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The Ultimate Guide to Oils: Which to Buy, How to Use Them, And Isn’t Coconut Oil a Saturated Fat?

How to use coconut oil, olive oil, and any other oil you can cook with.

Contents:

The Basics

  • Is Oil Healthy?
  • How Much Should I Eat?
  • ‘‘But I Know A Guy On The Ketogenic Diet And He Is Shredded!’’

Understanding Oil

  • Saturated vs. Unsaturated
  • Saturated Fats: Traditional Nourishment? Or A Recipe For Disease?
  • Unsaturated Fats: The Good, The Bad, and The Omegas

Tips for Oil

  • Purchasing
  • Storage
  • High Heat or Low Heat

Top Picks

  • Olive Oil
  • Coconut Oil + *MCT Oil
  • Avocado Oil
  • Sesame Seed Oil
  • Flaxseed Oil
  • Ghee
  • *Each including a Cheat Sheet, How It Is Made, and Recipe

The Basics

Is Oil Healthy?

First we must ask the question: is fat healthy? The answer is, of course, yes. But as it goes with every nutritional debate, the quantity, quality and context of an ingredient will dictate its health value.

From a holistic viewpoint, high-fat foods operate best in the body when consumed in a way that nature designed. Unrefined fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and eggs, maintain a synergistic balance of nutrients. They are coupled with protein to form whole foods. Oil, no matter its type, is ultimately a processed food. It is decoupled from its foodstuff – the olive fruit, the coconut flesh, the sesame seed, etc. – and concentrated into an isolated macronutrient. Like other isolated ingredients, such as white sugar or protein powder, oil must be used with discretion.

Fat offers a variety of life supporting functions. It is vital for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. It acts as a protective blanket, shielding one’s internal organs from fluctuating temperatures and trauma. It offers structure and security to cell membranes, preventing against invasion by microorganisms and damage from chemicals. Fat is especially important to the nervous system and brain. Healthy fats trigger satiety and reduce the urge to binge on sugar.

Yet, spending $4 extra to purchase the “cold-pressed’’ or ‘‘extra virgin” variety of an oil does not necessarily guarantee better health. Oil is more complex than its label. Many factors affect its nutritional value: level of refinement, type of bottle, exposure to light, oxygen, and temperature, etc. This means that a less healthy oil, when used for the right job, is actually healthier than your highest quality oil used incorrectly! Understanding these nuances will empower you to make the best choices at the supermarket and in your kitchen.

How Much Should I Eat?

As a concentrated source of fat, consuming too much oil (especially when coupled with refined carbohydrates, salt, and a sedentary lifestyle), can wreak havoc on the body. However, consumed in moderation, and alternated with whole-food sources of fat, oil can be beneficial.

No indigenous culture in the world subsists on a fat-free diet. However, four cultures, with the distinction of producing the world’s healthiest and oldest humans, share a remarkably similar diet: low fat. The Okinawans of Southern Japan, the Abkhasians of the Caucasus Mountains, the Vilcabambans of the Andes, and the Hunzans of Central Asia, all derive just 10-15% of calories from fat. Their diet is 90% plant based, built upon complex carbohydrates, inclusive of many raw or lightly steamed vegetables and fermented foods. Not to mention, they use less salt, exercise more, and demonstrate positive cultural attitudes about aging.

Low fat diets have scientifically been proven to prevent and even reverse many diseases. However, as you have already read, the quantity of fat consumed is not the only factor at play. If the quality of calories on a low-fat diet are replaced with refined carbohydrates a.k.a. sugary ‘‘fat-free’’ foods, and they are eaten in the context of other unhealthy lifestyle habits, then a low fat diet is not much better than its Standard American counterpart! The right way to do a low-fat diet is like the Okinawans, Abkhasians, Vilcabambans, and Hunzans: eat a lot of whole plant foods and minimize all of the unnatural junk.

‘‘But I Know a Guy On The Ketogenic Diet and He Is Shredded!’’

