Fats have a bad name and have, in the past, been associated with a myriad of health issues. Unfortunately, all the old advice about fats threw out ‘the baby with the bath water’.
Fats are an important part of the diet, but not all fats have the same effects on health. While good fats can actually lower cholesterol levels, boost brain function and help you feel satisfied, unhealthy fats can lead to chronic disease and weight gain.
What are healthy fats?
Healthy fats can be broken down into two main categories: unsaturated fats and saturated fatty acids.
Saturated fat includes fatty acids without double bonds. Saturated fat foods include ingredients like butter, coconut oil and dairy products. Although once considered unhealthy and artery-clogging, more and more research has shown that saturated fats can be included as part of a healthy diet – in moderation.
Unsaturated fat includes any type of fatty acid that contains at least one double bond within the chain. These fats are further classified as either a monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat based on the number of double bonds they contain. Unsaturated fats can include foods like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fish. Studies show that unsaturated fatty acids can help weight loss, reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease
Which is the best oil for cooking?
If you’re going to heat an oil you actually want the LEAST unsaturation. For example, I only steam fry or bake with butter, ghee, coconut oil or olive oil. Never sunflower oil. That is because the most degrees of unsaturation the more damaged fats get created, which fit into the locks but don’t turn the keys of our biology and that blockage creates inflammation.
The real damage happens when an oil starts to smoke. Oil with a high smoke point is more versatile. A lot of commercial oils are processed to increase the ‘smoke point’. Butter, olive oil and coconut oil have a similar smoke point of 160-177 degrees. The highest smoke point of the healthier oils is ghee at 252%. Avocado oil is also good but not readily available and expensive. As long as the smoke point is not reached all these oils are suitable and, from a nutrition point of view it is best to minimise deep frying and steam fry instead.
Cold-pressed virgin olive oil is meant to be a guarantee of quality but exposes have shown that up to 70% of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in the world is fake, that is ‘cut’ with other cheaper oils. It is hard to tell. Olive oil should solidify in the fridge (but cheaper added oils can do too) and burn if lit in e.g. a lamp (but cheaper oils can do too). I’d check the oil you buy for cooking with the ‘fridge test’ just because you want to use a close to saturated fat for cooking anyway, and then not go over the smoke point by steam-frying.
Good quality olive oil is rich in polyphenols, and should say so on the label, giving the actual amounts present. These have so many benefits including protecting the heart, brain, skin and reducing blood sugar, inflammation and ageing.
This is largely because olives provide hydroxytyrosol and oleocanthals, which are potent anti-inflammatory painkillers. They have been shown to lower blood levels of markers for inflammation (IL-1, IL-6, TNFα) and raise NO (nitric oxide).
Another ingredient: a polyphenol called hydroxytyrosol is also beneficial. This is an extremely potent antioxidant which protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation.
In short, cook with olive oil, ghee, coconut and avocado oil but try not to reach a high smoke point. Steam frying is healthier.