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What You Need to Know About Cooking With Oils

One of the most profound changes you can make to ensure a disease-free life is to stop using unhealthy fats and incorporate healthful fats into your diet. Yet there’s so much confusion and misinformation on the topic of fats and oils, and how to cook with them seems to be no exception! Taking a healthy fat and using it improperly in your cooking can be as equally bad for your health as using an unhealthy fat. Let’s see how this happens…

 

The Confusion with Smoke Point

In my opinion, smoke point is where the confusion starts. The true definition of smoke point is the temperature at which a fat or oil begins to burn and give off smoke. This is also the point where the oil changes to an unpleasant flavor.  Sources will tell you that it’s the fat or oil’s smoke point that determines how well it can take the heat before it breaks down and causes toxic compounds. Confusion begins…

 

 

You see, smoke point is very important to culinary professionals because they want to be able to cook certain foods quickly at higher temperatures without the food burning or having an “off” flavor. Therefore chefs will use oils, often refined, that have a higher smoke point. This makes sense in the culinary world where flavor, not nutrition, is the primary focus. However, if you’re concerned with using fats and oils that are nourishing and non-toxic to your body, you won’t place a lot emphasis on smoke point, and you most certainly will not seek out refined oils!

Here’s the misconception…

Many oils break down way before they reach their smoke point. Therefore, the smoke point of a particular fat or oil has very little to do with its health benefits or its safety for cooking at higher temperatures.

 

Oxidation is Your Biggest Concern

The fatty acid profile of a fat or oil should be the number one factor in deciding whether or not it makes it to your frying pan. All fats and oils contain polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids. The higher the unsaturated fatty acid content in the fat or oil, the more susceptible it is to lipid (per)oxidation once exposed to heat, light, air, and moisture.

Lipid peroxides, most namely aldehyde, initiate a free radical free-for-all inside our bodies. They are also highly inflammatory and damaging to every part of our bodily function, especially the brain, liver, and heart. Over time, these peroxides literally set the stage for degenerative disease. This can be witnessed by an ever increasing amount of diet-related diseases in America since most foods are processed and prepared with oxidized oils.

As a general rule, saturated fats are very stable and have a high degree of resistance to oxidation. Monounsaturated fats, since they have a pair of missing hydrogen atoms are somewhat vulnerable to oxidation. Polyunsaturated oils, which are missing several pairs of hydrogen atoms, are very unstable and highly reactive to oxidation.

Seed oils higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as corn, safflower, cottonseed, grapeseed and sunflower oils are the worst oils for cooking, regardless of their smoke point. They are highly perishable and oxidize very quickly when exposed to any degree of heat. These widely used oils are far more devastating to our health than saturated fats ever were.

 

Polyunsaturated Fats

Let’s look at the fatty acid profiles for two popular polyunsaturated oils in relation to their smoke point.

Grapeseed Oil Safflower Oil
71% polyunsaturated 75% polyunsaturated
17% monounsaturated 13% monounsaturated
12% saturated 12% saturated
(490° smoke point) (450° smoke point)

 

As you can see, both of these oils are mostly polyunsaturated, making them susceptible to oxidation. They should never be exposed to heat, even though their smoke points indicate otherwise. A few exceptions for polyunsaturated fats include sesame oil and rice bran oil.

 

Sesame Oil Rice Bran Oil
45% polyunsaturated 36% polyunsaturated
42% monounsaturated 48% monounsaturated
13% saturated 17% saturated
(410° smoke point) (490° smoke point)

 

Sesame oil and rice bran oil have very similar fatty acid profiles. Both sesame and rice bran oils contain enough saturated fat to protect from oxidation.

A unique benefit of sesame oil that knocks it out of  “don’t-cook-with-a-polyunsaturated-fat-category,” is that it contains a lignan called sesamolin. When heated, sesamolin converts to sesamol, a strong antioxidant that protects against oxidation. Therefore, sesame oil is really the only polyunsaturated fat that is totally safe to use for cooking.  Source

Regardless of the so-called health claims of using rice bran oil, I personally would never use it. The only method of extracting oil from the rice bran requires high heat, instead of cold-pressing.

 

Monounsaturated Fats

Fats and oils with a greater percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids are a little more stable and can resist low-temperature heat, especially if they have a higher percentage of saturated fats. Let’s take a look at the fatty acid profiles of these well known monounsaturated oils.

 

Avocado Almond Oil Olive
10% polyunsaturated 17% polyunsaturated 8% polyunsaturated
70% monounsaturated 78% monounsaturated 75% monounsaturated
20% saturated 5% saturated 16% saturated
(485º smoke point) (420º smoke point) (320º smoke point)

 

You can see here that all three of these oils are pretty high in monounsaturated fats. It appears that avocado oil would be the most stable when exposed to heat because it has a higher percentage of saturated fat and a lower percentage of polyunsaturated fat. It also has a higher smoke point, which indicates that its robust flavor will be retained throughout the cooking process. Avocado oil would be acceptable to use at higher temps, but I wouldn’t personally go near the 485º range.