At the opposite end of the spectrum are high fat diets. Some people have adapted themselves to use fat as their primary source of fuel, in place of carbohydrates. Fats and oils make up 70-80% of their calories, while carbohydrates remain extremely low. Reported benefits of this lifestyle are weight loss, lean body composition, and mental clarity. In some cases, ketogenic diets are also implemented to help manage neurodegenerative diseases. This diet remains highly controversial and a personal choice.

Throughout history higher fat diets were an involuntary consequence of living in colder climates. Fresh, carbohydrate-rich foods were limited by shorter growing seasons. Colder months were survived by whatever fresh food could be preserved, dry pantry items (grains, beans, oils) and animal products. Latitude is less of a diet factor nowadays; however, your body will intuitively know its ideal amount of fat to consume. It is true that certain individuals feel better eating higher amounts of fat. And, this could translate into a modest 30% of calories or a more extreme ketogenic level. You should feel nourished, balanced, warm, and satisfied. These effects are especially pronounced on a hormonal level for woman. If you are eating too much fat, you will feel sluggish and ‘clogged up.’

To answer the question about your ketogenic buddy, it is relevant to examine not only the quantity of fat he is eating, but its quality and context. Yes, he is eating a lot of fat, but most likely he is also eating a lot of vegetables, eating zero packaged foods, exercising a lot, and has a passion for health. If he feels great, then power to him!

 

Understanding Oil

Saturated vs. Unsaturated

At the molecular level, fatty acids look like chains. These chains consist of links made of carbon and, depending on their number of links, they are classified as short, medium, long, or very long chains. All lengths of fatty acids are necessary for good health. Secondly, the chains are classified by their degree of saturation. A saturated fatty acid chain is holding the maximum amount of hydrogen atoms possible. It is completely ‘full’. An unsaturated fatty acid is not full, missing a few hydrogen atoms. If it is missing hydrogen atoms in one place, it is called a monounsaturated oil. If it is missing hydrogen in many places, then it is polyunsaturated.

The degree to which a fatty acid is ‘full’ or not lends certain qualities. Fully saturated fats interact the least with other molecules. They are not easily damaged and offer stability and structure to your body’s cell membranes. In the kitchen, these are your animal fats and tropical oils: butter, ghee, lard, tallow, coconut oil, palm oil, cacao butter, etc. They are solid at room temperature and can handle high heat when cooking.

Unsaturated fatty acids, on the contrary, are more delicate. They are more interactive and flexible. They make cells dynamic, and permit the flow of communication between a cell and its surroundings. However, this also means that they are rather unstable and easily damaged by light, high temperature, and oxygen. These oils are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, and all other non-tropical oils.

Saturated Fats: Traditional Nourishment? Or A Recipe For Disease?

Saturated fats have received a bad reputation. Conventional wisdom says that saturated fat (animal fats and tropical oils) will raise cholesterol and lead to heart disease. Meanwhile, unsaturated fat (vegetable oils) are reported to do the opposite. This is partially true, in the sense that a high total fat intake is linked to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Unfortunately, the debate has been oversimplified.

Many people have gotten off track with the fear of saturated fat. Butter has been replaced by margarine. Egg yolks have been thrown away in favour of their whites. And, worst of all, new inventions have come along to ‘solve’ the saturated problem. Hydrogenated oils answer the question: ‘‘How can we continue eating the same unhealthy diet, but do so using only unsaturated fats?’’ It is supposed that molecularly altering an unsaturated vegetable oil (most often already genetically modified) will produce a healthier alternative to ingredients like butter. Cheap polyunsaturated oils are pumped full of hydrogen to look and perform like saturated fats. But, do you really believe the American Heart Association was recommending margarine and shortening as the solution to cardiovascular disease?

Certainly not. Your best line of defense is to first reduce the quantity of total fat intake. The quality of fats comes second. Opt for whole food sources, like nuts, seeds, avocados, eggs, oily fish, and pasture-raised meat. Thereafter, you can bring in a variety of healthy oils like those listed below.  

