Are you as absolutely confused (as I was) about which are the healthiest oils to use when cooking for you and your family, specifically those heart healthy fats? Unfortunately, heart disease still weighs in at #1 in the world so it’s always a hot news topic. And as you know, the news cycle seems to change daily on what food is healthy and what is not!
Instead of being frustrated by this however, let’s take it as a challenge and do a little investigative reporting ourselves. Let’s take you back to one of my absolutely favorite television shows of my youth called Mission Impossible and put you in the role of Jim Phelps:
YOU are now the I.M. Force leader getting your assignment in a quiet, isolated telephone booth (I know, we are taking you WAAAYY BACK!):
In that manila envelope is both a cassette tape and photos. You put your tape in the recorder…..
“Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to look at reputable scientific facts that either support or refute the heart healthy qualities of popular cooking fats, and with that, target the right cooking applications for those fats. Finally, it is of primary importance to investigate global populations that have concentrations of healthy centenarians who are thriving and see which fats predominate, and in what context they are used to prepare their meals with…..
“These are just a few of the multitude of cooking fats that are available”:
“You need to come to a reasonable conclusion after your investigation and select just a few cooking fats that are heart healthy.”
“As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions, any knowledge of your “oil dealings” will be “rendered” undiscoverable, as though you disappeared. Good Luck!!
I. Mission Impossible Scientific Investigation of Suspect
A. Coconut Oil
Pro-Named as the “du jour” healthy fat for a while now in the U.S. Yes, coconut oil possesses a healthy class of fatty acids called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT), with the predominant triglyceride being lauric acid. Lauric acid is a powerful antibiotic, possessing antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial properties. Coconut Oil is a saturated fat, noting 82% comes from saturated sources that increase both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol. The lauric acid component is believed to be the good boost to HDL cholesterol. It has been consumed by the Polynesians for centuries as their main source of fat, noting that heart disease is not a factor in Polynesian countries.
Con-The AHA (American Heart Association) first compared the high percentage of coconut oil’s saturated fat (82%) to other sources: butter 63%, pork lard 39% and beef fat 50%. In their review of 7 controlled trials, coconut oil’s significant increase in LDL was noted in 6 out of 7 studies, the same as all other sources of saturated fat, i.e. butter, pork lard and beef fat. Therefore, coconut oil is not a special saturated fat in AHA’s eyes:
In summary, randomized controlled trials that lowered intake of dietary saturated fat and replaced it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil reduced CVD by ≈30%, similar to the reduction achieved by statin treatment.
My take– The jury is still out on the gold-standard randomized prospective scientific studies with coconut oil that prove heart health is not an issue with increased LDL, even though HDL also increases. To date, only small studies have been performed. As far as the Polynesians and their coconut oil consumption, one aspect of the diet cannot stand on it’s own. The entire lifestyle must be taken into account before any conclusions can be drawn, i.e. genetics, fruit and vegetable consumption, activity, socialization and so on. What I don’t like is that coconut oil, as of today’s science, appears to be heart neutral, neither healthy or hurtful. That does NOT mean coconut oil, or any other saturated fat will be banned from the Tobler household!! However, we will limit it to “treat” status or about 10% saturated fat (from all sources) of our total diet. In practical terms that means an equivalent of 1.5 Tablespoons of coconut oil for a woman (based on a 2000 calorie per day diet, coconut oil has 130 fat calories per Tablespoon) and 2 Tablespoons of coconut oil for a man (based on a 2500 calorie per day diet, 130 fat calories from coconut oil) per day. Note that you must take into account ALL saturated fats sources you consume in a day in that 10% equation!
