Good Fats and Oils – Learn Which Ones to Use and Why

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Despite what you have been led to believe, we need to eat fats. In fact, most people should include healthy fats at every meal. The key word being “healthy.”

For years, fats, oils and fatty foods were given a bad rap. We were told that fats were bad for us. We were told to eat low-fat and no-fat foods. We were told to eat lean meats only. We were told to eat man-made fats like margarine and processed cheese instead of pure fats like butter and cheese made from real, whole-fat milk.

Many people in the United States followed this advice. Yet as a whole we did not get healthier. Instead there is more obesity, more heart disease, more bad cholesterol, more diabetes, more cognitive issues, more illness in general as people ate more bad fats, more processed foods, and foods with higher sugar content to make up for the lower fat.

This is changing. We are learning to return to real foods and real fats, the ones our ancestors ate for generations. Are you eating the right kind of fats? Are you using them the best way? Read on to learn how to select the right oils and fats, the importance of smoke points, and how to cook and store your oils.

Bad Fats and Oils

Let’s first discuss the “bad” fats and oils, the ones that are highly processed and often genetically modified (GM). In the 1960s, the American Medical Association (AMA) wrongly linked fats to heart disease (see study). In the 1970s, we were told to start eating more vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil, soy oil, and safflower oil. These oils were wrongly praised for being low-fat and health enhancing. These oils also started replacing the good fats in all sorts of processed and prepackaged foods.

Below is a comprehensive list of “bad” fats and oils. As I started compiling this list, it became apparent as to how ingrained all these fats and oils are in the food industry – both in mainstream products and in more natural products. But, not to worry, I also provide a great list of good fat and oil options down below.

Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs): Also known as artificial trans fats, these oils are made by adding an extra hydrogen molecule during food processing, causing the oil to become more solid, making it an oil not found in nature. PHOs are used to improve texture, shelf life, and flavor stability in processed and fast foods.

The first trans fat food product was Crisco, introduced in 1911. In addition to vegetable shortening, products commonly made with PHOs include margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, ready-made frosting, baked goods, and microwave popcorn.

Eating these PHOs is linked to an increased risk in cardiovascular diseases and raising your LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. When eaten, your body does not recognize it as food and stores it as fat instead, causing weight gain. These PHOs can also increase inflammation in the body, decrease your blood sugar control and insulin sensitivities, affect cell membranes, compromise brain health, etc.

The FDA has required trans fats to be labeled on food packages since 2006 and as of June 2015 is requiring food manufacturers to phase out the use of artificial trans fats in their products over a 3-year period.

The problem, however, is that some manufacturers are not switching to more natural fats, like coconut oil or palm oil. Instead, they have created a new man-made fat called interesterified fat, which is looking to be even worse than PHOs. Some manufacturers and fast food restaurants have already switched to these more toxic oils. What is disappointing is the FDA does not require the word “interesterified” on the label – it could say “vegetable oil,” high stearate,” or “stearic rich.” A product might even say “palm oil” and still include interestierfied fat as an ingredient.

Conventional Vegetable Oils: Considered polyunsaturated, vegetable oils are touted for their low-fat, no-cholesterol content, yet they are not much better than the artificial trans fats mentioned above. Examples include corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils. These oils are typically highly processed and easily go rancid, so contain little nutritional value.

Conventional vegetable oils are typically extracted from the vegetable using heat, and often solvents too. They also go through a refining process to “remove impurities” which allows them to be used by the consumer at higher cooking temperatures. These oils end up being so far removed from their original source that they are unstable and oxidize easily when cooked, creating free radicals and releasing toxins known as aldehydes and lipid peroxides.

This leads to all sorts of health problems. Vegetable oils are known to cause inflammation in the body which can result in a higher incidence of heart disease, hypertension, liver damage, weight gain, premature aging, diabetes, impaired growth, depressed learning, among other things. The aldehydes alone are know to promote cancer, heart disease, and dementia when eaten or inhaled.

In addition to cooking oils, these oils are abundant in processed foods, even foods considered more natural. Because they are inexpensive, they are also the oil of choice in restaurants.

Genetically Modified (GMO) Oils: Starting as early as the late 1990s, many of the available partially hydrogenated and vegetable oils have been derived from genetically modified (or GMO) crops. This includes canola, corn, soy, and cottonseed oil.