Almond oil contains the highest percentage of monounsaturated fat, yet it is much higher in polyunsaturated fat and much lower in saturated fat. It’s doubtful that almond oil (especially unrefined) could withstand the 420º range before oxidizing. If using almond oil for cooking, it would be wise to add another type of saturated fat to protect the more delicate polyunsaturated fat, and cook with it at a lower temperature than its recommended smoke point suggests.

Olive oil, which is widely used in cooking, is the lowest in polyunsaturated fat, with an acceptable amount of monounsaturated and saturated fat. Its smoke point is the lowest of all three. I used to think olive oil wasn’t safe to use in cooking, but rumor has it that it’s pretty safe. Much like sesame oil, olive oil contains protective compounds that prevent oxidation. It’s high concentration of polyphenols and tocopherols ensure that it remains stable when exposed to higher cooking temperatures. Source 

 

Saturated Fats

Fats and oils with a higher percentage of saturated fatty acids are the most stable and the least susceptible to oxidation. Now let’s take a look at a few of the more well known saturated fats.

 

Ghee Coconut Oil Red Palm Oil
5% polyunsaturated 2% polyunsaturated 9% polyunsaturated
25% monounsaturated 6% monounsaturated 37% monounsaturated
65% saturated 87% saturated 49% saturated
(485º smoke point) (350º smoke point) (350º smoke point)

 

As you can see, coconut oil is pretty hefty in saturated fat and can withstand heat quite considerably. And although ghee and red palm oil have the lowest saturated fatty acid content, they’re still suitable for higher heat cooking. They’re both low in polyunsaturated fat and each has a solid percentage of monounsaturated fat to protect from oxidation.

 

Refined Oil – Another Misconception about Smoke Point

More often than not, you will find sources that give you the smoke point of the refined oil only. The more refined an oil, the more it can withstand heat. Yet since the refining process itself requires a great deal of heat, hasn’t the refined oil already gone through the process of oxidation?

You can see how misleading this whole smoke point thing can be if you do not understand fats and oils. The original chart can be found here.

 

 

Storing Your Oils

Since air, light, and moisture also play a part in the oxidation process, it is extremely important that you store your fats and oils properly. Saturated fats like ghee and coconut oil have a longer shelf life and are safe to store in the cupboard at room temperature. They liquefy in warmer temps which is perfectly fine. If you only use these oils occasionally, it would be wise to store them in the fridge to extend shelf life. All other oils should be stored in the fridge to ensure that oxidation doesn’t occur.

We all like to save money, but economy sized oils are not a smart idea. Every time you open the bottle you are exposing the oil to air, and the larger the bottle of oil the more air you are letting in over time. Purchasing smaller bottles of oil will greatly reduce the potential for oxidation. Besides, economy sized oils are typically your lesser quality oils anyway. In this case less is definitely more. 🙂

 

 

Avoid polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils sold in clear bottles. Clear bottles of oil sitting on grocery store shelves have been exposed to light for a long time. Although certain poly and mono oils can withstand light exposure better than others, your guess is as good as mine to how long a bottle of oil has been sitting on the shelf. Never, ever buy olive oil or avocado oil in a clear bottle. These two oils are extremely perishable when exposed to light.

 

Which Oils Should I Use for Cooking and Which Oils Should I Use Raw?

To simplify things you can quickly rule out a large portion of the heavily processed polyunsaturated oils. I recommend you never use these oils for anything. Regardless of the smoke point or fatty acid profile, these oils have a whole laundry list of problems on their own. They are anti-nutritive, denatured, highly refined, full of pesticides, full of chemical solvents, and oxidized/rancid. Most of them are genetically modified too. Organic versions of these should also be avoided: Canola, Corn, Cottonseed, Grapeseed, Peanut, Safflower, Sunflower, and Soybean.

Instead, I highly recommended that you do your sleuthing when it comes to buying fats and oils. Stick to the few that have withheld their reputation. Be a stickler too! Only buy organic, unrefined, cold-processed oils. Ghee, butter, and other animal fats should come from pasture-raised, grass fed animals only.

 

 

Best Saturated Fats for Cooking:

 

Coconut Oil

  • Use , add to smoothies, spread on your toast, etc.
  • Mid-temperature cooking and baking.

 

 

ancient organics ghee

 

Ghee

  • Mid to higher temp cooking and baking.

 

 

 

1_Nutiva_Red_Palm_Oil

 

Sustainable Red Palm Oil

  • Mid to higher temp cooking and baking.

