Why Basic Nutrition is So Difficult to Figure Out
The discussion around the health benefits or risks of various oils and fats have been a hotly discussed debate for several decades now.
For years we were tuning into the nightly news and hearing that a food like eggs was bad for you. Then a year or two later we would hear the opposite. This pattern of cycling recommendations is overwhelming and confusing. Often these claims are misleading what the research is actually pointing to for the sake of ratings.
If you don’t actively follow the research behind the headlines on your local news stories, keeping up with nutritional guidelines can seem useless because they are widely unreliable. And in some cases these public health recommendations can be motivated by other less than pure motives like behind the scenes financial influence in play. And furthermore, the public health recommendations are often based on outdated research. It can easily push a perfectly sane person to just ignore nutritional advice overall because there’s just no consistency.
The latest such fiasco, of course, was the American Heart Association’s statement on the dangers of coconut oil and promotion of vegetable oil as a viable alternative.
This statement featured outdated research which essentially found that some of the populations with the poorest health consume a larger amount of saturated fat. The wrong assumption this study concluded was that saturated fat is bad. There has been no confirming study to correlate coconut oil with poor health outcomes!
Statements like these 10 years ago would have possibly had a larger impact to sway public opinion. However the advent of the internet has allowed regular everyday people the resources to look at the research behind the statement and the platform to speak up against it.
If Public Health Recommendations are Unreliable, How Do You Make Informed Decisions?
If you aren’t getting the nutritional journals and reading the research yourself, how are you supposed to know what to choose? This is exactly the problem I want to help you figure out.
You shouldn’t have to become a nutrition expert to be able to make good decisions for yourself and your family. So I want to break down the basics of how oils and fats are classified, explain some of the key factors you need to know when choosing an oil and outline some individual information for most of the common oils available in your local grocery store shelf.
Cooking Oils Can Influence the Nutritional Value of Your Overall Meal
Did you know that the oil you cook your food in and the temperature you cook it at can influence the amount of nutrition that is maintained in your foods? A bowl of vegetables cooked in canola oil at a high temperature is not nutritionally equal to a similar bowl cooked with coconut oil on low or medium heat.
The oil you cook with is rarely something you choose because of taste… oils often just taste like oil. And this means that choosing healthy oils and learning how to use them to maintain the nutritional value of your food is an easy way to support your health. And I am all about finding easy ways to support health!
Key Information to Learn Before Choosing a Cooking Oil
What kind of fat is it
When you are considering an oil or cooking fat, you need to consider what type of fat is it made up of. There are only 4 options, 3 of which are naturally occurring and the last is one that we have manufactured for convenience and financial profit without much thought given to biological compatibility or health concerns.
Technical info: Saturated fat has no double bonds between carbon atoms, so each carbon atom is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms
In plain English: This type of fat is easy to pick out because they are solid at room temp
Examples: Coconut oil, Butter, Lard
Technical Info: These fats contain one double bond between carbon atoms
In plain English: These are liquid at room temp but become cloudy and semi-solid if refrigerated
Examples: Almond Oil, Avocado Oil, Olive Oil
Technical Info: These fats contain more than one double bond between carbon atoms
In plain English: These are always liquid regardless of temperature
Examples: Corn Oil, Sunflower Oil
Technical Info: Fats that have undergone molecular changes (hydrogenation) to turn liquid fat into a shelf-stable solid
In plain English: This mutant fat is really designed to increase taste and preserve food so that items can be available on the grocery store shelves with longer expiration dates to minimize waste
Examples: Margarine, Shortening, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
Hint: Avoid this one! If you see the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”, you can bet there’s at least some trans fats involved.
Just a side note here
I have seen a few sources that combine saturated fats and trans fats into the same category. They are very different so beware of anyone who lumps them into the same category.
No Fat is a Pure Single Type of Fat
The 4 types of fat listed above looks fairly distinct from each other, but nature is never quite so cut and dry. Every oil or fat source is made up of varying amounts of these types of fats.
For example, coconut oil that has over 90% saturated fat also contains approximately 6% monounsaturated fat and 1% polyunsaturated fat.
On the other end of the spectrum, Safflower oil has nearly 80% polyunsaturated fat, 15% monounsaturated fat and almost 7% saturated fat.
Most of the oils fall somewhere in between. This article has a great chart to help you get a visual representation of how different oils are composed. It also shows the smoke point for each oil which we will discuss in a minute.
Chemical Breakdown of Cooking Oils is Normal But Not Equal
All oils slowly change their molecular structure over time when exposed to light or oxygen in the air. This natural process (called oxidation) is speeded up greatly when oils are heated up, as they are in cooking.
The oxidation process itself produces “aldehydes”. These aren’t healthy to eat or even breath in. Different oils create more or less of these aldehydes when they are exposed to higher levels of heat.
To avoid these toxins, you need to be aware of the cooking oils smoke point. This is the temperature at which it begins to burn instead of just boil. Cooking below the oil’s smoke point is an easy way to minimize the amount of toxins created during cooking and preserve the nutritional value of the food.
This news report explains a research experiment to identify which types of fats create how much of these toxins and in what amounts. Overall they found:
- Polyunsaturated fats create a lot of aldehydes
- Monounsaturated fats create some aldehydes
- Saturated fats create the least
These results indicate that oils high in saturated fat like coconut oil, butter, lard, or ghee (clarified butter) are the most stable for cooking.
Different Ideas for Oil Uses Besides Cooking
Some oils that have a lower smoke point or are just less stable for cooking can still be used for their health benefits in other ways.
They can be used as a finisher oil which is added to the food after it’s cooked. Some people actually prefer to do this to avoid any risk of degrading the oil during the cooking process.
Additionally, you can use the oil as a base for a dressing or other oil-based sauce and added to food as a seasoning.
So, What Oils are the Best Already?!
Not sure about you, but my head is reeling a bit from all of this information. Especially since I said choosing a healthy cooking oil is supposed to be an easy health hack, right?!
In general, I try to be wary of telling others exactly what to use. I find my own health journey can be more informed and conscious when I get enough knowledge to make a decision for myself about what is healthy or good for my individual circumstances.
But if you feel more comfortable with some guidance, I don’t mind sharing my current choices. (Just know I do not believe these are the only healthy options!)
I buy coconut oil by the tub. I also always have butter and olive oil on hand. Recently I have started including some ghee and am testing the waters, but so far I think I like it!
Occasionally I will use an untoasted sesame oil (Thrive Market, affiliate link) when I want my food to have an Asian fusion flare. Untoasted just because to me the toasted variety can easily taste rancid, not because I think there is anything wrong with the toasted varieties. Thrive Market has been the only place I can find it consistently.
In general I look for “cold pressed” and “virgin” varieties that have not been excessively processed or damaged by heat
To help you remember all of this, here’s an infographic for a visual overview of the important parts. Feel free to pin it for later reference.
I know that is a lot of upfront knowledge on a simple and easy health hack, but this information can be absolutely life changing! If you make the tiniest tweak to using an oil that is healthier, or using a healthy oil in a way that does not produce degradation, it can reduce overall inflammation. This little tweak can help relieve joint pain, and potentially prevent or reduce cardiovascular disease. So powerful!
So what do you think? Is this overwhelming? Encouraging? Do you feel better prepared to make a decision on the baking aisle with a million different options? I would also love to hear what you prefer to cook with or how you use oils in your own kitchen. Let me know all of this in the comments below.