From Coconut to Canola: Healthy vs. Processed Cooking Oils

Mar 1, 2021
Navigating the different types of cooking oils can be one of the most confusing aspects of trying to eat healthy. Is vegetable oil as healthy as it sounds? Is coconut oil bad for me? Does organic matter? Here we’ll break down a few basics about oils, and help you understand which are best and which to avoid.
The biggest difference between “good oils” and “bad oils” is in the way they are processed, not necessarily their source. (There are exceptions such as Canola oil, but more on that later.) Fats and oils are sensitive to light, heat, and oxygen, and become rancid easily. Therefore, during the processing of these oils — which often involves heating them at extremely high temperatures — they can become unstable.
Similar to the issues with high-heat processing, an oil’s smoke point (the point when it starts burning and smoking) is important to consider when choosing an oil for cooking. If you heat oil past its smoke point, it not only harms the flavor, but many of the nutrients in the oil degrade, and the oil will release harmful compounds called free radicals.
Finally, it’s important to consider the different types of categories these oils fall into: either saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fats. Our bodies need a good balance of all three types (with an emphasis on monounsaturated and saturated), but a big problem with the food industry today is that most processed foods contain polyunsaturated oils, and we’re therefore consuming way more of these than we should — leading to inflammation and ultimately, disease.
So — what oils are healthy, and which ones should you avoid?

Best Options:

Good for high-temp cooking because of their higher smoke point:
Organic, grass-fed butter & ghee: Quality butter is mostly saturated fat and contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, as well as fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Ghee is butterfat with the milk solids (casein proteins) removed. It is safe for cooking and light frying. Try ghee if you have an issue with the lactose in butter!
Organic virgin coconut oil: This healthful tropical oil has powerful antimicrobial and antifungal properties and contains a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid. Because of its high saturated fat content (and therefore higher smoke point), it’s safe to use at higher heat.
Good for medium/low temp cooking. These should always be expeller-pressed or cold pressed, which means a press is used to squeeze the oil out of the seed rather than chemical solvents:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Lightly cooking with olive oil at temps less than 400 degrees is considered safe, but olive oil and its monounsaturated fat molecules can be damaged at high heats, resulting in free radical production. Extra Virgin = unrefined, which is best.
Avocado Oil: Unrefined and monounsaturated like extra virgin olive oil, but with a higher smoke point, which means it can be used to cook at higher heat.
Sesame Oil: sesame oil is relatively stable and may be used for low-heat stir-frying or a quick sauté, but we recommend limiting use since it’s polyunsaturated.

Options to Avoid:

These oils are highly processed, and unless they’re organic, they’re often made from GMO crops. Organic, expeller-pressed versions of the below oils are better, but the options listed previously are generally healthier.
: Extracted from the hybridized rapeseed, a genetically modified crop, canola is a highly processed oil. Since canola oil must move through damaging extraction processes to be harvested and deodorized, the omega-3 fatty acids turn rancid quickly. This makes canola oil unsafe for consumption, especially in cooking.
The term “vegetable oil” refers to any oil that comes from plant sources, and most are a blend of canola, corn, and soybean oils. Vegetable oils are highly refined and processed, and are pushed past their heat tolerance during processing, becoming rancid as a result.
Hydrogenation of oils is used to change the chemical structure from a liquid into a more solid shape (think: margarine). This changes the consistency and improves the shelf life of highly processed products. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats, which raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol, severely impacting overall health.
These oils are found in many processed foods because they’re cheap to produce, and because of their prevalence many people are largely over-consuming them without even knowing. Keep an eye out for them on your food labels, and enlist Trash Panda to help you identify them easily!
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