The plants grown to make these oils have been genetically modified to withstand high amounts of pesticides and herbicides. Some seeds have even been purposely injected with a toxin called the Bt toxin. When you consume these oils, you are ingesting these chemicals and toxins. You are also consuming a food that is no longer found in nature; it is man-made.

GMOs cause numerous health problems, especially digestive disorders, mineral imbalances, hormone issues, and autoimmune issues. Compound these problems with those associated with processed trans fat and vegetables oil and you have a real mess.

You need to eliminate these oils from your diet. Remove them from you kitchen and be sure to read labels since many processed and packaged foods contain GMO oils, even “health foods.” Many restaurant cook with them too. (Click here to learn more about GMOs.)

Canola Oil: Canola oil has been genetically engineered from its inception. It is derived from rape seed, which was banned as a food by the FDA in 1956 for being too toxic. The original rape seed was also used to make mustard gas during WWII. Later, the plant was modified to be less acidic and renamed canola (merging the words “Canada” and “low acid”).

The process of making canola oil causes it to become rancid, so that in order for it to be edible, the manufacturer must further refine it by heating it at a high temperature. It is not a natural product yet it is found in so many processed foods, including more natural ones and those found in health food stores. For some people, canola oil alone can cause heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, and respiratory distress.

Grape Seed Oil: Grape seed oil has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because it can be heated at high temperatures when cooking. In fact, grape seeds have great nutritional value and the oil can be used as a food, as a supplement, and as a skin care product. However, grape seed oil has a few drawbacks.

Grape seed oil is typically made from the grape seeds discarded during the process of making wine. The problem is that grapes is a crop with one of the highest pesticide use. And, because each seed provides so little oil, most grape seed oils are extracted using the chemical hexane, rather than the more natural cold pressed or expeller pressed options.

It is virtually impossible to find both an organic and expeller-pressed grape seed oil. (If the bottle does not say “expeller pressed,” you need to assume it is processed with chemicals.) Instead, if you want to gain the benefits of grape seeds, it is best to use a good quality extract that can be used both internally and externally on the skin. It has many healing properties.

Toxic Animal Fats: Unless you are getting your meat, milk, and butter from a trusted source, it is most likely obtained from an animal or fish that has been eating GMO grains, like corn and soy, which are loaded with chemicals and pesticides. They are also given multiple doses of antibiotics and very little outdoor time.

These chemicals and drugs end up in the animal’s fat and ultimately in your body when you eat them. You need to avoid mainstream meats, processed milk, butter and cheese, and farm-raised fish.

Even conventional organic options like organic beef are not optimal – they may have received organic feed/grain instead of GMO feed/grain and not received any antibiotics, but it does not mean the animal has been pastured or allowed to eat fresh grass.

Plastic Chemicals: Another factor to consider when purchasing oils and fats is that many of the “bad” oils come in plastic bottles or plastic wrapped food containers. It is known that fatty foods such as oil, cheese, and meat absorb the chemicals from plastic containers/wrappings, so not only are you ingesting toxic oils, you are ingesting toxic plastic chemicals both of which accumulate in your body.

Yuck! Yuck! And more yuck! Hopefully this list helps discourage you from using these nasty “bad” fats and oils, all of which are harmful to your health. It is actually pretty easy to stop using most of these fats and oils, especially once you know which ones to keep on hand instead, as explained below.

And, if you are not already doing so, you need to be sure to check the ingredient list in all processed and prepackaged foods. Even “health foods” contain many of these bad oils and fats. (The foods listed here are all free of artificial trans fat and the other GMO based oils.)

It is also imperative to limit fast foods, many of which are cooked or fried in bad fats, foods like fries and chicken nuggets. Many restaurants also reheat the same oils over and over again for deep frying, making the oil even more rancid and, therefore, more toxic to the body.

Good Fats and Oils*

“Good” fats and oils are critical for our health, especially the brain, which is made mostly of fat. They are also needed for hormone production and known to protect against heart disease, reduce cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity, strengthen your bones, and improve your mood.

Added benefits include helping you to loose weight and even possibly reduce your risk of certain cancers. When eaten with vegetables, healthy fats also help you absorb the nutrients from the plant foods.

Good fats are naturally occurring, found in plants and animals that have not been modified. They can be divided into three main categories: monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), and saturated fats.