 

 

A Note About Ghee: Purity really makes a difference when it comes to cooking with ghee. Most brands of ghee sold in US stores come from cows fed a diet high in omega-6 which ups the polyunsaturated fat content. Much of it is also highly refined. If you use ghee regularly, you’d be better served to do your research. Make sure it comes from pasture raised, grass-fed cows or buffalo.

A Note about Red Palm Oil: There is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of red palm oil, and rightly so. Many palm oil plantations have contributed to massive deforestation and the loss of homes for thousands of orangutans. So please, make sure your source of red palm oil comes from a sustainable plantation. Here’re a couple of brands you can purchase.

Nutiva
Tropical Traditions

 

Other Saturated Fats for Cooking:

Grass-fed pasture butter, tallow, lard, and lamb fat seem to be the consensus as far as the safest fats to use with high heat. Obviously, this is not an option for vegans, but I didn’t want to leave anyone out. These fats are very popular with the Paleo Diet. Just make sure you buy grass-fed, pasture-raised sources.

A special note: These oils are recommended by many sources for higher heat cooking such as deep frying. Although these fats may hold the heat, cooking at extreme temperatures poses its own problem. Therefore, I rarely ever recommend high heat sauteing or deep frying.

 

Best Monounsaturated Fats for Low, Mid to High Temp Cooking and Garnishing:

 

Olive Oil

  • Use raw in salad dressings or dips.
  • You can add it to food after cooking.
    • Use with mid to high-temperature cooking

 

Avocado Oil

  • Make sure to use only cold-pressed, extra virgin.
  • Use with mid to high-temperature cooking

 

 

 

Best Polyunsaturated Fats for Cooking:

 

sesame oilSesame Oil

  • Use with mid to high-temperature cooking

 

 

 

 

 

Supplement Oils:

There are other high-quality fats, some heavy in polyunsaturated fatty acids, that are excellent to add to your diet or supplement regime. JUST NEVER COOK WITH THEM. Always buy them in smaller, dark bottles, and store them in the fridge. Try to use them within 6 months.

Hempseed Oil Evening Primrose
Borage Flax Oil
Black Currant DHA

 

 

Nut Oils?

Nut oils such as almond, walnut, and hazelnut oils are questionable for many reasons. Some sources say they’re delicious when added to food after cooking or used in salads and such. Personally, I have never used them and probably never will. Processing of these oils is my biggest concern. Unless you can find outstanding organic, cold-pressed oils in this category, I would steer clear. Besides, they’re pretty pricey and are probably better suited for your cosmetics!

 

 

A Special Note about Avocado Oil

I am excited to start using avocado oil in my cooking. Unfortunately, though, I have yet to encounter an avocado oil in the grocery store that I would personally use, even the organic brands. They are all highly refined and come in a clear bottle.

There is good news, though!! I found two brands that I would definitely use. These brands produce a raw extra virgin avocado oil, much like its comparable friend, olive oil. The better news is that they can be found in certain stores, you’ll just have to put on your hunter-gatherer boots! You can always order them online!! The brands are Olivado and Bella Vado!

 

 

Cooking with Oils in a Nutshell

  • Ignore smoke point.
  • Pay attention to fatty acid profile instead.
  • It is always best to use low heat cooking. Avoid deep frying and high heat sauteing.
  • Stick to a few oils that you know are high quality.
  • Saturated fats are the best for higher heat cooking.
  • When using a monounsaturated fat for cooking, add a little saturated fat.
  • Buy poly & mono oils in dark bottles.
  • Store your poly & mono fats in the fridge.
  • Absolutely avoid processed oils.
  • Higher quality oil generally yields a higher price and smaller bottle. Your body will thank you!!
  • Give unrefined, cold-processed avocado oil a try 😉

 

Sources:

Curezone
Science Daily
NP Analytic Laboratories
ISEO
Fats: Safer Choices for Your Frying Pan and Your Health
Types of Cooking Fats and Oil
Smoke Point: Wikipedia

Agricultural Research Service: United States Department of Agriculture
Mechanisms and Factors for Edible Oil Oxidation

This post included a lot of information, however, I hope you come back and reference it frequently. Like I said in the beginning, ditching the bad fats in exchange for the good fats will have a lasting, permanent change on your long term health.

If you have tips and tricks for cooking with fats, please share in the comments section below. And as always, if you’d like updates with more info like this, please join me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

 

 

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19 Comments

  1. Hi Kim,
    I just found your website and am already learning so much! I’m so thankful that I have found it and for all these valuable information you have put out there for us!
    You suggested to stick with low-temp cooking as much as possible and while I’m all for it, I’m a bit confused as to exactly what defines “low-temp”… As for cooking on stovetop, do you consider “low-temp” as long as the heat dial does not go beyond 1/3 point? 1/2 point? (FYI, I have a gas stovetop).
    What about the oven? Up until what temp is considered low temp? 350? 375?

