As part of my self-imposed project of cleaning up my kitchen, what I eat and what I feed my family, one of the items I looked at first, and most closely, was cooking oils. For years I had been told to use corn oil, Crisco shortening, Canola oil, or some other highly processed liquid oil that you would be hard pressed (haha, get it, pressed?!) to find out in nature.
And what I found, once I started looking, was pretty disgusting. First and foremost, these vegetable oils are not very natural, which to my mind is a pretty clear warning sign. If you wanted to go out on your farm and collect some Canola oil or grapeseed oil, how would you go about about doing that? Do you even know what plant Canola oil comes from?
And grapeseed oil? I’m guessing we know where that comes from, but how much oil can you collect by squeezing grape seeds in your hands? Not much. While grapeseed oil may be a bit more natural that Canola, or Crisco, there are still a few reasons that I lump it in with the others that I avoid in my pantry, and that’s mainly the type of fat that it contains, poly-unsaturated fats.
Because they have multiple incomplete double bonds (hence the name poly-unsaturated), they are considered “unstable” and prone to oxidation. Heating and exposing PUFAs to light, air and moisture encourages free radical production. Free radicals can harm everything from cell membranes to DNA/RNA strands, to blood vessels and organ systems.
Many people on the Paleo Diet (too strict for me, but thanks for asking) either avoid Poly-Unsaturated Fats altogether or choose to just eat raw sunflower seeds and nut butter sparingly, says the Mark’s Daily Apple blog. They look for the freshest cold-pressed olive oils and fish oils (rather than canola oil — which tends to sit on the shelves for long periods of time – thus, increasing the odds of oxidation.)
It seems that poly-unsaturated fats found naturally in nature are more benign than our modern highly processed oils. Or more likely, it is difficult to consume too many naturally found PUFAs and the real problem occurs when using the highly processed oils you are throwing your system out of whack when we were never designed to be exposed to super high levels of polyunsaturated fats while pushing out other types of fat from our diet.
Animal studies in Finland found evidence that “a high intake of PUFAs stimulates several stages in the development of mammary and colon cancer, from an increase in oxidative DNA damage to effects on cell proliferation, free estrogen levels and hormonal catabolism.” Tabulating the effects of PUFAs is much trickier in humans and has not been confirmed or denied.
And a 2002 study found a correlation between lung cancer and women in rural Gansu, China who cooked with rapeseed and linseed oils.
And then there’s this, which really grosses me out… to make canola oil, manufacturers have to use high temperature mechanical pressing and hexane solvent extraction. Some of this hexane remains in the oil, even after considerable refining. The bleaching and degumming processes (at very high temperatures) are of questionable safety. To prevent the oil from going rancid, it’s deodorized by removing the Omega-3 fatty acids and turning them into trans fats. By the time you buy your Canola oil, it’s probably already rancid!
Diets that are high in poly-unsaturated fats cause inflammation. You know, the bad kind of inflammation inside your body that leads to heart disease and cancer. All sorts of studies have been done that show the higher your use of canola oil and vegetable oils, the higher your risk for coronary disease. Often, these studies were done to show how healthy these oils are, but actually showed the opposite because people who use these oils have resulting diets way too high, artificially high, in poly-unsaturated fats!
Butter, Olive Oil, Lard And Coconut Oil To The Rescue!
Coconut Oil has become one of the fastest-growing trends in food these days. Consider this: products made with coconut (including coconut water and coconut oil) accounted for 26 percent of new food product introductions in 2012, according to US News & World Report.
About 50 percent of the fat content in coconut oil is in lauric acid, a natural saturated fatty acid made by plants and animals. Lauric acid is the same beneficial fat found in a mother’s breast milk, in fact. According to Livestrong, lauric acid protects the heart by reducing total cholesterol, enhancing (good) HDL cholesterol, and providing the body with several other benefits. Lauric acid helps fight against Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which has been associated with gastritis, ulcers, stomach cancer and heart disease. Animal studies revealed that lauric acid increased cellular fat levels, which reduced the ability of viruses to multiply within the cells. Lauric acid is also sometimes used in acne medication.
“Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) are a unique form of dietary fat that impart a wide range of positive health benefits,” according to Nutrition Review. Compared to Long Chain Triglycerides, MCTs have 10 percent fewer calories, but provide more energy due to MCTs’ ability to cross the double mitochondrial membrane quicker, easier and without the need for carnitine. Also, it has been discovered that the Medium Chain Triglycerides are less likely to be stored in fat deposits; to the contrary, they enhance fat burning.
As an aside, since I just mentioned Triglycerides, the first 3 years that I had my blood tested since making the switch to cooking with primarily olive oil, butter and coconut oil, my triglycerides tested in the 40’s, which is pretty darn low!
Coconut oil can withstand higher temperatures than many other oils, so the beneficial fats are able to be preserved, even when sautéing. Coconut oil is relatively inexpensive and can provide a crisp texture to foods. When cooking with high heat, coconut oil does not smoke nearly as much as some vegetable oils. Coconut oil is also a preferred saturated fat to use in baking.
The NY Times says much of the revamping of coconut oil’s reputation in recent years is due to “vegans, who rely on it as a sweet vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature and can create flaky pie crusts, crumbly scones and fluffy cupcake icings, all without butter.” People love coconut oil for its fine consistency and a flavor that magically enhances a variety of foods — everything from shrimp and poundcake to chocolate and popcorn.
But remember, before you run to the kitchen to replace all the nasty oils in your current recipes with coconut oil, keep in mind that this oil is best enjoyed in moderation, just as with almost any food. It is a dietary fat, and carries with it a calorie count of about 120 per tablespoon, maybe just a little more than butter. It may help you feel full, and may even be quite beneficial for your cosmetic routine as it has many healing properties, but if you gorge on coconut oil, you will likely eat too many calories each day, and while you may be “healthy”, you may also start gaining weight!
One more personal note as I wrap up, I’m not worried about the USDA recommendations on fat and saturated fat, because they are missing the boat on that front, and haven’t quite caught up with the evidence that saturated fat is not the evil that they claim it to be. All in all, “coconut oil is better than butter and trans fats,” says Penn State University cardiovascular nutrition researcher Penny Kris-Etherton PhD.
My day to day use of oils looks like this: coconut oil in coffee, curries and occasional sweets. Olive oil, avocado oil and butter I use for the bulk of my day to day salad dressings, cooking and sauteeing, and for some reason I occasionally use lard for some of my chilis and chowders.