MUFAs are liquid at room temperature but begin to solidify at cold temperatures and most naturally include oils from olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. PUFAs are also liquid at room temperature and include the omega fatty acids. (The “bad” vegetable oils described above also fall into this category.)

Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and consist of coconut and palm oils, meat products, dairy products as well as eggs. Contrary to popular belief, these oils have been proven not to cause heart disease. Saturated fats are also not the main cause of high cholesterol; more current studies indicate sugar and grains to be the bigger culprit. Your body actually needs saturated fats for it to remain healthy.

The various “good” fats and oils are explained below. Read carefully because there are not-so-good versions of these fats and oils too.

Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is a saturated fat and is also known as a medium-chain tryglyceride (MCT) which makes it rapidly metabolized in the liver so it is immediately available as an energy source (making it less likely to be stored as fat) and very easy on the gall bladder. It is also known for its antimicrobial properties, so it is great for the immune system.

When purchasing, be sure to get organic, virgin coconut oil as well as fair trade whenever possible. (My favorite brands are Tropical Traditions when I buy in bulk and Nutiva.)

There are many refined versions of coconut oil, but these are more processed and do not provide the same benefits. One option, however, can sometimes be helpful: MCT oil. This oil is extracted directly from coconut oil and works better for some who have a hard time processing the complete coconut oil. (I like this brand.)

Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil: Anothher saturated fat, these oils have similar benefits to coconut oil. Palm oil, also known as red palm oil, is derived from the palm fruit. It contains high amounts of saturated fat, vitamins, and antioxidants. The redder the color the more nutrients it contains. Palm oil with little to no color is more refined and has been stripped of many of its nutrients.

Palm kernel oil is even higher in saturated fat and is obtained from the seed of the oil palm. When used in their unrefined state, both palm oils promote cardiovascular health, improve blood circulation and brain health, regulate cholesterol levels, reduce free radical damage and inflammation, and reduce blood pressure. Certain studies also indicate anti-cancer properties.

Avocados and Avocado Oil: The avocado fruit is a great source of fat and nutrients, containing multiple vitamins and minerals and including more potassium than bananas. It is one of my favorite foods and oil. It is a rich monosaturated fat (MUFA) that is easily burned for energy. Studies have shown that avocados are healthy for the heart, are beneficial for the mouth and gums, provide antioxidants specific to the eyes, may help prevent cancer, among other things.

As an oil, avocado is very versatile because of its mild taste and high smoke point (see below). It is also great as a baby’s first food. (Click here for a great smoothie using avocados.)

Olive Oil and Olives: Olive oil is another MUFA oil and provides many of the health benefits mentioned above. However, you need to be careful because many olive oils today are fake, mislabeled, adulterated, stale, or possibly rancid.

In Europe, officials have found the olive oil industry to be extremely dishonest. CBS’s 60 Minutes program recently did a segment on it too, showing how many popular supermarket brands are diluted with substandard oils and enhanced with chemicals to emulate the olive oil taste.

Some ways to determine if it is a bad olive oil include: if it is cheap, if it is in a plastic container, and if it is in a clear container that you can see right through (without a green tint). The best option is to purchase it direct from a farmer in the United States.

The California Olive Oil Council is a good resource. When buying olive oil in a store, look for a paper trail, only buying extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in a labeled bottle that includes the harvest (or milling) date and a certified seal. It should also indicate that it is sourced from one location. (You will not be able to tell the quality from taste alone!)

Nut and Seed Oils: Nuts and seeds are another monounsaturated fat (MUFAs) and a great source of “good” fats. They are also a healthy source of omega-6 fats (see below). Raw nuts and seeds contain the most nutrients. Optimally, however, raw nuts and seeds should be soaked before eating for better absorption of these nutrients. This is explained in more detail here. Roasted nuts, however, lose some of their nutrients and may contain “bad” oils that where added during the roasting process.

When using nut and seed oils, you need to make sure they are expeller-expressed and unrefined. This will ensure the oil has not been heated during manufacturing so they are not rancid and will keep longer.

There are a few nuts to avoid altogether, like peanuts and pistachios, because they are known for their high mold content. Other nuts like almonds and hazelnuts are now required by federal law to be pasteurized or irradiated, which compromises their nutritional value. (Go here to find out how to obtain truly raw nuts.)

