Also see accompanying article: Saturated Fats
Here are guidelines for making the healthful–and tasty–fat and oil choices. Yes, good fats and oils add flavor. Recall the pleasure difference between a piece of toast smeared with butter and another with margarine. Additionally, quality fats enhance our health. Whereas, shoddy fats harm us. When a fat is liquid at room temperature it’s typically called “oil”.
But first, here’s a list of the oils to avoid: canola, rice bran, cotton, peanut, soy, corn or tea seed oil. As these all are highly processed they’re fatty acids are degraded by light, heat and oxygen which destroys (oxidizes) them. Rancid fats are a carcinogen, avoid them.
Fat molecules are composed of fatty acids which are either saturated or unsaturated. Every plant and animal—from spinach to you—requires both kinds of fatty acids. So, even though spinach, for example, has zero saturated fat, it contains saturated fatty acids. Both saturated and unsaturated fats are vital for your health and below you’ll find culinary sources for both. However, first it’s important that you know about the one necessary fatty acid not used in cooking.
Fatty Acid Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids are important because our common food supply does not provide enough and therefore they must be taken as a supplement. Must, that is, unless you weekly eat: raw liver, wild (not farmed) fish or game, or the flesh, milk or eggs of pasture-raised animals. While traditional diets featured these foods, they’re lacking in today’s menus. Thus, the to-do about omega-3s.
Cod liver and fish oil are the superior omega-3 fatty acid sources. They strengthen both the immune and circulatory systems and provide two nutrients (DHA and EPA) critical for healthy brain function. I personally favor cod liver oil as it’s also a superior source of vitamins A and D. Take fish oil daily as a supplement (2 teaspoons per day for adults or a soft-gel cap of 10,000 IU).
For some years, flax oil was mistakenly recommended as an omega-3 source. Unfortunately, we can assimilate only a fraction of its omega-3s and it lacks the essential DHA and EPA. Yes, freshly ground flax seeds are a nutritious food, but flax oil cannot replace either fish oil or the omega-3s found in a traditional diet. If you’re a vegan, your best option is an omega-3 extract from sea algae.
Sensually speaking, quality culinary fats enhance eating pleasure because of their own robust flavor and because they carry the flavor of other foods. Yet another benefit is that fats slow down stomach transit time and so create a feeling of fullness and satisfaction.
Additionally, a food cooked in fat conveys more warmth and energy than does a food cooked in water or steam. That’s because fat is denser than water or vapor. Therefore, a sautéed carrot tastes sweeter, has greater flavor range and depth and is energetically more warming than if boiled or steamed. To get a sense of this, imagine biting into a steamed and then a sautéed carrot.
Unsaturated Culinary Fats
Omega-3s excepted, unsaturated fatty acids are abundant in grains, beans, nuts, seeds, green vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and animal fats. So, if you’re eating a variety of quality foods, you’re getting ample quality unsaturated fats; unless you’re eating a typical American diet. T
(Toxic trans fats are a separate problem. They are in shortening and hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Starting in 2006, manufacturers—but not restaurants—must list trans fat content. Additionally, when liquid vegetable oils, like canola oil, are deodorized, up to 4.6 percent trans fats are formed. Do not consume trans fats.)
For a sense of quality unsaturated fats, imagine some whole sesame seeds. Their seed-coat protects their fatty acids from light, heat and oxygen. Eat some and you’ll obtain, along with fiber and other nutrients, vital fatty acids. Open a bottle of quality sesame oil and it smells and tastes just like sesame seeds themselves. A quality fat feels pleasurable and refreshing in your mouth. (Whereas flavorless refined oil feels greasy, viscous and unpalatable in your mouth.)
A quality oil manufacturer presses oil at temperatures under 115 °F. in the absence of light and oxygen. It’s bottled it in a black, opaque, glass or inert plastic bottle, or a tin can, to protect it from light. Because all fresh, vital foods have a limited shelf-life, reputable oil manufacturers include a “best if used by” date on the label. Typical supermarket vegetable oils, in comparison, are “dead”. They’ll taste the same today as 25 years from now.
There are numerous liquid vegetable oils available—most of which you neither need nor want. The four quality, multi-purpose unsaturated oils are extra virgin olive oil and unrefined sesame, grape seed and hazelnut oil. They’re multi-purpose because, lacking the fragile omega-3 fatty acids, they may safely be heated up to 325 °F.
Of these four hazelnut is the most fragile and prone to rancidity while grape seed, sesame and olive are naturally rich in anti-oxidants giving them an excellent shelf life.
This explains the venerable historical precedent for quality–and less costly–sesame and olive oil. For millennia, Asians have enjoyed sesame oil while Mediterranean peoples used olive oil. Elsewhere, culinary fats were saturated and derived from animal fats or coconut or palm oil.
For the fun of it, you may wish to keep on hand one of the exotic unsaturated nut or seed oils such as hemp, macadamia, pumpkin or walnut oil. Use them only for salad dressings as, due to their omega-3 content, they cannot be safely heated.
Purchase unsaturated oils in small bottles, refrigerate and use within six months. Extra virgin olive oil is an exception. It has a longer shelf-life and doesn’t require refrigeration.
What’s wrong with unrefined peanut and soy oil? All oils lacking historical precedent as a fat supply such as cotton, peanut and soy oils has some inherent toxic properties.
This article provides the basics you need to know regarding unsaturated cooking oils. See also Saturated Fats.
May you be well nourished,