With so many oils on the market touting health benefits, it can be confusing what to use. Here’s my view to help you navigate the shelves and ensure you get the amazing health benefits from the good ones, and avoid the damaging effects of certain oils when heated or not stored properly.
The theory bit
The two properties which impact how healthy or toxic an oil is when heated are a) its oxidative stability and b) smoke point. These properties are dictated by the way the oil is chemically formed i.e. the types of bonds between fatty acids.
Generally speaking, the more saturated a fat the more stable it is when heated e.g. butter. Unsaturated oils, e.g. olive and nut oils, although they offer many health benefits will become oxidised and produce free radicals at high temperatures; roaming free radicals in the body can damage DNA and cells.
The smoke point of an oil is the temperature it burns. This again is dictated by its chemical formation, as well as quality and refinement (sunflower oil is often refined hence possesses no health benefits). Saturated fats e.g. butter and ghee, have higher smoke points, thus don’t burn as quickly as fats such as olive oil.
One of the main uses of fats and oils in our bodies is to manufacture cell membranes; these play a vital role in cell functioning and communication.
Saturated fat and cholesterol (mainly from animal products) and trans-fatty acids (margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils) make the cell membrane rigid and non porous, whereas, Omega 3 (flaxseed oil) and monounsaturated fatty acids (olive, nut and avocado oil) make the cell membrane porous, ideal for healthy cell functioning.
Studies have found cell membrane dysfunction a critical factor in disease progression, including diabetes, cancer, cardiopathies and neurodegenerative pathologies*.
Its very important to get a lot of the omega 3 and monounsaturated oils for healthy membranes – but these must be consumed cold.
When it comes to heating, saturated fats are preferred for their stability (which the omega 3 and monounsaturated oils do not have and became dangerous to the body’s cells when heated!)
However, saturated fats must be used sparingly given they are less beneficial for our cell membranes.
Got it?! So how does this translate in your kitchen…
Oils/fats to use for cooking
Our grandparents had it right (with butter and ghee at least). Best to cook with:
Butter. Use in moderation, best unsalted and organic. Butter provides us with butyric acid which is a unique compound used with great results in gastrointestinal symptoms, colon cancer, neurological conditions, and metabolic disorders***.
Ghee. Clarified butter, contains less lactose than butter.
Coconut oil. Loads of benefits and more bland than the above. Medicinal properties include antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial.
Oils to drizzle cold
To get the right components for our cell membranes the oils I recommend using regularly for ‘drizzling’:
Olive oil has numerous benefits: its anti-inflammatory, oleic acid found in the oil promotes heart health and is protective against digestive health (in populations consuming large amounts, lower rates of digestive cancers have been reported**).
Flaxseed oil, otherwise known as linseed oil has the highest omega 3 content of any oils (approx. 60%****). Omega 3 is critical in our diets as we can’t manufacture it; its role includes normalising blood cholesterol, promoting healthy skin, hair and nails, reducing inflammation (the route of much disease) and supporting the nervous and cardiovascular system. Flaxseed oil MUST BE STORED IN THE FREEZER; it can go rancid very quickly due to its poly-unsaturated nature. When you first open the oil, de-cant it into small jars, freeze, and each time you want to drizzle the oil on salad or a meal, de-frost the small jar for a few mins before serving (it melts very fast!). The Linseed Farm in Horsham sells excellent quality oil online.
One to avoid
Sunflower oil has zero omega 3 in it. We are severely lacking omega 3 in our diets as a result of modern farming, lack of oily fish in our diets and excess vegetable oils in processed foods. Moreover, sunflower oil is usually very refined (processed) so contains no health properties and has a low smoke point which isn’t ideal given how much it is used in fast food.
- *Sara Zalba, Timo L.M, Hagen. 2017. Cell membrane modulation as adjuvant in cancer therapy. Cancer Treatment Reviews. 52. pp48-57. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305737216301153.
- ** George Mateljan. The World’s healthiest Foods.
- ****Linseed farm website: https://thelinseedfarm.co.uk
- Murray, M.T & Pizzorno, J. (2012). The encyclopaedia of Natural medicine. 3rd edition. Atria Paperback, Simon and Schuster. US.