are the most stable and strong types of fat.
They are needed by the body to help stabilise cell membranes and protect them from damage in your body. Saturated fats are usually hard at room temperature. Butter, lard, and coconut oil are examples.
The unsaturated fat parking lot has a one or more parking stalls open for the taking. Unsaturated fats are known for being liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil are examples.
Unsaturated fats are more fragile and delicate than saturated fats. They are critical to the functioning of the body as they provide flexibility to cell membranes and allow cells to talk with their surroundings.
Due to their more delicate nature, unsaturated fats should be stored and handled with care to prevent rancidity and oxidation. Best practices include: refrigeration, storing in dark green or brown glass bottles, and minimal opening.
There are varying types or unsaturated fats (none of which I will bore you with today. You’re welcome!). Just know that the structure of some of these oils such as olive oil, canola oil, & avocado oil are stronger and harder to destroy than other types such as sunflower oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, sesame seed oil, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, fish oil, walnut oil, & grapeseed oil.
Food manufacturers have been stumped for years about how to ensure the freshness and shelf life of these good for you and fragile oils. A process, called hydrogenation, was invented not too long ago that is now used in most of the cheap oils that you can buy. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life of these delicate fats or “parking lots” by dumping more cars from the sky into the lot. They hope that some of the cars land into those missing stalls and thus make the parking lot more secure. Because of this processes, the structural change of the natural molecules turns them into something completely new called trans fats. Think of all of the cars being damaged by sky cars landing on them!
I bet you have heard a lot about these lately. Am I right?
These are fats created in the lab as a by-product of the process I just mentioned. The problem here is that it has now been proven that trans fats increase the cholesterol (plaque build up) inside your arteries which leaves you more susceptible to blockages! It is advisable to stay away from any trans fats- read the label!
So, which oils do you use for what?
High heat cooking: Use any secure and strong oils and fats. Saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil have the strongest molecular backbone and can retain their nutritional structure at high cooking temperatures. Second choices would be any oils with slightly weaker structures such as olive oil and avocado oil.
Salad dressings/cold dishes: Any of the structurally weaker but great for you oils fall into this category. As we get an overwhelming amount of a certain type of fat called Omega 6 fats in our diet, try to focus here are on adding more beneficial oils such as flax, pumpkin, walnut, & hemp. Olive oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, & grapeseed oil are great also.
Moisturizing skin: Avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil, grape seed oil, or cold-pressed sesame oil are great options here. (untoasted for less smell!)
A few notes on quality & choosing the right oil.
- Most oils are HIGHLY processed using heat and multiple machines to create better consistency and shelf life. This allows food manufacturers to mass produce and offer oils to you at a cheaper price. It is worth the extra dollar to pay attention to buying cold pressed (without heat) oils.
- Oils are one of the main foods I focus on buying Organic. It takes a lot of one type of plant to create a bottle of amazing concentrated oil. I can’t imagine how concentrated the pesticide and chemical content from regular crops are within a bottle of oil. I’d rather avoid this.
- Corn & soybeans are the most genetically modified crops grown in North America. If you want to stay away from GMOs I would avoid these oils.
- When buying the delicate oils listed above, look for dark bottles to reduce possibilities of oxidation and free radical formation.
- Buy as fresh as possible. Oils do go bad over time.
- Protect from light, heat, & oxygen whenever possible.
So, now that you are armed with a bit of knowledge, take a look at the oils you currently have in your kitchen.
What type of oil are they? Do they have more saturated vs unsaturated fat? Are they hydrogenated? Do they contain trans fats?
Love & Parked Cars,