Clean Eating Oils
Many of us have been taught to view all oil and fat as the enemy. But the truth is the body needs some healthy fat in order to function well and stay healthy. Cutting out fat all together, even if you are watching your weight, is never advised.
The amount of healthy fat you consume, will of course, need to be somewhat influenced by your own personal weight control needs.
That said, there are a number of healthy oils that fit into a clean eating regime well. I’m going provide a full list for the sake of reference. However, I want to be clear that you do not need to stock all of these oils in your pantry, nor should you. There is only so much oil you can consume, even if it is a healthy oil. And any oil has a somewhat limited shelf life before it will begin to go rancid. So there is just no need to have more than one or two oils on hand – maximum three, depending on how adventurous you are in your cooking and food preparation. Don’t complicate your life by having more ingredients on hand than you need.
My number one choice for a healthy, clean eating oil is coconut oil.
Speaking for myself, I keep a total of three healthy, “clean” oils in my pantry. But you can easily get by with just one. If I were to choose just one, my recommendation would be Coconut oil. For a long time that was all I used, but I’ve broadened my horizons a little, which I’ll explain momentarily.
The three oils I keep on hand are:
- Coconut Oil – One of the absolute healthiest oils available. Coconut oil is considered a superfood. It can withstand high heat unlike many oils, so can be used for everything from baking to frying (not that I personally fry anything that often…). Its fabulous on a slice of 100% toasted whole wheat toast in place of butter or margarine. It tends to remain in solid form, so its not well suited for using in salad dressings, for that you can use MCT oil which is very closely related to coconut oil (I used to do this, but in the interest of keeping fewer ingredients on hand, I’m now using olive oil in place of MCT oil for the time being). For the most part, whenever I come across oil, butter or margarine in a recipe, if it cant be eliminated all together (it often can), I replace it with coconut oil. You will find more information about coconut oil and its virtues further on.
- Olive Oil – I use olive oil for my clean, home made salad dressings. And on the rare occasion that I bake (my metabolic type requires me to go low-carb darn it!) I may replace any oil if required with either coconut oil (liquified) or olive oil. Many people are not aware that olive oil should not actually be used for cooking, except for over very low heat. Olive oil has a low smoke point, which means that at higher temperatures it will begin to let off smoke. Not necessarily a lot of smoke, but still smoke. If its not a lot of smoke, you may think its not a big deal. But it is. The smoke indicates that nitrates are being released into your food. Nitrates are known carcinogens – in other words they can cause cancer.
- Sesame Oil – I keep Sesame Oil in my pantry simply because on occasion I like to make Asian inspired food or do a little oriental cooking to mix things up a bit. A lot of my recipes call for Sesame Oil becuase of the distinct Asian flavor it introduces. Without this particular flavored oil, the recipes are noticeably lacking. Fortunately, sesame oil is classified as clean, but should be used in very small amounts because it does contain some monounsaturated fats as well as omega-6 fatty acids (without being balanced with equal amounts of omega-3 acids. The problem with this will be explained in more detail further on).
So as you go through this section, keep in mind that you probably will never need to buy many of the oils listed here – I am merely listing them in the interest of being thorough. The top two are, well just that – the top two!
Olive oil is one of the main sources of fat in the widely acclaimed Mediterranean-style diet. It’s a monounsaturated fat known for being extremely heart healthy. Extensive studies have shown that following a Mediterranean diet (including plenty of monounsaturated fat) is associated with better health and a longer lifespan or ” a significant reduction in mortality” as scientists like to phrase it. But all olive oil is not created equal. Unrefined extra-virgin olive oil is best because it contains polyphenols which are where some of the greatest health beneifts come from. Other forms of Olive Oil have removed the polyphenols during processing at high temperatures. When cooking with olive oil, you never want to use high heat because of its low smoke point. But to top it off, if you did you would destroy those precious Polypehols that have been preserved in unrefined extra virgin oil, and what a waste that would be.
It should be noted that there has been a lot of controversy surrounding olive oil because some of the major manufacturers have been known to dilute their their olive oil with other less healthy oils. There are various tests you can google to see if your oil is the real stuff. But providing you have honest-to-goodness EVOO, you’re in good shape for things like salad dressings.
And as mentioned a couple of times earlier, olive oil has a lower smoke point, so contrary to what a lot of people believe, it is not a good oil for cooking because when heated at higher temperatures it can release harmful nitrates into the food.
Coconut oil has made a huge comeback in the whole foods community. For a long time people mistakenly believed it was unhealthy due to it’s saturated fat content or that it was a trans fat oil. This is an example of a fat that was erroneously categorized as “bad” in the past because it’s saturated, but has made it high up on the list of good fats now. In recent years, coconut oil has been vindicated and recognized for the many health benefits it offers.
Coconut oil is a superfood. Most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is the type known as medium chain triglycerides, which the body prefers to use for energy rather than store as body fat. It contains some powerful antimicrobal fatty acids (lauric acid and caprylic acid) and produces ketones, a source of energy for the brain.