Unsaturated Fats: The Good, The Bad, and The Omegas

Under the umbrella of unsaturated fats, there are monounsaturated (a hydrogen bond missing in one spot) and polyunsaturated (bonds missing in multiple spots).  As you have already learned, both types of oils are delicate and easily corrupted. However, of the two, polyunsaturated oils are more vulnerable. This is why monounsaturated oils, like olive and avocado oil, should make up the majority of your oil usage. They are more expensive, but also more stable and healthful.

Polyunsaturated oils, like soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower seed, and any others vaguely listed as ‘vegetable oil,’ should be avoided. Most often, they are made from genetically modified crops. This offers consumers attractive prices, but at what cost? You already learned that unsaturated oils ar easily damaged by light, air, and high temperatures, yet these oils are sold in transparent, plastic bottles! This means that, even before you have purchased the oil, it has greatly declined in nutrition.

In the process of turning rancid, free radicals are produced in these oils. Consuming them inadvertently damages and ages the cells of your body. Other studies suggest that polyunsaturated oils suppress healthy thyroid function (negatively affecting cholesterol levels) and act as an immunosuppressant.

But what about the healthy omega fatty acids found in polyunsaturated oils? Companies love to advertise these buzzwords on their labels. Indeed, this group of oils carry these essential components for the body. However, we must look at the greater context of a food and not just one or two pieces. It is not necessary to obtain omega 3s and 6s from low-grade, genetically modified oils, at the cost of cellular damage and inflammation.

You have a few alternative options. Choose a ‘mixed’ polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oil, such as extra virgin sesame oil. It is more stable than other polyunsaturated oils and used throughout history (not a recent invention of the industrial revolution). Extra virgin flaxseed oil, purchased in a dark bottle and located in the refrigerator section of your supermarket is another option. You may also consider fish oil capsules. But the best option of all? Simply eat fatty foods as they are found in nature.

Tips for Oil

Purchasing

  • Avoid refined vegetable oils that come in clear, plastic bottles.
  • Avoid common GMO oils, unless you have a local/reputable source: soybean, canola, corn, sunflower, safflower, etc.   
  • Unsaturated oils (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) should have a dark, glass bottle.
  • Just because an oil is labelled as ‘‘extra virgin’’ does not guarantee it. Many oils are adulterated and watered down for profit. Extra virgin + the address of the farm is a better indicator of quality.
  • Buy organic if you can afford it

Storage

  • Store saturated fats in the cupboard for softness or the refrigerator to harden.
  • Store unsaturated fats in a dark, dry, cool place (such as a cupboard).
  • Do not store oils next to the stove.
  • If you notice the colour or smell of an oil has gone off, trust your instincts and throw it out.

High Heat or Low Heat

  • If the oils starts to smoke, throw it out, wash the pan, and start again. Your health is not worth 20 cents.
  • For high heat cooking, use: Unrefined vegetable oils with a high smoke point (ie: extra-virgin avocado oil), natural saturated fats (ie: ghee) or, as a last resort, refined vegetable oils (ie: grapeseed)
  • For low heat cooking (or none) use: All unrefined vegetable oils, especially the nutrient-rich kinds.
  • If you cook food patiently, maintaining the heat at medium or lower, you can safely use most healthy oils

*When an oil is brought above its smoking point, its molecular structure starts breaking down. This results in lost nutrients, a change in flavor, and damaging compounds.

Top Picks

Olive Oil

Extra VirginVirgin
Type of Fat:73% monounsaturated
Health Benefits:Good for heart, can help lower bad cholesterol, high in oleic acid (omega-9) and antioxidants, anti-inflammatoryThe same as extra virgin, but to a lesser degree
Taste/Smell:Peppery, slightly bitter, herbaceousNeutral
Heat:None → LowMedium → High
Maximum Temp:320°F420°F
How to Use:In salads, drizzled over cooked pasta or vegetables, sauces, pesto, dips, marinades, poaching, etc.Sauteing, grilling, frying, etc.
What to Look For:Cold-pressed, a dark glass bottle, address of farm on label, should not cost less than $10/litreA dark glass bottle, address of farm on label
Storage:A dark and dry cupboard. Away from the stove.

