Oils aint oils – how different cooking oils stack up

By Alive & Well

A little while back, Alive & Well reader Joan asked for some advice about which oils to use when cooking.

It’s a great question and something I’ve looked into in some detail over the years.

First things first: oils are critical to a healthy, balanced diet

Credit: Robert JurjevicThey provide essential fatty acids like omegas 3, 6 and 9 – and we don’t manufacture those acids ourselves. We must get them from our food. There is no other way. That’s really important.

These ‘good fats’ are also a great source of vitamins A and D, help build strong immunity, enable good brain development/function, maintain balanced cholesterol levels and help satiate appetite.

For a while, people thought oils contributed to our expanding waistlines – which is funny really when you think about it, because oils have been essential to the diet of many healthy societies for thousands of years – think coconut oil for Pacific communities, olive oil in the Mediterranean.

What we know now is that oils are only healthy if they are cold-processed and extra-virgin (and ideally, organic). They only become trans-fatty – and therefore toxic to our bodies – if they have been heated to high temperatures, which many commercial companies do in the manufacturing process, along with adding a few unnecessary chemicals here and there.

The good oil on cooking oils

Coconut oil

  • Long shelf-life and the most heat resistant, so it won’t spoil while it waits to be used and keeps its integrity during cooking
  • Naturally anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal and supports healthy immune system function
  • Supplies fewer calories than other fats
  • Eat it raw to nourish your thyroid (if yours is underactive, be generous) and give you a burst of energy
  • Rub it directly onto skin and hair for extra shine and conditioning

Real butter and ghee (clarified butter)

  • Contains the most easily absorbable form of vitamin A, which is necessary for thyroid and adrenal health; vitamin D, essential for calcium and other mineral absorption for good bone density; and vitamins E, K and the mineral selenium (something that many Australians are deficient in due to the depleted levels in our soil)
  • Also contains lipase, an enzyme that helps digest fat, and lecithin, which is necessary for cholesterol metabolism
  • Has awesome antimicrobial properties and feeds the good microflora in your gut
  • Lots of ‘good’ cholesterol that’s essential for children’s brain and nervous system development, as well as arachidonic acid which helps cell membrane integrity.

These products are best sourced from organic, free-range cows that are allowed to graze on grass.

Olive oil

  • Tastes delicious! Which is one of the great pleasures in life
  • Contains potent polyphenols which are anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-coagulant, helping to neutralise free radicals and repair damage to cell membranes
  • Good source of vitamins E, K and A
  • Known as the ‘heart-healthy’ oil because it helps lower bad cholesterol, keep good cholesterol high and arteries supple
  • Contains squalene, a natural organic compound that regulates sebum, which acts as a barrier on our skin, protecting us from the growth of microorganisms and lubricating our skin and hair.

Remember that olive oil should come in a darkened glass bottle or tin, and be kept in a cupboard. It can spoil if kept on the kitchen bench in daylight.

A couple more tips before I go

Macadamia nut oil may become the new olive oil because it has similar properties but an even higher smoke point, making it more stable when cooking at higher temperatures. But it’s still very expensive here in Australia.

As for other vegetable oils, some such as canola may be lower in saturated fat but they are easily hydrogenated when used in cooking, which means they lose their health benefits and add to the trans fats in our diets. If you are using other vegetable oils, use them raw.

What are your favourite oils? How do you use them? How much does macadamia nut oil go for where you live?