I have been wanting to write a post about fats and oils for some time. Honestly, it is a rather difficult post to write. Not only are there so many differing opinions about fats and oils, but there are so many different processes (and science) behind the production of fats and oils. So in order to be thorough, books would have to be written and read, but this is just a humble blog post. So the purpose of this post is to, hopefully, give you things to consider as well as point you in the right direction.
Having changed the way I eat years ago, viewing how foods are processed and manufactured has become more of a matter of common sense (yes, your common sense can increase:). With regard to fats and oils, everything is processed to some degree. Knowing what is good, healthy, and beneficial is made easier by having the record of history and seeing what has nourished people for thousands of years. Of course, if you do not want to look at history you can study the processing and science of today and see how rancid industrial oils become, how much oxidation they undergo, what nutrients they are stripped of, or how they are bleached, deodorized, and refined.
So I suggest asking some questions when choosing your fats and oils:
1) How stable is the oil? Does it go rancid easily (how sensitive to light, air, and heat is it)? For this question, most likely you will have to know if it is saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. Saturated fats are much more stable and better for cooking (Butter, tallow, coconut oil, palm oil), but several monounsaturated fats are good for moderate heat as well (olive oil, avocado oil).
2) What is the smoke point? The smoke point is just like it sounds… the point at which the fats begins to burn and smoke and breakdown. Many times producers will list the smoke point on the oil, but you can definitely tell when you are using them at home. In order to raise smoke points, producers have to heavily refine oils (which then make it an unhealthy product), so look for oils that are able to tolerate high heat naturally (avocado, ghee, or tallow).
3) How processed is the oil? Is it cold pressed, heated, or were chemical solvents used? For example, with olive oil, the best quality oils are first cold pressed or “extra virgin”. The terms “cold pressed” can sometimes be loosely used, so it is good to look up the producer.
4) What and where does it come from? For example, Canola is the name given to a breed (cultivar) from the rapeseed plant, which had too much erucic acid and thus a hybrid was needed in order for the oil to be deemed fit for human consumption, and so here comes Canola oil (Canadian Oil Low Acid).
Most people I know do not get enough saturated fats in their diet. Changing the fats and oils you cook with greatly affects the health of your food (fat soluble vitamins) but also the health and processes of your body. Saturated fats make the use of essential fatty acids (like omega-3) more efficient in the body and thereby you need less. Most people receive far too much omega-6 in their diet and too little omega-3. Also, because saturated fats are short chain or medium chain fatty acids, they are used for energy and burned much quicker in the body, where as longer chain fatty acids are more likely to contribute to the buildup of body fat.
Typically for baking I will use butter or coconut oil. For saut√©ing I will use olive oil, butter, or coconut oil. I like avocado oil, but I haven’t really used it that much. I would definitely like to experiment more with tallow, palm, and avocado oil. I realize for many people it is hard to find high quality sources, like raw butter or organic butter, but usually you can find it at health food stores or through a local farmer or coop.
On the other hand, I avoid pretty much all vegetable oils. When out and about it is almost impossible to avoid them since they are in chips that I am going to dip into my guacamole (unless I make my own chips) and maybe, perhaps I just want a slice of whole foods pizza and I am thinking “why O why would you not just use olive oil in your crust instead of canola oil?”. Money. … So I cheat too.
Good luck with your fat : )