Here is Randy with one of his favorite rituals: WhirleyPop popcorn preparation with 1 Tablespoon coconut oil, with the “girls” (Mia and Lucee) as his audience. This occasional treat has become a ritual. The girls know their portion is coming when the device comes out along with the exclamation “POPCORN TIME!” They delight in catching the puffs of salty goodness Randy loves tossing their way (he tries to convince me that the more they eat, the less he does….I’m smarter than that!):
B. Corn, Soybean and Sunflower Oils-
Pro-These oils are one type of polyunsaturated fat, in the case of these oils, the Omega 6 type. Omega 6 and Omega 3 (i.e.flaxseed oil and cold water fish- EPA/DHA) fatty acids are essential because our bodies cannot manufacture them; we must consume them. The ratio of Ω-3:Ω-6 should be about 1:1 or 2:1 for maximum health. The American Heart Association promotes all polyunsaturated fats (listing specifically corn, soybean and sunflower oils) in favor of saturated fats for heart health:
Polyunsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Con– A very interesting study came out recently to dispute the claim that all polyunsaturated fats are created equally AND low LDL cholesterol levels are the gold standard for heart health. The British Medical Journal published in April of 2016, a long overdue study of 9400 men and women in Minnesota mental hospitals and nursing homes between 1968-73. They split the study group in two, one group had a diet heavy in saturated fats, like beef, milk and cheese while the other group replaced all of those saturated fats with the polyunsaturated fat, corn oil. As you can guess, the corn oil group’s LDL cholesterol dropped precipitously (14%) compared to the saturated fat group. What wasn’t expected from this study was that the lower the cholesterol LDL dropped in the corn oil group, the higher the mortality rates increased!!!
My take-I told you the polyunsaturated Omega 6 fatty acids are essential to our health, however, it truly is all about balance. Balance meaning an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is healthy at 1:1 or 2:1, not the current 20:1 that is typical now. So why is that? Because Omega 6s (corn and soybeans) are now predominantly fed to our livestock, instead of their natural foraging sources of years ago (See The Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef Debate: You Are What You Eat, Eats!) and added to our packaged foods. That balance has see-sawed heavily to the Omega 6 side, which is absolutely unhealthy and inflammatory!! Remember inflammation is the beginning of all chronic diseases like heart disease! What I recommend is to not add any additional Omega 6 fatty acids (corn, soybean or sunflower) in the form of cooking oil to your foods. There are plenty of other cooking oil choices that make your food both tasty and heart healthy (see below for my top picks)!
C. Olive Oil-
Pro– The predominantly monounsaturated Omega 9 fat, extra virgin olive oil has been a star in the heart health world for quite a while, beginning with the Lyon Heart Study in 1999. This was the first study when the wonders of the Mediterranean diet came to light: a diet high in fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, nuts, seeds, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, little red meat, moderate wine consumption and extra virgin olive oil as the main source of fat compared to the standard American diet. Historic heart history was made after 4 years: Mediterranean diet subjects had a 50-70% decreased risk of CVD over the American diet! Since then, a plethora of studies have confirmed these results. Olive oil has a high content of phenols, or powerful antioxidants, paired with the monounsaturated heart healthy fat, oleic acid. Both are believed to be chiefly responsible for lowering (bad) LDL cholesterol and increasing (good) HDL cholesterol. EVOO has also been studied (and celebrated) for its blood pressure lowering properties.
Con– Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., a recent guest of ours on “Healthy U” talked about his book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. He noted that olive oil does contain the heart healthy monosaturated fat oleic acid, but it also is comprised of 14-17% saturated fat, which is not heart healthy. His take, from being a former surgeon, researcher and clinician at the Cleveland Clinic is that olive oil might slow the progression of heart disease, but it does not stop and reverse established CVD. Dr. Esselstyn does not advocate any forms of fat in your diet if you need to stop and reverse the artery clogging effects of heart disease.
My take– Just like coconut oil has been lifted up as a miracle fat, olive oil by itself is also not a miracle oil. However it does appear to be an important PART of a heart healthy diet, lowering the bad cholesterol (LDL), increasing the good cholesterol (HDL) and lowering blood pressure.
D. Avocado Oil– Just like olive oil, avocado oil is a monosaturated Omega 9 oil, rich in heart healthy oleic acid (70%). Having the same properties of lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), increasing good cholesterol (HDL) and lowering blood pressure. It also has a higher smoke point (see discussion below) for roasting and grilling.
E. Canola Oil–
Pro– It has a good mix of good heart healthy fats (Omega 3s and monosaturated) and a low mix of heart neutral saturated fat.
