Oils – which oils to cook with? and which oils for health?

People get very confused when it comes to what oils to use for cooking. The question I get asked most is what oil should I use to fry my vegetables, eggs, meat, fish etc.

The oils that you buy in large clear plastic bottles in the supermarket -often marketed as polyunsaturated oils, include corn oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, etc are the oils which the majority of people use to cook with.

Polyunsaturated oils are oils that don’t solidify at room temperature and are good for our health. But when these oils are processed – heated, bleached, deodorised and refined, this basically destroys any health giving benefits they had in the first place. Once they are heated to high temperatures, they produce free radicals which are unstable molecules that can damage healthy cells, causing diseases and premature aging.

Another process which is damaging to our health is hydrogenation. Hydrogenated fats are polyunsaturated oils that have been chemically changed to make them behave like saturated fats. Butter or coconut oil are naturally saturated fats that solidify at room temperature. These hydrogenated fats are then used in place of butter ( because of its function as a cheaper alternative) in cakes, biscuits, cereal bars, chocolates etc , mass produced by manufacturers. Thankfully many companies are realising how unpopular this process is and have been advertising their products as ‘free from hydrogenated fats’.

The problem with this processed fat is that the body doesn’t recognise it and isn’t able to utilise it, so it ends up furring up arteries as it is deposited around the body causing heart problems and disease.

So the healthiest oils to cook with would be:

Olive oil (omega 9) – a monosaturated fat, has a medium burning point. This means the oil is more stable than most vegetable oils at a medium heat. Never use oil if it has been heated to smoking point. Extra virgin olive oil is less refined than ordinary olive oil and can also be used for cooking with great care not to heat it too much or you will destroy the health giving benefits.

Coconut oil is a vegetable saturated fat and does not raise cholesterol. It is solid at room temperature is a good choice for frying as it is very stable when heated. It is perfect for cooking curries or vegetable dishes or for using in place of butter in cakes, biscuits and puddings. Try to buy unrefined versions. Even for those who don’ like coconut – it has a very mild taste.

Butter is also a good choice for frying as it is also stable at medium /hot tempeatures. Never use if it burns.

The oils you should never heat are the cold pressed seed or nut oils. These contain omega 3 and 6 oils which are essential fatty acids – essential to our health.

Use them in salad dressings, smoothies, drizzled onto vegetables or porridge and other breakfast grains. Keep them in the fridge to them from going rancid. Nuts and seeds should also be kept in the fridge for the same reason.

Linseeds (flaxseeds), walnuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds contain omega 3 oils and some omega 6 oils.

Most omega 6 oils are found in brazil nuts, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.

Evening primrose, blackcurrant and starflower oils contain omega 6 oils.

Omega 3 (alpha linolenic acid) – the best source is fish oils. It contains EPA and DHA and is the most easily utilised by the body. The nuts and seeds listed above which contain omega 3 have to be converted in the body into EPA and DHA. In some people this conversion doesn’t work very well so a mixture of fish oils and seed/nut oils is a good idea to cover all options for the body.

Omega 3 is needed for transfering oxygen around the body. It helps to maintain cell membranes, enhance hormone production, relax blood vessels, promote healthy skin, hair, eyes and joints, maintains intestinal health and mucus membranes, reduce inflammation, help wound healing and more. Many people are deficient in these health enhancing oils due to modern eating habits.

Omega 6 oils ( linoleic acid) is converted in the body into gamma linolenic acid (GLA). These are easier to find generally in the diet so most people get enough through their diet. These oils help to lower blood pressure, balance hormones, keep blood sugar levels balanced and more.

Symptoms of essential fatty acid (EFA’S) deficiency include:

dry skin, hair and eyes, water retention, thirst, mood swings, hormone imbalance, allergies, depression, learning difficulties, poor memory and concentration, blood pressure problems and inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis and arthritis.

If you would like to read more about this topic and go into more detail, I would recommend the book

‘Fats that Heal and Fats that Kill’ by Udo Erasmus published by Alive Books.