It is also important not to eat too many nuts or seeds at a time. The typical recommendation is to eat no more than the size of your fist in one day.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): These PUFAs are known more for their anti-inflammatory effects and brain health. The two types of essential fatty acids (EFAs) are omega-6 and omega-3. Most of us get plenty of omega-6 in our diet with out even trying since it is found in corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils – the oils used so much in processed foods. The best natural forms of omega-6 come from nuts, seeds, and avocados.

On the other hand, omega-3 is only found in limited foods. The best source is wild cold-water fish, like salmon, as well as fish oils like krill oil and cod liver oil. If you are vegetarian, the best option is marine algae, however, keep in mind that you need to consume much more to get the same quantity found in fish and fish-related oils.

Other vegetarian sources include flax, hemp and chia but the drawback is that it requires an extra step in the body to process. These sources contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA) instead of omega-3. Your body must be able to convert the ALA into two different omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) and not everyone can do that, especially when your health is compromised. These seed are still good but you do not want them to be your only source of omega-3, especially since they should be consumed in smaller amounts.

Optimally, you want to have a ratio of 1:1 (omega-6 to omega-3) in your diet. However, it is not unusual for the typical American to be eating a ratio of 35:1 or even 50:1. Limiting your processed foods, eliminating mainstream meats, and staying away from GMO foods will help to reduce your intake of omega-6. You also need to make sure you are getting omega-3 food sources to balance it back out.

My favorite source of omega-3 is fermented cod liver oil. Many other cod liver oils have been processed so much that they lose some of their nutritional value and need to be supplemented with synthetic Vitamin A and D, which is not good. (Note that there is also an omega-9, or oleic acid, but it is considered “non-essential” and it is already abundant in our food.)

Healthy Animal Fats: Choose grass-fed and pastured beef over conventional beef or even grain-finished beef. Request cage-free, free-range and organically fed poultry over mainstream poultry. Select wild-caught, cold water seafood over farm-raised seafood. Milk and eggs should also come from these healthier animals. If you can tolerate dairy, milk and cheese should be full-fat and raw whenever possible. (You can often find a local farmer to provide more natural options. Other sources can be found here.)

Because conventional meats and farm-raised fish, as discussed earlier, are fed grains, they are unnaturally high in omega-6, which further causes an imbalance of omega-3 fats and more inflammation – both in the animal and in the person that eats it. Instead, these animals are suppose to eat other food sources like grass, bugs, and sea food. (Pastured eggs and quality animal liver are also a good source of EPA and DHA.)

The fats from properly raised animals, like tallow, duck fat, and lard, can be a healthy addition to your diet. They do not normally go rancid, even when cooked at higher temperatures.

You should also know that animal products, like meat and dairy, contain natural occurring trans fatty acids (TFAs), which is not the same thing as the artificial (or man-made) trans fats. Called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), TFAs are naturally made as part of the animal’s digestion process. However, unlike the man-made PHOs discussed earlier, these natural trans fats have many health benefits.

It is also interesting to note that many of the studies done on the negative effects of meat are based on the toxic animals fed the wrong foods, not from healthy animals raised and fed the correct way.

Grass-fed Butter and Ghee: Butter is not the villain. It is actually quite healthy for you and, if obtained from the correct source, contains lots of nutrients including fat soluble Vitamins A, D3, and K2, lecithin, a variety of fatty acids, etc.

Raw butter from a trusted source is optimal. One of the better grass-fed store bought brands is Kelly Gold, however it is still pasteurized, which depletes some of its nutritional value.

Interestingly, I have found that some people who are dairy intolerant can still tolerate raw butter. If not, ghee, which is butter with the casein removed, is a good alternate. (This ghee is one of the purest.)

Dark Chocolate: For those of you who can tolerate chocolate, 1 or 2 ounces of dark chocolate (70% or higher) per day can also provide the body and the brain a good source of fat. Click here to learn more about how to select the correct type of chocolate. If you are someone who needs to stay away from chocolate, another option is using pure cacao butter.

Smoke Points of Oils

When using oils to cook and bake, you need to know their smoke points – the temperature at which the oil becomes rancid, making it toxic to the body. This is extremely important. If you heat a “good” oil past its smoke point, it becomes toxic and ultimately becomes a “bad” oil.

Some oils should never be heated and should only be consumed in their original state. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), such as fish oil, cod liver oil, flax oil, and hemp oil, fall into this category. If these oils are heated, they should not be consumed.