    Thanks again for all your hard work! I am bookmarking your page to definitely come back for more! 🙂

    • Hi Juliet. When I refer to “low and slow”, I mean to cook your food at medium to low temperatures when possible. For instance, I saute my veggies on medium low, which takes more time vs. sauteing at medium high which is the normal practice for most folks. Low temps for ovens is 350 degrees or below. I find the easiest way is to be mindful while you’re cooking. When you are able to cook your food slower, you are going to maintain the integrity of the food, and still retain a lot of the nutrients and prevent damaging the cooking oil. 🙂

      • Kim, that makes a lot of sense, thanks! I am just like you, I only cook at low-med temp (even if it may take longer). I am told by others, however, that I take too much time cooking (again, because I cook at relatively low temp) and that I should cook vegetables as quickly as possible in order to not lose their nutrition. Any thoughts on that, Kim? Thanks again!

        • Cooking quickly may work for softer veggies, such as spinach. I do not believe that to be true for most veggies, however.

  2. Thank you so much, at last!! I have been looking for this information everywhere, now I understand and it all makes sense!

    But can anyone tell me if there is a particular temperature you should stay below, with butter for example? And how can you tell if you’re oxidizing something?? If it happens before it smokes?

    Thanks and if this is old I’ll look like a moron : )

    • You’re welcome!! As far as the correct temps for cooking with fats and oils, I’m not exactly sure. Most of the research uses smoke point to determine temperature, so it’s basically a guessing game for me. I generally only cook with ghee, sustainable red palm oil and coconut oil–sometimes with a little EVOO thrown in for flavor. I always cook low and slow and avoid heavy frying or baking. I think your fats will be pretty save using this method. I have no way of telling if the oils are being oxidized–just stick with the “low and slow” method, and you should be fine. 🙂

      • Thanks!!!

        What temperature do you mean by low? Is 150c alright? And if I cook with evoo, how much coconut oil would I add to it? Or should I cook in coconut oil and add evoo afterwards?

        Thanks sorry for all the q’s!!

        • Right around 150 degrees C or a little higher is good. I really never measure, I just make sure to have more of the saturated fat. Adding EVOO afterwards will work too. 😀

  3. Thanks! You are a gem nobody else tells you this stuff! So that in mind will I get away with one more question? (I’ll stop after this, I promise! Promise).

    Is it at all feasible to just cook with evoo on it’s own if I don’t cook it high?

    Thanks so much!! You’re website is fantastic btw : )

    • Thank you and you’re welcome! You can definitely cook with the EVOO at low temps, just make sure to not cook for too long. The longer EVOO is exposed to heat, the more it will oxidize. 😀

  4. I noticed a mistake in the paragraph under the heading “Oxidation is Your Biggest Concern”.

    “The less unsaturated fatty acid content in the fat or oil, the more susceptible it is to lipid (per)oxidation once exposed to heat, light, air, and moisture.”

    I would revise that to read, “The higher the unsaturated fatty acid content in the fat or oil, the more susceptible it is to lipid (per)oxidation once exposed to heat, light, air, and moisture.

    • Wow! Thank you for letting me know, David. I meant to say the lesser the “saturated” fat content, the more susceptible it is to lipid peroxidation. The “un” prefix can make a huge difference!!

  5. I read the remainder of the article. Good Job!

    The edible oils industry knows that high polyunsaturated fat intake is problematic and has taken steps to reduce the omega-6 linoleic acid content of its products. http://theskepticalcardiologist.com/2014/02/03/butter-versus-healthier-butter-like-spreads-choose-nature-over-industry/#comments

    • Thank you! Cooking with the appropriate fats is a very big deal!! We need to educate as many people as we can.

  6. Thank you for this. This is very educational! I am a little confused because you mention that cooking with coconut oil is the best option, but the smoke point is not much higher than olive oil, which you mention is not safe for cooking.

    • Hey Margaret! Sorry for the confusion, I’ve recently updated the post. I used to be under the impression that olive oil wasn’t good for cooking, but stumbled upon new information. You’ll have to go back and read the post for the update. 🙂

      • Oh interesting. Ok I’ll take a look. Thank you

  7. All I wanted to do was to grind up raw almonds, mix it into soda bread batter and bake it at 300 or 350. From what you have written, I can’t tell if the oil in the almonds will be denatured or not.

    • Hi Cassandra, unfortunately, the oils will be denatured both through the grinding & heating process. The only true way to keep the oils intact is by eating the almonds raw, however, it’s not the end of the world. All flours have denatured, oxidized oils, because this applies to all grains and seeds, so using fresh almond flour is your best bet! Hope this helps clarify!

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