I’m not a fan of complicated recipes with strange ingredients. They’re usually expensive, difficult to find, and moreover unnecessary. I have a small apartment and a tiny pantry, and so I try to be strategic with which items I buy. In the past, I’ve found myself with a cupboard full of expired flours, oils, and “substitute” ingredients that I used once and forgot about. I ended up throwing away a lot of money, and so my goal nowadays is to be more mindful when I’m shopping. If I don’t think it’s a product I will use regularly, I don’t buy it at all, and look for another recipe instead. Or, I troubleshoot the recipe by using what I actually have on hand and make note for future tweaks as necessary.
All that being said, I usually only keep two cooking oils: avocado, and olive oil.
What I Don’t Use:
Blends of soybean, canola, corn, safflower seed, sunflower seed, and/or peanut oil are typically used in the food industry for frying, in baked goods, and in a lot of restaurant productions. Today, these oils come from genetically modified plants, which have been changed significantly from naturally occurring agricultural products. The resulting oils are helpful in the food industry for increasing shelf stability and functionality in food processing, but they create significantly more inflammation in the human body, leading to disease. They also are almost completely void of naturally occurring chemicals that are beneficial to the body, such as antioxidants, vitamins, and other anti-inflammatory compounds. It’s also important to realize that GMO crops are engineered to selectively withstand the use of pesticides. So, GMO doesn’t just mean it’s been changed; it also comes with the underlying assumption that it has been grown with elevated usage of pesticides, which are toxic, inflammatory, carcinogenic, and trigger autoimmune reactions.
I also want to emphasize here that consuming food products that contain these oils is okay sometimes. We live in a McDonald’s world, and it’s unrealistic and isolating to avoid every processed ingredient ever…the danger only comes into play when we consume them in excess. In my own life, I typically try to cook tasty food at home, with healthy ingredients, most of the time. But, if I’m out with friends, I don’t worry about it. In those instances, my goal is to build community and relationships, not worry about nutrition.
What I Do Use: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, First Cold Press
Cold-pressed oils such as extra virgin olive oil are an excellent source of “good fats.” Our bodies need lots of fats, but with the rise of food processing and the influx of the oils mentioned above, the distribution of fatty acids in our diets is out of balance. Each fat molecule consists of three fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol, and these fatty acids can be different shapes and sizes, and each one influences our body in a different way. We need some that are short, some that are long, some that are saturated, some that are unsaturated, etc. Eating too much of one category and not enough of another creates a physiologic imbalance and can result in disease. One of the things that Americans are typically lacking in terms of fatty acids is monounsaturated fatty acids. However, these types of fatty acids react when they are exposed to heat, so it’s important to only use them in cold recipes. Otherwise, they can form dangerous byproducts.
Olive oil is a great dietary source of these monounsaturated fatty acids, as well as other healthy chemicals (vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) There are all kinds of olive oil on the market today. In order to make sure that you’re getting the best quality, and actually receiving health benefits, look for Extra Virgin Olive Oil, First Cold Press.
What I Don’t Use: Coconut Oil
In terms of a healthful fatty acid profile, coconut oil probably trumps. It’s heat stable, and whether used for cooking or eaten cold, it has incredible anti-inflammatory properties. This oil has become somewhat controversial over the past year due to the American Heart Association’s study about the potential for consumption of saturated fats to raise LDL cholesterol. However, it also raises HDL cholesterol, which is a good thing for health. LDL cholesterol isn’t “bad,” it’s actually physiologically necessary and we all would be dead without it. The concern is oxidation of LDL cholesterol, or having disproportionately high levels in comparison to HDL cholesterol.
Anyway, I don’t use coconut oil. The reason isn’t because of the crazy health claims “for” or “against” it, but rather because I don’t like the taste. Simple as that. I will not die if I don’t eat coconut oil, and I’m perfectly confident that I will life a rich and healthful life for all of my days even without it in my diet. If you like the taste of coconut oil, I would recommend using it. It works great for high-temperature cooking, baking, and all sorts of other applications like moisturizing the skin.
What I Do Use: Avocado Oil
Grapeseed oil is a very stable oil, but it unfortunately has a very high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s.) While we, as humans, do need these fatty acids, but most Americans consume a disproportionately high amount of them. This means that most of us choose foods high in PUFAs at the expense of our consumption of other types of important saturated fats or monounsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-3’s. Grapeseed oil is 70% PUFAs. Grapeseed oil is relatively inexpensive, and isn’t overtly unhealthy, like the canola, sunflower, and peanut oils mentioned above. Likewise, cooking with olive oil at high temperatures not only negates the health benefits of the cold oil, but creates a lot of dangerous byproducts.
In general for high temperature cooking like pan frying and baking, I use butter, because its saturated fats are stable under exposure to heat. (Coconut oil is a great option too, if you like it.) But sometimes, like in muffins and banana bread, the optimal texture is only possible with liquid oils.
Avocado oil is probably the ideal option, because its fatty acid profile is helpful for minimizing inflammation and even reversing it. Avocado oil is also stable up to 500 degrees, which is incredibly high, comparatively. However, it’s also pretty expensive and can have a distinctive flavor. Just as with coconut oil, avocado oil is great if you can stand the taste.
In general, it’s better to choose ingredients that are as close as possible to the natural state. Oils that that come from genetically modified crops, are grown with high levels of pesticides, or come from commoditized cash crops typically are so different from their original design that our bodies don’t know what to do with them.