How It Is Made

Indicative of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has been produced since 6000 B.C. It is made by crushing olives into a paste, pressing them, and ‘malaxing’ (mixing) the mixture for 20-45 minutes. Small droplets of oil separate from the olive pulp and collect into bigger droplets. Using a traditional press or modern centrifuge, the oil is separated from its pulp. After, it is filtered to remove any remaining water or solids. Thereafter, it is transfered to barrels where gravity performs a final purification. Anything non-oil naturally separates over time, and the remaining oil is ready for bottling. In general, less ripe olives make a spicy and/or bitter oil and riper olives create a sweeter oil.

Understanding Labels  

Virgin Olive Oil refers to olive oil made by the traditional mechanical extraction process, described above. Chemicals and solvents are forbidden. Its acidity hovers around 1.5%. The oil has a light colour and a neutral taste.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil refers to the highest quality of olive oil. It is extracted via cold mechanical pressing. Its acidity must not measure above 0.8%. The oil has a bright green colour, and more intense flavour. It cannot handle high temperatures.

Cold Pressed indicates that the oil was not heated above approximately 27°C/80°F during processing. This maintains the integrity of the oil and retains more nutrients. It is relevant to oil-producers working in cold temperatures (ie: northern Italy during the October olive harvest) where the crushed olive paste must be slightly heated for processing.

First Pressed is an obsolete term. It is a throwback to the times of pre-industrialized olive oil production. Olive oil was extracted by pressing the crushed olives between mats, and the leftover fermented pulp (meant for waste) was pressed a second time. The second press produced a low-grade oil used for burning in lamps. Nowadays, thanks to centrifuge technology, the ‘first press’ is the only press. Labelling bottles with ‘first pressed’ merely invokes a romantic image in consumers’ minds.

Recipe

Try out this zesty pesto with your best bottle of extra virgin olive oil.

Unrefined (Virgin) Coconut Oil

Type of Fat:85% saturated (65% MCTs)
Health Benefits:Contains Loric/Capric/Caprylic Acid (antimicrobials), anti-inflammatory, easily utilized saturated fat source
Taste/Smell:Mild, sweet, tropical, distinct coconut smell
Heat:None → Medium
Maximum Temp:350°F
How to Use:Low-heat sauteing, omelettes, baking, ‘bulletproof’ recipes, raw desserts
What to Look For:Glass jar, fair-trade
Storage:Cupboard for liquid or semi-solid / refrigerator for solid

How It Is Made

Unlike olive oil, there is no difference between ‘virgin’ and ‘extra virgin’ coconut oil. The tropical oil can be classified as either refined or unrefined (virgin). The undesirable, refined coconut oil is pressed from dried or smoked coconut kernels, a commodity known as copra. Bleaching and deodorizing the oil is necessary to remove any smokey, rancid elements. Virgin coconut oil is therefore agreed upon as coconut oil not made from copra. Instead, fresh coconut meat is utilized in one of two ways. The white flesh is pressed for milk, and the fatty oil is released via centrifuge, chilling, etc. Or, the fresh coconut meat is dried and the oil is later pressed out of it. The second method is more popular because, prior to the Western craze for coconut oil, tropical countries were already set up to produce and export their dried and desiccated coconut.

What’s The Deal With ‘MCT’ Oil?

Recall that fatty acids, at the molecular level, can be short, medium, long, or very long chains. MCT oil (Medium Chain Triglycerides) is derived from coconut oil and sold as a separate product. About 65% of coconut oil is made up of MCTs. This special oil can be added to beverages and soups as a health supplement. Long chain fatty acids require a lengthy breaking down process in the body before they are converted to usable fuel or storage. Medium chains, on the contrary, are easily absorbed and used as energy almost immediately. They are a clean and efficient source of fats. Some studies have even shown that they can reduce cholesterol and aid weight loss.  

