Understanding Cooking Oils

Finding the best oil to use can often be a confusing one and this is one of the most frequently asked questions I get in my practice. The main determinants of a good oil depends on what type of oil it is and the level of antioxidants it has. Antioxidants are health benefiting substances that are found in foods, and they protect our body’s cells from damage.


There are 4 basic types of oils: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fats. In general, saturated fats are made with glycerol and three fatty acids and they are found most commonly in meat fat, dairy products and coconut oil. They tend to be more stable, making them the most suitable for high heat cooking.

Some people are confused about saturated fats because they have long been associated with heart disease because it can raise cholesterol levels but depending on the source of saturated fats, it may be raising good cholesterol HDL and not bad cholesterol like LDL and triglycerides. This is the case with coconut oil. Unrefined coconut oil contains the highest amount of saturated fat amongst all the oils but it is extremely stable, and although it raises cholesterol, it is attributed to its ability to increase good cholesterol rather than bad cholesterol making it one of the best choices for cooking. Good oils also have high amounts of antioxidants which protect the body, while bad oils that can cause heart disease contain large amounts of free radicals which damage the body.

Polyunsaturated fats are less stable when extracted and they tend to produce more free radicals when heated. Oils with higher than 20% polyunsaturated fats shouldn’t be used for cooking because they tend to produce significant amounts of free radicals when exposed to heat. Many vegetable oils have high amounts of polyunsaturated fats but it has a high smoke point, which leads people to thinking they are good cooking oils. Having a high smoke point and stability during cooking are two different things. Many oils that have high smoke points are highly unstable during cooking, releasing damaging free radicals into the foods. This is the case with most vegetable based oils.

Monounsaturated fats are relatively stable when exposed to heat and is a fair choice for cooking. They are found most commonly in olive oil and avocado oil.

Trans fats can be found naturally in small quantities in some foods such as meat and milk products, and it can also be found in many processed foods. The trans fats found in processed foods are usually artificially made by an industrial process. Trans fats are damaging to the body because it not only raises bad cholesterol LDL, it also lowers good cholesterol HDL. Trans fats should be strictly avoided because it increases the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

Trans fats can be found in fried foods like doughnuts, cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers, and stick margarines and other spreads. You can determine the amount of trans fats in a particular packaged food by looking at the Nutrition Facts panel. However, products can be listed as “0 grams of trans fats” if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. You can also detect trans fats by reading the ingredients list and looking for the ingredients referred to as “partially hydrogenated oils.”

Let’s now take a look at all the different types of cooking oils:

As you can see, coconut oil comes out by far as the best cooking oil. Having the high amount of saturated fat makes it the most stable cooking oil. It also contains a high level of health-benefiting antioxidants.

Animals fats like butter and lard also contain a high amount of saturated fats making it a stable cooking oil, however, animal fats are often low in antioxidants and full of environmental toxins. Animal and fatty foods contain the highest levels of DDT and PCBs because they are stored in fat and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. Environmental pollutants are toxic to the immune system, reproductive organs, neurological system and many of our glands and should be avoided.


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