It holds up to high heat very well (this is referred to as having a “high smoke point” and imparts a nice subtle bit of additional flavor to foods. Don’t worry, it will not make everything taste like coconut.
This, along with olive oil, is my preferred oil in cooking.
Used extensively in Asian cooking, sesame oil contains some monounsaturated fats. Some of its benefits come from its unique antioxidants, which aren’t destroyed by heat. It also contains phosphatidylcholine, an important nutrient for the brain. It does have a high amount of omega-6 fats so you should definitely use it sparingly. I generally only use it when cooking Asian style food like certain stir fry dishes.
A good oil with a high level of monounsaturated fat and a high smoke point (430°F).
This is another oil high in monounsaturated fat, but because of its omega-6 content, it’s best to use unrefined peanut oil in moderation.
I love this oil for it’s wonderful flavor. I always use it in cold dishes and dressings but it has high smoke point, so it’s great for cooking as well. That said, it can be a little pricey for the good quality stuff.
This oil is great for cooking as well, but with our declining bee population, almond trees are not being pollinated so our crops are much smaller. That makes almond oil one to keep an eye on in the price department.
- Unrefined Walnut Oil. This oil tend to be a bit pricier than the other’s mentioned here, but it’s also excellent for cold recipes.
- Unrefined Safflower Oil. This is a great, light-flavored oil.
- Unrefined Sunflower Oil. This has lots of good qualities as an oil if you use it cold and you are not getting it in a packaged food.
Butter from grass-fed cows is actually a healthy fat. You can’t beat the taste, it stands up to heat and new research indicates that full-fat dairy such as butter has significant health properties and may even help combat obesity.
Red Palm Oil
Virgin red palm oil (not the same as palm oil or palm kernal oil) has gotten a lot of attention lately as a superfood that may help fight heart disease, prevent Alzheimer’s and promote fat loss. However, proceed with caution on this one. With a fat composition of 50% saturated, 40% monounsaturated and 10% polyunsaturated, the oil’s ability to promote good health has come into question by some health experts. Limited studies have been done on red palm oil, with some promising findings on specific nutrients it contains, but still the jury is out.
The health benefits are that it is very high in the antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene, as well as a particular form of vitamin E that has shown to be cardio-protective. Whereas virgin red palm oil has a dark red color and strong flavor, refined red palm oil is white and neutral-flavored. The refining process also strips the oil of its beneficial antioxidants.
Organic virgin red palm oil can be part of a clean-eating plan, but if you look for brands that produce the oil in a sustainable manner (such as Nutiva Organic Red Palm Oil) and that you limit consumption to 1 to 2 tablespoons per day. Personally, I keep things simple and stick to other clean oils.
Oils to Avoid
- Soybean Oil. Can we say, “GMO”? (Genetically Modified and not clean.)
- Canola Oil. This has a high smoke point, but again, the majority of our supply is a GMO.
- Corn Oil. Same issue as Canola Oil.
- Vegetable oil. Sounds so much healthier than it actually is!
- Palm or palm kernel oil. This is highly processed oil.
- Hydrogenated Oil. These oils are found in packaged goods and have nothing good to offer, quite to the contrary. Stay away from them entirely.
What’s wrong with vegetable oils?
The typical Western diet has people consuming a lot of vegetable oil (corn oil, canola oil and soybean oil, etc.). It’s in virtually every processed food. Vegetable oil is not in itself necessarily bad. According to Jonny Bowden PhD CNS, the problem is that vegetable oils are predominantly omega-6.
Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid – we need it in our diet – but it should always be balanced with an equal intake of omega-3. But it’s not. This is a bit of a big deal because Omega 6 oils are pro-inflammatory – in other words, they tend to cause inflammation in the body. And inflammation is at the root of many very serious diseases.
When consumed in balance with an equal amount of omega-3 oil, which is anti-inflammatory, the necessary balance is there, so it is not a problem. The two balance each other out and the inflammatory effect is neutralized by the Omega 3 oils. But this is not what is occurring in all those processed foods in the typical Western diet or when we use vegetable oils in our cooking and food preparation.
Research shows that we consume about 16 times more omega-6 (mostly in the form of vegetable oil) than omega-3. “This has contributed to the silent epidemic of inflammation that we’ve been seeing since the ’80s when the boneheaded prohibition against saturated fat first came into being”, explains Jonny Bowden PhD CNS, who reminds us that the bias against saturated fat has now been proven to be misplaced.
The best practice according to many nutrition experts and whole food diet advocates is to consume more omega-3, and limit (don’t necessarily completely eliminate) sources of omega-6 fat like vegetable oils. Replace some of your vegetable oils for healthier saturated fats like sustainable red palm oil or coconut oil, or with monounsaturated fats like avocado oil and olive oil.
When you do consume high-omega-6 oils like peanut or sesame oils, choose the organic, cold-pressed variety.