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Should you sauté vegetables in butter? Is it healthy to use refined vegetable oils to cook at high temperatures? Is it okay to cook with olive oil?
There is a great deal of controversy about which fats and oils should be used for cooking and at what temperatures. Although a few questions remain unresolved, there are several traditional fats and oils that are unquestionably healthy – and delicious – for cooking.
Fats (which are solid at room temperature) and oils (which are liquid) are categorized into three basic types: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. In general, individual fatty acids belong to one of these three groups, but all natural fats and oils (such as butter, lard, and olive oil) contain a mixture of the three, and they are classified based on which type of fatty acid is predominant. Olive oil, for example, is considered a monounsaturated fat because it contains approximately 73 percent monounsaturated, 15 percent saturated, and 10 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids.
In general, the type of a fat helps determine its suitability for cooking. In saturated fats, all the carbon atoms within a molecule are joined to hydrogen atoms and each other by single bonds, which keeps the fats stable, thus making them more resistant to oxidation. Unsaturated fats contain one or more double bonds between carbon atoms, and these bonds are reactive, or easily broken. Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond, whereas polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one. The greater the number of double bonds, the more susceptible the fat will be to oxidation when exposed to heat, light, or oxygen. As a result, most saturated fats are better for cooking than monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.
Although conventional medical authorities and the US government have condemned saturated fats for decades, academic research has shown that traditional cooking fats such as butter and lard that are high in saturated fatty acids promote, rather than harm, cardiovascular functioning and overall health. Independent health researcher David Evans provides a more detailed look at heart-healthy saturated fats in his book Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Prevent Heart Disease: Evidence from 101 Scientific Papers.
Oxidation and smoke point
Oxidation is a chemical process, involving oxygen, enzymes, or moisture, that breaks down fats and oils, eventually producing rancidity and causing a rank odor and/or taste. As fats and oils oxidize, they become harmful to consume. Oxidation produces free radicals, which, in excess, contribute to inflammatory states that can lead to diseases, including heart disease and cancer. It also destroys beneficial components in cooking oil, most notably antioxidants, which reduce inflammation.
Because all fats and oils break down over time, they should only be consumed when they are fresh. Their shelf life can vary dramatically depending on the type of fat, the storage conditions, the presence of natural antioxidants, and the manufacturing methods used. The smell of an oil, particularly an unrefined oil, can be a good indicator of rancidity. Some oils, particularly soybean and canola, are especially susceptible to flavor and odor reversion – an oxidation of linoleic and linolenic acids – prior to complete rancidity. Reversion, which produces off-odors and off-flavors, can occur from exposure to heat or when even a small amount of oxygen is present. In general, however, odor cannot guarantee freshness, as significant oxidation can occur before a fat or oil smells bad.
A general guideline for storage times is that saturated fats are usually stable for one to two years, most monounsaturated fats are best consumed in six to twelve months, and polyunsaturated fats are best consumed within three months. In general, refined oils have a longer shelf life than unrefined oils of the same type.
As both heat and light contribute to oxidation, all fats and oils should be stored in cool, dark places – never on a window sill or right next to the stove. Polyunsaturated oils, such as avocado and sesame, must be refrigerated after opening and used quickly. It’s best to purchase oils in dark bottles, in the smallest size practical. Oxidation can occur when the oxygen in the headspace of the sealed container dissolves into the oil. They should also be purchased well before their “best by” date and stored in dark-colored, airtight containers rather than in open pour-spout vessels.
Care should be taken during cooking to minimize oxidation. All fats and oils have a smoke point, which is the temperature at which volatile compounds are given off to produce visible smoke. When the smoke point is reached, wisps of smoke start rising from the pan. The oil stops shimmering and starts to give off an unpleasant odor. At this point, the oil has begun to break down to glycerol, free fatty acids, and oxidative byproducts such as lipid peroxides, and it should no longer be used. If the cooking temperature continues to rise, the glycerol will break down further into acrolein, inhalation of which can lead to upper respiratory tract irritation and congestion. Furthermore, smoke or fumes from cooking oil have been found to cause oxidative stress and may be associated with lung cancer.
Approximate smoke points of some individual fats and oils will be listed later in this article. However, these are just guidelines, and variations within types of fats and oils may cause them to smoke at temperatures lower than those listed. To ensure that the oil remains healthful, cooking should always take place well below the smoke point.
You can usually observe when the temperature of the oil is getting too high. When food is cooking in the pan, it should make a gentle, sizzling sound and bubble around the edges. To maintain this state, temperature adjustment may be needed. It’s best to use a heavy-bottomed pan, such as cast iron or ceramic-clad cast iron, when frying because this type of pan can better maintain a constant temperature and minimize hot spots. If loud popping sounds begin, the oil is too hot and will likely start to smoke if the temperature is not reduced.