Con– This oil is usually (unless you get expeller processed) highly processed, requiring high heat for that process. The main component (rapeseed) needs to be deodorized because of it’s foul smell at high temps. Guess what? The Omega 3 content, which is heat sensitive, at that point turns into a transfat!
My take– Go for the expeller processed canola oil, it costs more, but it retains those good fats. I personally even bake with a quality extra virgin olive oil. Just try it and see what you think!
Pro– Time magazine came out with this saturated fat on it’s cover front, sensationalizing a recent Tuft’s study that de-vilified butter as being the hooligan in heart disease :
Con–In that butter consumption meta-analysis of 9 studies of 600,000 people at Tuft’s University, with an average intake of 1 Tablespoon of butter per day, senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean of the School weighed in:
“Overall, our results suggest that butter should neither be demonized nor considered “back” as a route to good health,”
My Take– Just like the saturated fat coconut oil, butter should be in your daily “treat” status. It’s not a health food but you can make it a limited part (10%) of your diet. What I do recommend is for you to spend a little extra for grass-fed butter. It has more of those cholesterol neutral saturated fats like stearic acid and less saturated fats (palmitic and myristic acid) that increase your bad cholesterol, plus it contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a fat proven to have antiartherogenic and anticargenic properties.
G. Almond Oil–Just like olive oil, this is a monounsaturated fat (61%), or Omega 9 fat, lowering LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol. This would also be an oil to include in the heart healthy Mediterranean diet.
II. Mission Impossible Applications– Now, knowing the scientific facts, let’s figure out what to do with them-
A. Virgin oils paired with home cooking– Just a general statement here about all oil/fats: non-processed is best! That is non-processed quality oils. Olive oil is the main player I’m talking about here since it is ubiquitous because of it’s established health qualities. Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a celebrated olive expert and author outlines what you should look for in a quality olive oil: be a label snob, buy olive oil in dark containers and know that the label “first-cold “pressing is a misnomer. Check out NAOOC certification for quality olive oils. Hey, it’s not just you I’m talking to, I’m not using my “Virgin” or “Extra Light” olive oil, or any of my other chemically processed oils I’ve bought until recently. Those oils are highly processed with chemicals that are not good for my family or me! The healthier option is expeller processed oils, since they are strictly mechanically, not chemically processed (they are pricier too). That is the wholesome ticket for processed oils! Also, make sure to read the labels of your favorite (what you think are healthy) foods, you may be surprised with some of the ingredients, like this hummus that lists EVOO first, but soybean oil (an inflammatory Omega 6 fat ) second!:
Remember, home cooking is best, when you can, because you control all the contents, including healthy fats!
B. What are you using those oils/fats for?– You need a handle on the smoke point of oils for this one. The smoke point is when an oil is heated to the stage of smoking and thus turns into an unhealthy fat, stripping it of it’s nutrients, sometimes leaving you with a burnt taste but more importantly, letting you know you are in the danger zone before the flash point, which is when the oil goes up in flames. Every oil has it’s own unique smoke point, however smoke point indexes are only guides. Polyphenolic extra virgin olive oil that has a recognized level of certification can take a higher smoke point of up to 400 F, making is safe for medium heat (see 7 Myths (and Truths) about Olive Oil).
There are three levels of food temperature preparation:
1) Garde Manger (cold food preparation)- Cold preparations are great with extra virgin olive oil (used in this Kale Ceasar Salad) and extra virgin avocado oil:
2) Less than 375 F (sautéing or baking)- Medium heat sautéing and baking is again just fine for quality EVOO (again used for sautéing in this Roasted Shrimp With Sautéed Balsamic Black Bean & Feta) and EV Avocado oil and EV coconut oil:
3) Greater than 375 F (roasting and grilling)-High heat roasting and grilling absolutely sing with expeller pressed avocado oil (up to 500 F smoke point) (witness Pork Chimchurri Kabobs with Quinoa & Red Beans):
Note: Butter has a low smoke point of 250 F. The best way I can recommend to cook with it is to add it at the end of cooking, taking it off the stove or out of the oven, thus “finishing” the dish with a lower amount of butter too! This my creation called Seared Crispy Salmon With A White Wine & Shallot Sauce on a Medley of Savory Brussels Sprouts, Slow-Fried Shallots & Freekah. The sauce you see on top has that “finishing touch” grass-fed butter that was added after the cooking process.