Other oils should not exceed certain temperatures. This is especially true for the bad fats such as partially hydrogenated oils and polyunsaturated vegetable oils. (Although vegetable oils advertise having higher smoke points, they create toxins way before reaching these temperatures). Another reason not to use these oils.

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), like olive oil and nuts/seed oils, can only be heated at low temperatures. Although the smoke point for olive oil is typically published at 350F (177C), this is too high for good quality organic, virgin coconut oil. (Some refined olive oils may have higher smoke points but they have less nutrients.) Instead, quality olive oil should not be cooked past 200-250F (93-121C). It is better to use olive and nut oils uncooked for things like salad dressings, drizzling over cooked veggies, dips, etc. Certain nuts should never be heated: almond oil, pumpkin seed oil, and walnut oil.

The one MUFA exception is avocado oil which has a high smoke point of 520F (271C), which makes it one of the better cooking oils.

Saturated fats generally have good smoke points. Quality coconut oil has a smoke point in the 350F (177C) range. (If you use a refined version of coconut oil, it will have a higher smoke point but not the same nutritional value.) Palm and palm kernel oil is higher at 450F (232C). Butter also has a smoke point of 350F (177C), but ghee is closer to 400F (204C).

Animal fats like tallow and lard have smoke points in the 370F (182C) range.

Cooking and Baking with Oils

When cooking, you will usually know when you surpassed a smoke point by the smell. You will also create a great deal of smoke. I have done this when stir frying vegetables with coconut oil and when using butter to make pancakes. Unfortunately, it is better to toss the food made with the rancid-turned oil rather than eat it.

Now, I typically use avocado oil when stir frying and ghee on the griddle when making our gluten-free pancakes. Olive oil I reserve for salad dressings or use it to drizzle over cooked foods. We actually use quite a bit of good quality butter on our steamed veggies, rice, and potatoes. More recently, I found duck fat and used that to make homemade baked fries, which were delicious.

When baking, I mostly use coconut oil, however, palm oil is a good choice if you need to eliminate the coconut flavor. (This more refined palm oil actually has a consistency similar to Crisco but you should use it sparingly since it is more processed.) Sometimes, I bake with real butter. I have also used cacao butter when making homemade chocolate treats.

I usually stay away from nut and seed oils because they are more expensive and tend to go rancid more quickly. Instead, in our house, we eat soaked and dehydrated nuts and/or seeds on a daily basis and I freshly grind flax seed to put on salads. We also regularly take fermented cod liver oil.

Storing Oils

When you buy oils, they should be in glass containers that are tinted, with the exception of saturated fats which are typically in clear glass. (See information about plastic containers above.) Most oils do go rancid over time and if they are exposed to too much light. Sunlight, for example, can create the same damaging chemical reaction as heat, only more slowly.

It is best to store your oils in a cool, dark place. Once a bottle is open, I often store it in the refrigerator to make it last longer. This works good for olive and nut/seed oils. (Olive oil will harden when cooled, so plan accordingly.)

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) must be refrigerated. I also refrigerate butter and animal fats. Coconut and palm oils can be left in the pantry.

If an oil goes rancid, you can usually tell by smelling it. If it no longer smells like the food is it derived from, that is a good sign the oil has gone bad. More often it takes on a smell similar to that of cooking an oil past its smoke point.

. . . Hopefully, this summary of good versus bad fats will help you make some healthy changes. If there are bad fats you are still using or eating, start replacing them one step at a time. If it seems overwhelming at first, be patient with yourself. Start reading labels and use this comprehensive list to keep you on track. (You can also refer to the list of foods containing the right kinds of fats here.)

Make sure you are using fats and oils that heal the body, not ones that negatively affect your body. And, use fat and oil sources that are as close to their original state as possible. The ultimate goal is to keep your immune system strong.

* Word of Caution: If you have been eating low-fat and no-fat foods for a while, your gall bladder and digestive system may need some extra support when you start introducing healthy fats and oils into your diet. Start slow as your body learns once again how to digest fats. You may also need bile salts and/or digestive enzymes to help you get started. If you have any gall bladder issues be sure to consult your health provider.

This article was written by Sharon Harmon, founder and owner of Life Design for Health. She has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health. Please contact Sharon if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information on her blog and website.

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