What’s the best kind of oil to use for cooking?

I get asked this question frequently. To start with, let’s allow some historical background to shed light on this controversial topic.

Fat Phobia

I finished my nutrition and dietetics training at Loma Linda University in 1980, in the era of room-sized computers and fat phobia. That was the year the USDA published the first dietary guidelines. Guideline number three said,  “Avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.”

A decade later as a cardiology dietitian at Kettering Medical Center in Ohio, I found myself creating fat gram counters to help my patients reduce their fat intake.

Do you remember SnackWells? Those low-fat cookies that Nabisco introduced in 1992 surpassed Ritz crackers to become the number one snack in the nation. America had embraced fat phobia.

Health authorities thought that Americans would replace fats with healthy fruits and vegetables. Fat chance! What replaced the fat? Sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Sugar + Carbs + Fats = Addicting Foods

What happens when you combine sugar, refined carbs, and processed fats? You have the recipe for some of the most addicting foods. The University of Michigan did a study which identified which foods tend to be most addictive.  The top ones, in descending order:

  1. Pizza
  2. Chocolate
  3. Chips
  4. Cookies
  5. Ice Cream
  6. French Fries
  7. Cheeseburger
  8. Soda (not diet)
  9. Cake
  10. Cheese
  11. Bacon
  12. Fried Chicken

Note that processed fats are present in all of them except the soda. And the majority include refined carbs in the form of white flour or processed potatoes.

If you’d like to delve more into this topic, I recommend the book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss. It contains eye-opening information about the millions of dollars of research and development invested in creating potato chips and other foods that taste so good that you “can’t eat just one!”

Least Addictive Foods

You may be wondering: What were the least addictive foods? Cucumbers, carrots, beans, apples, brown rice, broccoli, and banana.

Have you ever noticed someone addicted to any of these foods? Me either.

Fat Fervor

And now nearly 40 years later fat phobia has subsided and the pendulum has swung the other way. Coconut oil, butter, and bacon are being touted as the new health foods.

Are you tired of the hype? Do you want some clarity regarding the truth about fats? With all the fat fervor around, how do you identify the best fats to include in your diet?

Choosing the Best Fats

Here are two guidelines with you that will help you choose the best fats.

Guideline #1: The best fats are unprocessed.

The best fats are natural plant foods with fat and fiber intact. Think avocados, olives, almonds, and other nuts and seeds.

Guideline #2: The worst fats are processed.

Scientists and food manufacturers have tampered with naturally occurring fats–heating them, deodorizing them, and refining them. These chemically altered fats have been damaged by exposure to heat, light, and air, which gives them more a longer shelf life, a higher smoke point, and more color and flavor.

However, what’s good for the food manufacturers is not good for the human body. All that processing changes the chemical structure of the oils, creating harmful substances that can cause inflammation in the body.

What’s the best kind of oil to use for frying?

None!

Take a look at what happens with commercially fried foods. During the process of frying, new compounds form due to oxygen and heat. These chemical changes are inflammatory to the body.

What happens when sautéing in oil at home? If oil smokes in the pan, the temperature is too high. The smoke signals damaged oil. Potentially cancer-causing properties have formed. Discard the oil, clean the pan and start over. Better yet, saute in a few tablespoons of water or vegetable broth. Add some salt to draw the moisture out of the onions. After the onions are cooked and removed from the heat, you can add some extra-virgin olive oil if you want.

What’s the best kind of oil to use for cooking?

None!

It’s best to avoid damaging the oil by subjecting it to high temperatures. Did you know that you can roast vegetables without oil? They cook faster. Toss them with oil after roasting, if you want them shiny,  I’ll be posting a recipe soon.

What’s the best kind of oil to use for salads?

Unrefined, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is the best oil for salad dressings and other ways that don’t involve heat.

What’s the best kind of oil to use for baking?

If you want to use oil in granola or baked goods like muffins, use extra-virgin olive oil or cold-pressed avocado oil and bake at lower temperatures.

What about coconut oil?

While coconut oil has a higher smoke point, it’s still better to avoid overheating it. I recommend using coconut oil only occasionally and in small quantities.  Whenever possible, instead of coconut oil, use coconut butter–which is ground coconut and contains the fiber.