C. What we can learn from Blue Zones’ Ikaria Greece– Just to give you an idea of what the Mediterranean lifestyle is all about, just look at the “M” diet’s pyramid:
What strikes you about this pyramid? The level that caught my eye is the bottom level that emphasizes MOVEMENT and SOCIALIZING. And THAT is why the lifestyle is so healthy! It’s not just about the components of the food (as is present in every pyramid) it’s coupled with the integral part of socializing and moving (there are very few gym memberships, just a lot of constant movers)!
Randy and I found that out when we went to Valladolid Spain with IHCC’s culinary class. We ate like kings every day, but we took a long time to eat because were engaged in conversation, walked everywhere and even lost weight!
Check out the Ikaria Greece Blue Zones Quest. This is a tiny island in Greece that has such turbulent waters that ships could never anchor there. Because of that, commerce was scarce, thus the people had to make it with their own with gardens and livestock to subsist. Dan Buettner, author of the National Geographic’s Blue Zones, a guest of ours on “Healthy U” expanded to Ikaria Greece from his original book when he discovered they too had the secret to a long (100 + year) life: a diet low in dairy (except for goat’s milk), rich in vegetables, homegrown potatoes, lentils, home-grown honey, wine, heavy Ikarian bread (sourdough), occasional red meat, socializing, the right amount of sleep (including daily naps), constant movement and LOTS OF EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL ADDED AFTER COOKING!
III. Mission Impossible Action- FINALLY, we can make some healthier oil/fat choices!
Based on our investigation, these are my new go-to cooking/food prep oils: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Extra Virgin Avocado Oil and Expeller Pressed Avocado Oil:
These are my “treat” oils. The healthy guideline is to limit saturated fat from all sources to 10%. These are my top picks for that category: extra virgin coconut oil, expeller pressed coconut oil and grass-fed butter:
Note: You can play around with the different oils for the flavors you enjoy. That is what it really is all about. Preparing food that you and your family truly enjoy that can be, predominantly, healthy too!
Recap of: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Solving the Mystery of the Healthy Cooking Fat Conundrum
I. Mission Impossible Scientific Investigation of Suspects-Coconut Oil, Corn, Soybean and Sunflower Oils, Olive Oil, Avocado Oil, Canola Oil, Butter, Almond Oil
II. Mission Impossible Applications–
A. Virgin oils paired with home cooking.
B. What are you using those oils/fats for?
C. What we can learn from Blue Zones’ Ikaria Greece.
What screams summer get-togethers more than homemade hummus made with fresh herbs from the garden, freshly pressed garlic and extra virgin olive oil? Randy and I gobbled this up as a side for dinner this week! Check it out!!
Yield: 1 ¾ cup
¼ cup tahini
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (a large lemon’s worth)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
½ cup roughly chopped fresh basil
¼ cup roughly chopped tarragon
2 T. roughly chopped tarragon
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh oregano
2-3 T. fresh chives
*1-3 garlic cloves minced
½ tsp. kosher salt
15 oz. can of chickpeas (A/K/A garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
1-2 T. chicken or vegetable broth or water (depending on the consistency you like)
Garnish with herbs of your choice
- Whip tahini and lemon juice together, making them ultra smooth and creamy (a high powered blender or food processor is best). Process about 1 minute, scraping down the bowl as you go.
- Add extra virgin olive oil, herbs, chives, garlic and salt to the whipped tahini mixture. Process for another minute.
- Add ½ of the chickpeas and process for a minute. Scrape down the bowl. Then add the remaining hummus until smooth and thick for another minute.
- Add broth/water to achieve desired consistency.
- Scrape the hummus into a small serving bowl and top with EVOO if your desire and fresh herbs. Serve with your choice of pita chips or fresh veggies.
- Hummus can last one week in fridge if stored in an airtight container.
*The amount you add depends on how much you love garlic. Randy and I always go for the larger amount!
**Recipe adapted from Cookie and Kate’s “Green Goddess Hummus”.