Keep in mind that oxidation can proceed rapidly at frying temperatures. The higher the temperature, the more rapid the oxidation. Moreover, keeping fats and oils at frying temperatures without food in the pan speeds up their deterioration. Thus, it is best to minimize the amount of time a fat is heated without food and to preheat the pan before adding cooking fat.
It is also important that cooking oil not be reused. Repeated use can increase the thermal destruction of beneficial components in the oil, such as vitamin E. Intermittent use of oil (heating, cooling, and then reheating) causes significantly greater oxidation than using oil continuously for the same total amount of cooking time. In animal studies, reused cooking oil has been linked to vascular inflammation and high blood pressure.
To limit oxidative damage, make sure to choose a fat that can withstand the necessary heat for the type of cooking you are doing. In general, shallow pan-frying takes place between 280-320°F, stir-frying at around 340°F, and deep-frying between 350-375°F, whereas soups and stews boil at about 210°F.
Unhealthy cooking fats
Hydrogenated Fats. The worst fats overall are partially hydrogenated oils, which are found in many processed foods and commercial baked goods, where they add consistency, improve flavor stability and texture, and increase shelf life. They are also used in some margarines and other spreads. They are produced by a complex series of chemical reactions that artificially saturate polyunsaturated oils with hydrogen, using high temperature and metal catalysts. Hydrogenation raises the melting point of oils, and the result of partial hydrogenation is an oil that is semi-solid at room temperature. In the process of making partially hydrogenated oils, however, some of the molecular bonds are isomerized, a process that rearranges the atoms in a molecule and produces trans fat.
Trans fats have a wide range of deleterious effects on the human body, such as raising LDL cholesterol, lowering HDL cholesterol, elevating insulin levels, and impairing reproductive function. They are associated with low birth weight in babies and decreased visual acuity in infants drinking breastmilk containing trans fats. All partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fat, even if the amount per serving is low enough to be listed as zero on the label (less than 0.5 g per serving). In 2015, however, the FDA determined that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer GRAS (generally recognized as safe), and they must be removed from the food supply by 2018.
Fully hydrogenated fats, on the other hand, in essence become saturated fats during the hydrogenation process and do not contain any trans fatty acids. They are now being used to replace partially hydrogenated oils in various products. However, complete hydrogenation makes fats solid at room temperature, and because of adverse organoleptic qualities – specifically, a waxy consistency not unlike plastic – they are mixed with emulsifiers and/or blended with liquid vegetable oils and put through a process called interesterification (discussed below).
It should be mentioned that certain foods contain natural trans fats, which are structured differently than those produced by hydrogenation and have not been linked to health concerns. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a trans fat found mainly in the meat, fat, and dairy products from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, and goats. It is produced by bacteria in the rumen of these animals. Interestingly, the CLA content of milk from cows grazing on green, growing grass is as much as five times higher than that from cows fed grain-based diets. Studies show that CLA may reduce the risk of heart disease and prevent arterial fatty streaks and plaque formation in lab animals, improve insulin action and sensitivity, and slow the progression of some types of cancer.
Interesterified fats. The main components of edible fats are triglycerides, which consist of three fatty acids bound to a glycerol molecule. Interesterified fats are created by redistributing the fatty acids on the base molecule through either a chemical or enzymatic process. This changes the structure of the fat so that it performs like a partially hydrogenated oil without the trans fat. However, this process is not an exact science, and it creates many new triglycerides not currently seen in nature. Interesterified fats have not been studied as widely as partially hydrogenated fats, and their health effects have not been clearly determined. One study found that interesterified fats caused a drop in HDL cholesterol and a rise in blood glucose after one month of use, but this finding needs to be confirmed. Other sources have indicated that they do not appear to have the same adverse health effects as trans fats.[18,19] Nonetheless, they are unnatural and are best avoided. There is no labeling requirement for them, but they may be included under such terms as “high-stearate fats” or “stearic-rich fats.”
Polyunsaturated oils. In general, polyunsaturated oils oxidize quickly when heated and are not good candidates for cooking oil. This category includes soybean, corn, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower oils. “Vegetable oil” is a generic term that allows several of the aforementioned oils to be used interchangeably and in combination, based on market price.
