For years, I’ve encouraged my patients to cook at home as often as possible. The less take-out and prepared foods you buy, the better for your health, not to mention, your wallet. When you’re wearing the chef’s hat, prepping, chopping, roasting, poaching and sautéing, you’re in charge your ingredients, their quality and most importantly, your health.
Even if you’re not Top Chef material, when you stick to fresh, whole, unprocessed, organic and farmers’ market offerings as much as possible, it’s hard to go wrong. Unless that is, you’re cooking with the wrong oils. They can damage your health just as the right ones can enhance it, so it’s essential to select the right oil for the job. How to recognize the healthy from the not-so-much? Which to use, which to lose? Here’s some food for thought:
Ditch inflammatory ‘vegetable’ oils.
There are certain problematic oils widely used in cooking that can wreak havoc on your system: they are the healthy sounding “vegetable” oils – and they’re everywhere. In those pan-fried dumplings from your favorite take-out place; the burrito from that quasi-healthy fast-casual chain; and even the fries at your local French bistro. And if you’re a home-cooking newbie, you may be pouring on the bad stuff as well, thanks to labels that use misleading phrases like ‘heart-healthy’ or ‘trans-fat free.’
So called ‘vegetable’ oils to ditch, like canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, rice bran and soy, though technically ‘plant-based,’ aren’t made with veggies at all, but with barely edible, indigestible seeds, grains and legumes that our bodies can’t properly digest. So, to make them edible, these ingredients are refined with high heat and chemical solvents, like the neurotoxic solvent hexane.
If the solvent and neurotoxin issue wasn’t enough, another big reason to avoid vegetable oils is because they’re a very unstable form of fat. Unstable fats oxidize and turn rancid easily, forming free radicals. These free radicals damage healthy cells – and trigger inflammation which increases risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and many cancers. Granted, any fat can oxidize and release free radicals, but the polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils are the most unstable, and all it takes is some light exposure to kick off the oxidation process, even before you’ve even opened the bottle or added heat! Vegetable oils are also high in omega-6’s and made primarily from gut-damaging genetically modified crops, so steer clear. What’s more, according to a recent study by the University of California, soybean oil can even cause genetic changes in the brain.
Skip the sneaky stuff.
The trouble is, these cheap, industrial oils are so prevalent in the foods many of us eat every day — think, restaurant food, processed foods, baked goods, prepared foods, packaged and snack foods – it’s easy to consume lots more than you think you are. Read a few labels and you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t contain at least one (or a combination) of the offending oils. So, swap out aforementioned in favor of real foods and snack on healthy goodies like raw nuts, a handful of berries, guacamole, fresh hummus with vegetables—you get the picture. Also, ditch cooking sprays, spreads, butter substitutes/margarines and bottled salad dressings, as they too are sneaky sources. And, if you just have to have your fried food fix, instead of going to a fast food joint that will fry your food in inflammatory vegetable oils, DIY it with an air fryer and a dash of one of the healthy oils outlined below.
Delete inflammatory oils from your pantry – responsibly.
OK, so let’s say you’ve got a few half-empty bottles of aging vegetable oils sitting in the back of the pantry. Now’s the time to dump them and swap in some healthy ones. Gather up your stash of canola, soybean, sunflower, corn oil and so on, and dump it – but not down the sink! To minimize pipe-clogging and to avoid contributing to your community’s sewer system ‘fatburg’ problem, find out how your municipality handles oil disposal. They may have regular household waste drop-off events. You can also look for local outfits that will take the oils off your hands and dispose of them in an environmentally responsible way, or convert them to biodiesel fuel.
Begin the healthy oil journey with EVOO.
As you probably already know, one of the best oils to enjoy frequently is extra-virgin olive oil. Not only is it tasty and loaded with healthy fat, it’s also chock full of health-boosting antioxidants and polyphenols. The trick is to make sure you’re getting the real deal, as there have been problems with adulteration and fraud in the olive oil business in recent years. Much like the word “organic,” the language that once ensured high-quality extra-virgin olive oil – phrases like ‘first pressing,’ ‘100 percent Italian,’ ‘from Italy’, etc. – has become unreliable and sometimes meaningless, so buyer beware, and shop with the following in mind:
- High quality, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) doesn’t necessarily have to be from Italy. EVOO from California, Australia, Chile, Greece and Spain make fine brews too. No matter the country of origin though, if it doesn’t say extra virgin olive oil, skip it.
- For the most authentic, non-adulterated, carefully sourced oil possible, shop at specialty olive oils shops, where ideally you can taste the product before investing in a bottle.
- You can also buy direct from artisanal and small batch producers whose livelihoods and reputations depend on selling the best. If it’s from a farm, mill or vineyard or estate, so much the better.
- The last resort, albeit a convenient one, would be supermarket brands, but understand that EVOO from larger, industrial-style producers at too-good-to-be-true prices may not be especially fresh or pure, nor may it have quite as much of the good stuff you’re after.
- EVOO should come in a dark glass bottle (which protects it from sunlight damage) – and never plastic! Keep it away from light and heat to protect the fragile plant fats from degrading.
- Think of your EVOO as a perishable item – work your way through a fresh bottle every three to four weeks. If you tend to go through EVOO more slowly, you can either freeze some, or just buy in smaller quantities.
- Look for certifications from organizations like the California Olive Oil Council, the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and/or Italy’s Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta (DOP), all of whom require producers to meet stringent standards.
Restock the kitchen with delicious, health-supportive oils.
As much as we love EVOO, it’s not the only plant-derived oil to stock in your kitchen. In fact, I encourage you to keep several types of oils and fats on hand to cover all the cooking bases. What makes the good-for-you oil list? Think fruit and nut oils, including olive oil, walnut oil, coconut oil (unbleached and not ‘deodorized’), and avocado oil. When shopping, be on the lookout for organic, unrefined, and expeller-pressed or ‘cold pressed’ oils, which means they’ve not been exposed to nutrient-neutralizing high heat or chemical solvents.
Put your oils to work.
Though all of our favorites below are healthy, each has its best uses, as well as a specific ‘smoke point,’ the highest temperature it can reach before it starts to smoke (or burn) and produce damaging byproducts. Here’s a quick roundup of our favorite good-for-you oils to cook with, ideas on how to use them, and how they well they can take the heat:
1) AVOCADO OIL
Neutral taste, and can withstand high-heat cooking, but also works well for home-made mayonnaise, drizzled over soups, added to salad dressings and spooned into smoothies.
Smoke point: 430 °F
2) COCONUT OIL
A heat-safe fat that takes medium-to-high heat well. Has immune-boosting effects. Look for oil that is not deodorized or bleached.
Smoke point: 450 °F
3) EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL (EVOO):
Great raw for dressings and dips, and also great for cooking, helping to boost the nutrition of just about everything it touches. Drizzle it on everything: salads, soups, meat, you name it. Though it does have a smoke point on the lower side, the polyphenols compensate for any damage caused to the oil when it’s heated.
Smoke point: 374 °F
4) WALNUT OIL
When you think walnut, think cool foods, like salad dressings and to drizzle over already cooked foods, like steamed veggies, due to it’s low smoke point.
Smoke point: 320°F