The verdict? Adding a spoonful of coconut oil to your diet will do the job. But, if you want to be extra fancy about your fat fuel, then go ahead and purchase a bottle of fast-absorbing MCT Oil.  You can learn more about MCT oil here.

Recipe

Try making Bulletproof Coffee, if you are intermittent fasting, following a ketogenic diet, or simply prefer skipping breakfast. A healthy dose of fats will keep you belly satisfied, your mind sharp, and prevent caffeine jitters. In a blender, combine a cup of organic coffee, a teaspoon of coconut oil, a tablespoon of grass-fed unsalted butter, and a dash of cinnamon. If you like it sweet, add a few drops of stevia extract. Blend on high for 15 seconds until creamy and frothy. Pour into your favorite coffee mug and enjoy.

If you are a non-drinker of coffee and/or vegan, try Carly’s Golden Milk recipe, replacing the grass-fed butter with virgin coconut oil.

Extra Virgin Avocado Oil

Type of Fat:75% Monounsaturated
Health Benefits:High in oleic acid (omega-9), vitamin E (antioxidant)
Taste/Smell:Avocado, buttery, grassy
Heat:None → Very High
Maximum Temp:480°F
How to Use:All types of cooking. Especially heavy applications, such as deep-frying, roasting, searing, barbeque, etc.
What to Look For:Cold-pressed, a dark glass bottle, address of farm on label
Storage:A dark and dry cupboard. Away from the stove. *Some companies recommend refrigeration.

How It Is Made

Avocado oil, like olive oil, is one of the few oils made from the flesh of a fruit versus its seed. For this reason, it is extremely healthy and visually appealing. After ripening, the avocado’s skin and pit are removed. The pulp is mashed with cold water to form a guacamole-looking mixture. Churned at a low temperature, the avocado’s natural oils begin to separate from the pulp. Then, the mixture is transferred to a centrifuge to extract  the oil. Finally, the oil is passed through screens, to filter the finished product. Avocado oil is more expensive than olive oil, but worth having in your kitchen. Its especially high smoke point means that it can handle the high-heat cooking jobs that olive oil is unable to perform.

Recipe

Because avocado oil has a lovely buttery quality, try using it in recipes that would normally call for melted butter. Drizzle it over natural popcorn and add a sprinkle of Himalayan salt. Add a big spoonful to steamed vegetables to help yourself absorb all of their fat-soluble vitamins. Or, capitalize on avocado oil’s high smoke point by coating root vegetables or brussels sprouts in avocado oil, salt and pepper, and roasting them in a hot oven until crispy.

Extra Virgin Sesame Seed Oil

Type of Fat:40% monounsaturated / 40% polyunsaturated
Health Benefits:High Omega-6, Vitamin E/Sesamol/Sesamin (antioxidants), Calcium, and Magnesium
Taste/Smell:Strong sesame, nutty
Heat:None → Medium
Maximum Temp:350°F
How to Use:Salads, sauces, low-heat sauteing, drizzled over cooked pasta or vegetables, and Asian dishes
What to Look For:Unrefined, cold-pressed or ‘white’ (untoasted), a dark glass bottle
Storage:A dark and dry cupboard. Away from the stove.

How It Is Made

Not to be confused with ‘toasted sesame oil,’ extra-virgin sesame oil is made from the raw seeds of the sesame plant. It was one of the first oils ever produced and is strongly rooted in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine. Harvested sesame seeds are added to a centrifugal system to extract the oil through a spinning process. Afterwards, it is filtered and bottled. It is important to note that sesame oil is a polyunsaturated oil. Although not as fragile as corn oil or sunflower seed oil, extra care must be taken to purchase, store, and use it properly.  It is included in this list because it the least problematic source of essential Omega 6 fatty acids.