Many polyunsaturated oils have detrimental qualities and should always be avoided, even for non-cooking use. For example, canola oil is obtained from certain varieties of rapeseed. Rapeseed oil was not originally considered to be an edible oil because it naturally contains high amounts of erucic acid, which has been linked to heart problems, and other undesirable components such as glucosinolates. However, through traditional crossbreeding, varieties of rapeseed low in erucic acid and glucosinolates were created, and it is from the seeds of these plants that canola oil is made. Although canola was not originally developed using biotechnology, as has been rumored, most of the canola oil sold in the US is genetically-modified and has been chemically extracted, bleached, and deodorized.
Another example, cottonseed oil, is a byproduct of the cotton industry; it is not a food crop and much of it contains pesticide residues. Unrefined cottonseed oil contains gossypol pigments that only ruminant animals can consume without harm, and then only within certain feeding limits. In humans, long-term consumption of the unrefined oil has led to amenorrhoea and male infertility. These pigments cannot be entirely removed through chemical refining. Cottonseed oil is also bleached, deodorized, and likely to be genetically-modified.
Soybean is another oil that is generally genetically-modified. Modern processed soybean oil emerged in the US as an industrial oil because of its objectionable flavor and odor. It did not become widely used as an edible oil until after WWII, when German processors developed methods for deodorizing it. Today, soybean oil is frequently extracted using the chemical hexane and then heavily refined to remove the strong odor. However, organic soybean oil is processed without hexane and is usually expeller pressed.
Certain polyunsaturated oils are generally healthful if not heated. These include flaxseed, pumpkin seed, and walnut oils, which contain omega-3 fatty acids. They can be drizzled over salads or added to soups at the end of cooking but should not be used for cooking, as heat destroys their omega-3s and causes rapid oxidation. They are particularly prone to rancidity and should be stored in the refrigerator, especially after they are opened. Choose these products carefully, as some pumpkin seed and walnut oils are refined and subjected to chemical solvents and high temperatures.
Omega-6 fatty acids, found in most polyunsaturated oils, are predominant in Western diets, which are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. The high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids – sometimes 20 to 1 or even higher – promotes the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. A lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is protective against many chronic diseases and is associated with a decreased risk of breast, rectal, and other cancers.
Better cooking fats
Monounsaturated oils. Monounsaturated oils, such as olive and avocado, oxidize less quickly than polyunsaturated oils during cooking. They are unquestionably a better choice than vegetable oils, if those are the only two options available. However, they are generally not as suitable as saturated fats for cooking, particularly with high heat or for an extended period of time.
The widely touted health benefits of olive oil – such as lowering LDL cholesterol and improving risk factors for heart disease – have made it a popular cooking oil, but is it really safe to cook with? Research studies do not provide a conclusive answer to this question. For one thing, the smoke point of olive oil varies according to variety, acidity levels, growing conditions, and production methods. Estimates usually range from about 280 to 375°F.[1,23] According to some sources, very high-quality extra-virgin olive oil can have a smoke point of up to 410°F. One review article found dramatic differences in nutrient levels between various types of olive oil after cooking. For example, oils made from Piqua olives retained significantly more antioxidants than those made from Arbequina olives.
Rudi Moerck, PhD, states that extra-virgin olive oil should not be used for cooking because it contains chlorophyll, which accelerates oxidation in the presence of light. To protect the extra-virgin olive oil from oxidation, Moerck suggests putting a drop of astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, into the bottle. Because it is red, the astaxanthin colors the oil. When the color starts to fade, the olive oil is past its prime and should be thrown away.
The antioxidants in olive oil are an important factor in making it so healthy. The amount of antioxidant polyphenols depends on the olive variety: Koroneiki olives are the highest in polyphenols, while Frantoio are medium-high, Leccino are medium, and Arbequina are low. The presence of significant amounts of antioxidants after cooking indicates that the oil has not degraded from oxidation. Some polyphenols in olive oil (lignans and oleocanthal) are relatively stable even after repeated cooking cycles, whereas others (hydroxytyrosol) are decreased dramatically by 30 minutes of cooking and are nearly gone after 60 minutes.
The high antioxidant content of extra-virgin olive oil keeps it from going rancid for up to two or three years, even when opened. Some connoisseurs, however, suggest a shelf life of only a few months. Free fatty acids, an indicator of oxidation, can be formed during growth, harvest, handling, and oil production, and will reduce shelf life. This factor shows up in the “acidity” of the oil, which producers do not normally report on the bottle. Fresh oil has an acidity under 0.5 percent FFA (free fatty acids).
Avocado oil is another monounsaturated oil with significant health benefits. It also has a very high smoke point (520°F). In animal studies, it has been found to help control metabolic illness and reduce inflammation. However, these studies were conducted with uncooked oil, and little research has been done to determine the effect of cooking on its health-promoting properties.
