A Primer on Oils

By: Dr. Mike Baker, ND

Oils & Fats

I’ve recently had a lot of questions regarding cooking oils, so I thought I’d shed a little light on which fats/oils are safe to cook with, and which are not.

When it comes to fat there are basically two types: Saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are high in saturated fatty acids – tiny chains of carbon molecules that are packed closely together. This quality means the fat is solid at room temperature. Examples of fats rich in saturated fatty acids are coconut oil, butter, ghee, lard, and palm oil. Ghee is an alternative to butter and is suitable for people intolerant to lactose or sensitive to dairy proteins like Casein.

Unsaturated fatty acids have carbon chains that are bent at all sorts of different angles and don’t pack together very well. Because of this, these fats are liquid at room temperature. Some common examples include: olive oil, vegetable oil, and grapeseed oil.

Saturated fats are more temperature stable than unsaturated fats. This means that at high temperatures, saturated fats do not oxidize as readily as unsaturated fats. When exposed to high temperatures (or even UV light) unsaturated fats become oxidized and toxic to humans. As I wrote about in my last article, oxidized fats can damage blood vessels and lead to plaque formation. We’ve all smelled rancid fats before – did you know that rancid fats are associated with increased risk of neurological disease, heart disease, and cancer?

Both saturated and unsaturated fats are needed for a well balanced diet. Saturated fats help our body make cholesterol and hormones, while unsaturated fats like omega three fatty acids keep our brains healthy and reduce inflammation.

When it comes to eating and cooking with fats there are some very simple rules to follow:
1) Avoid highly processed, man-made fats like margarine (transfats), and highly refined oils that use chemicals like hexane for extraction
a. Oils that are commonly processed with hexane include: Grapeseed, canola, safflower, sunflower oil, and vegetable oils.
b. To avoid hexanes and other harmful solvents, choose cold pressed oils.
2) Choose organic fats
a. Many pesticides are fat soluble and are concentrated in fats
3) Store them properly
a. Buy small bottles of oil. They run out sooner, meaning you’ll use them before they go rancid
b. Opaque, glass bottles protect the oil from harmful UV rays
c. Store oils in a cool dark cupboard to protect them from heat
4) Cook with solid fats and save liquid oils for salad dressings

The things I want you to take away from this are: Oils are essential for health, but they should be treated and consumed carefully. Liquid oils are extremely fragile and if exposed to high heat or UV rays can be harmful to our health. Generally most liquid oils are safe to consume as long as they are organic, cold pressed, come in an opaque glass bottle, and are stored in a cool, dark place. If it were up to me, I would choose organic ghee or coconut oil to cook with and I would make salad dressings with cold pressed, organic olive oil.