Recipe

Try this Healthy Asian Sauce poured over steamed vegetables or cooked noodles, as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, and even a dressing for salad.  

Combine the following in a blender, and process on high speed until smooth:

  • ⅔ cup of raw cashews
  • ¼ cup of soy sauce or tamari
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin sesame oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 green onion
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Small thumb of ginger
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • *Water to desired sauce consistency

 

Flax Seed Oil

Type of Fat:Polyunsaturated
Health Benefits:High Omega-3s
Taste/Smell:Nutty, crisp, pleasant
Heat:None → Low
Maximum Temp:225°F
How to Use:In salads, garnish drizzle, raw-food applications, etc.
What to Look For:A dark bottle in the refrigerated section
Storage:In the refrigerator

How It Is Made

Flaxseed oil is made when dried flaxseeds are put in a mechanical press and pressure is applied downwards. The oil is squeezed out of the seeds and allowed to rest for a number of days. This gives an opportunity for any sediment to sink and the remaining oil is sent through a final filter before bottling. The result is a polyunsaturated oil, very high in Omega-3 fatty acids. However, as a polyunsaturated oil, it is extremely vulnerable to turning rancid. This is why it is important to buy flaxseed oil in a dark bottle, in the refrigerated section of your supermarket.

It is important to note that, like sesame oil, flaxseed oil is a polyunsaturated. Extra care must be taken to purchase, store, and use it properly. It is included in this list because it is an excellent source of essential Omega-3 fatty acids. Because flaxseed oil is so expensive, it is best to think of it as a ‘nutritional supplement’ versus a standard cooking oil.

Recipe

Add a spoonful of flaxseed oil to the blender when making your morning smoothie. Drizzle it over a salad or a bowl of hummus. You can make these Flaxseed Crackers extra special by brushing a little flaxseed oil on them, at the end of their dehydrating, and sprinkling with spices. They will be extra flavorful and nutritious.

Ghee

Type of Fat:65% saturated
Health Benefits:Lactose free, high in Butyric Acid (good for colon) and rare vitamin K2,  anti-inflammatory
Taste/Smell:Intense buttery, rich, nutty
Heat:None → High
Maximum Temp:485°F
How to Use:All types of cooking
What to Look For:A glass jar, real ghee made from cow’s milk (not vegetable oils)
Storage:Cupboard for semi-solid / refrigerator for solid

How It Is  Made

While not technically an oil, ghee deserves an honorable mention. It is another fat popular in Eastern cooking and traditional medicine. Culinarily, it performs exactly like an oil. Ghee is made by simmering butter and skimming off the foamy milk solids from the surface. If you have ever accidentally let a pan of melting butter burn, then you know the distinct smell and brown-black colour. That is caused by the milk in butter! By removing this component, a.k.a. clarifying the butter, the leftover pure fat (ghee) can withstand high temperatures. Spices are often incorporated in the simmering process to make special flavours of ghee.  

Recipe

Why not try making your own ghee?! You can keep it on hand in a glass jar, ready to saute veggies, stir in to mashed potatoes, or spread on toast.

Instructions:

  1. Use your highest quality pot to bring a brick of unsalted grass-fed butter to a low simmer. After it has melted, the butter will separate into three layers: a foamy top, pure butter in the middle, and milk solids on the bottom.
  2. Hold the melted butter at the medium-low temperature until the middle layer intensifies in colour. Be patient and do not raise the heat! You can use a spoon to push away the foamy layer and check on the clarified butter.
  3. When you are happy with how the middle layer looks and smells, turn off the heat and skim off all the foamy milk into a separate bowl. Wait a minute for pot’s contents to resettle.
  4. Then, slowly pour out the golden middle layer through a strainer and into a clean, glass jar. The solid milk particles will be left behind in the pan. Store your ghee in a cool, dry place. It will keep for several weeks at room temperature.

*Bonus: To make an Indian Spiced Ghee, try adding a teaspoon of any of the following spices while the butter is simmering: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom pods, and fennel seeds.

 

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