Other popular monounsaturated oils include high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils. Although traditional safflower and sunflower oils are polyunsaturated and oxidize quickly, the high-oleic oils have been developed through chemical mutagenesis to contain high amounts of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is much more stable under heat. Nutritionist and biochemist Mary G. Enig, PhD, recommended these high-oleic oils as healthy options for most deep-frying applications, and they have a much higher oxidative stability than extra-virgin olive oil.
Best cooking fats
Animal fats. Animal fats, which are saturated or monounsaturated, have high oxidative stability that makes them ideal for cooking. This category includes lard (pork fat), tallow (beef or mutton fat), poultry fat, and ghee. Choose products that come from animals properly raised on pasture, as these will have healthier fatty acid profiles and greater antioxidant content than products from animals fed soy or grains. Moreover, pesticides and other chemical additives from commercial feed may accumulate in animals’ fatty tissues. In addition, pastured animals do not consume GMO feed or the hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs given to factory-farmed animals.
Below is a list of smoke points for commonly used animal fats:
- Wet-rendered lard: 400°F
- Tallow: 420°F
- Chicken, duck, or goose fat: 375°F
- Ghee: 485°F
- Butter: 325°F
Lard and tallow are widely recognized as being stable for all kinds of cooking, even deep-fat frying. Tallow has a high smoke point and resists oxidation at cooking temperatures because it is a saturated fat. Lard is primarily monounsaturated, but, like polyunsaturated fats, it is highly prone to rancidity and must be stored carefully. Industrially made lard is often bleached, deodorized, and laced with synthetic additives such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene).
Good-quality lard is wet rendered (that is, rendered using steam, which gives it a much higher smoke point) and may have rosemary extract or essential oil added as a natural antioxidant. Good lard handles heat well, and leaf lard (the highest quality fat, from around the kidneys) is particularly good for pastries and pie crust.
Poultry fat is also primarily monounsaturated. Due to its lower smoke point, it should be used only at medium heat for pan-frying or sautéing. It can also be used for roasting at 350-375°F. Duck fat is particularly good for roasting or pan-frying potatoes.
Butter is a saturated fat, but it does not withstand high heat like most saturated fats because it is not a pure fat. The milk solids (which contain proteins and sugars) give butter a lower smoke point, and the moisture content will make it sputter during cooking.
The simple solution is to use clarified butter or ghee instead. These contain pure butterfat with the milk solids removed to give them a much higher smoke point and greater resistance to heat damage. Ghee can be purchased or easily made at home. Homemade ghee may have a lower smoke point (as low as 375°F) if the milk solids are not all removed. When selecting butter or ghee, it is particularly important to choose organic because greater concentrations of pesticide residues are found in milk fat than in the milk from which it was derived.
Tropical oils. The other major category of healthy cooking fats is the tropical oils, which consist of coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. All three contain significant amounts of medium-chain saturated fatty acids, which are protective against cancer and heart disease. Because their fatty acids are generally converted by the body into energy rather than fat, these oils promote a healthy body weight.
Below are smoke points for tropical oils:
- Coconut oil (unrefined): 360°F
- Coconut oil (refined): 400°F
- Refined or white palm oil: 450°F
- Red palm oil: 400-450°F
- Palm kernel oil: 450°F
Coconut oil is the most highly saturated fat (92 percent saturated) available; therefore, it is the cooking oil least vulnerable to oxidation.[20,32] Despite this, unrefined coconut oil has only a moderate smoke point, so stovetop cooking should be kept to medium heat when frying. Coconut oil can be used in baked goods at temperatures higher than this, however, because the inside temperature of the food will not be as high as the oven temperature.
For cooking at medium-high heat, it’s fine to use refined coconut oil, which has a higher smoke point. Select products carefully, however. Although the fatty acids in refined coconut oil remain intact in processing, this type of oil is often extracted from dried coconut – sometimes using chemical solvents – and then bleached and deodorized. (Refined organic coconut oil is expeller pressed without the use of chemicals and processed using healthier methods, such as steam refining and filtering through earthen clays.) In contrast, unrefined coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat, and bleaching and deodorizing are not required. Many of the studies that attest to the health benefits of coconut oil have been done using unrefined coconut oil.
The oil palm is used to make both palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil, similar to olive oil, is pressed from the fruit of the tree, while palm kernel oil comes from the seed inside the fruit. Current research indicates that palm oil is a nutritious and healthful oil comparable to monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, in terms of its beneficial effect on blood lipids. Both oils are saturated fats with high smoke points and are stable for all kinds of cooking, including frying at high temperatures.
There are two types of palm oil: red (unrefined) and white (refined). Red palm oil is a highly nutritious oil rich in carotenoids and vitamin E, although many of its nutrients are removed during the refining process to make white palm oil. Red palm oil has also been shown to promote the efficient utilization of nutrients. The processing for both types involves steaming or cooking in water as well as mechanical extraction. Red palm oil is processed at temperatures lower than those used in many types of cooking (less than 300°F), while white palm oil is usually processed at high temperatures to remove the color and odor.
Palm oil can be easily fractionated, or separated, into a liquid part (olein) and a solid part (stearin). Both of these can be used in cooking. Because palm oil naturally separates at certain temperatures, it is usually fractionated using the dry crystal fractionation method, which does not use chemical solvents. Palm stearin, often called palm shortening, is not produced using hydrogenation and is a much better alternative to vegetable shortenings.
Palm kernel oil, which has a greater proportion of saturated fatty acids than palm oil, is also a stable cooking fat that is resistant to oxidation. Although good for high-temperature cooking, it does not convey the same health benefits as red palm oil. It can be either expeller pressed or extracted using a harsh chemical solvent, usually hexane. Malaysian breeding programs for the oil palm have reduced the amount of oil available in the seeds in order to get more oil from the fruit. This may have led to more companies using solvent extraction to get the small amount of oil out of the seeds. The bottom line is that regular palm oil can be assumed to be expeller pressed, whereas palm kernel oil should be assumed to be solvent extracted unless otherwise indicated.
The palm oil industry has recently undergone international scrutiny due to sustainability issues. Much of the controversy centers around deforestation. Despite these concerns, there are sustainably produced palm products available. In general, palm oil from West Africa and South America has fewer sustainability concerns.
Other healthy oils. A very few polyunsaturated oils are healthful options for cooking. Unrefined peanut oil has a smoke point of 320°F and can be safely used to cook at medium heat. Refined peanut oil has a smoke point of 440°F.
Sesame oil and toasted sesame oil are both excellent choices for cooking and can be blended with a tropical oil such as coconut. Toasted sesame oil has a very strong flavor, so it should not be used on its own as a cooking oil. A nice mixture is 10 percent toasted and 90 percent untoasted sesame oil. Sesame oil is a traditional cooking oil in Asia, and it possesses a unique property: the antioxidant sesame oil actually increases dramatically during cooking. Even though the tocopherol (vitamin E) content is destroyed by cooking, the overall antioxidative activity may increase due to the presence of sesamol. The antioxidant content of sesame oil makes it a good choice for stir-frying and deep-fat frying. Its smoke points are listed below.
- Unrefined sesame oil: 350°F
- Refined sesame oil: 410°F
- Toasted sesame oil: 275°F
Choosing a high-quality oil
The best cooking oils for your health are mechanically extracted. This may be indicated on the label by terms such as “cold pressed” and “expeller pressed.” Keep in mind that “cold pressed” does not refer to how hot the oil gets during processing; it only indicates that no heating device is used. Mechanical extraction is done by pressing rather than using chemical solvents such as hexane. However, expeller pressing may take place under high heat conditions, which increases oxidation, particularly in polyunsaturated oils. Cold-pressed oils have been found to have higher vitamin content than hexane-extracted products, as well as better oxidative and thermal stability.[23,24]
Another key issue is refining. The refining process may include dewaxing, degumming, bleaching, deodorizing, and several other harsh treatments that negatively affect nutritional content. When considering which oils are best for the type of cooking you plan to do, be aware that unrefined oils generally have a lower smoke point than refined versions. However, the unrefined oils have greater antioxidant content to protect against oxidation below the smoke point.
In conclusion, there are many healthy cooking fats available. Ghee, lard, tallow, and red palm oil are the best choices for high-heat cooking, which includes deep-frying. Unrefined coconut oil can be used at up to medium heat. With all oils, look for unrefined and organic products; and with animal fats, choose those from animals raised on pasture. Discard leftover oil rather than reuse it, and watch oil closely to make sure that it does not begin to smoke.
Even though some fats might have a high smoke point, it is best to cook at the lowest temperature possible, since even small increases in temperature can result in a dramatic rise in the rate of oxidation. Also, since oxidation progresses as fats are heated, it is best to cook for the shortest amount of time possible. Finally, remember that food cooked at home with high-quality fats will always be much healthier than the same food purchased out, which will likely be cooked in reused, heavily refined vegetable oils – the very worst option.
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About the Author
Jennifer Handy, PhD, teaches English in the San Francisco Bay area. She has published work in literature and composition journals as well as past issues of the PPNF Journal. After reading Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, she became interested in nutrition and began eating whole foods, drinking raw milk, and grinding her own grains.
Contact her at: [email protected]
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2016 | Volume 40, Number 1
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