Food Wellness

The Cooking Oil Debate

By Jacquelyn Dobrinska

You pay attention to the quality of ingredients in your food, but how much do you consider your cooking oil?

For many it’s an afterthought. We throw in whatever is on hand, perhaps with some small awareness of “good” and “bad” fats. Yet, dig into the world of oils and you’ll find complexity, passion and controversy. The oils you know and love—canola, olive, coconut, corn and even butter—may not be as good, or bad, as you previously believed.

“It’s a big topic,” says Dr. Eric Lewis, ND, of Lewis Family Natural Health based in Asheville, “that’s been changing over the last few years and keeps changing. Seismic shifts are happening.”

Oil is fat from a plant or animal that is liquid at room temperature. All are processed to some degree, some naturally and some through technology. All are blends of saturated fats, unsaturated fats and linoleic acids.

Some fats are “essential,” meaning your body needs them for health but can’t produce them. Omega-3s and omega-6s must be consumed through food or oil, and in right proportion. Too many omega-6s can lead to inflammation, high blood pressure, digestive irritation, weight gain or poor immune function. We get plenty through vegetable oils. Needed omega-3s come from high-quality free-range eggs, wild-caught oily fish, and raw flax, seeds and nuts. Conventional sources contain fewer.

Another essential oil is saturated fat. “It has been demonized for decades,” continues Lewis, “but is necessary.” Saturated fats are the building blocks of cell membranes, play a vital role in bone health, enhance immune function and protect the digestive tract.

Because we can get these and other fats through whole, real foods, some experts suggest oils are not necessary at all, citing their processed nature, high calories and relatively low nutrients.

For many, no oil means no culinary satisfaction. This leaves us with the question: Which oil is healthiest?

The American Heart Association’s answer is vegetable oils. Canola, corn, peanut, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils lower LDL, the cholesterol that hardens in the arteries, leading to clotting, stroke and heart attacks.

Yet, recent studies suggest these oils have a hidden shadow. While they lower “bad” cholesterol, they also lower HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Most are highly processed. They are also high in linoleic acids, which in excess create free radicals that damage cells, mitochondria and DNA. Ironically, cholesterol is the substance that repairs these damaged cells.

One camp of nutritionists is saying these highly processed oils are part of the problem, not the solution.

“People consuming a lot of vegetable oils had more cancer and heart disease,” says Sally Fallon in The Oiling of North America. “The bad fats are the partially hydrogenated fats, the new vegetable oils and the animal fats that have been heated over and over again.”

From this side of the debate, “good” fats are the traditional ones, like butter, coconut oil and cold-pressed traditional oils—olive, flax and sesame. They have little processing, are rich in anti-oxidants and have been used for thousands of years in healing.

“Coconut oil has great qualities,” says Ramesh Bjonnes, director of Prama Wellness Center. “When eaten raw, it kills candida bacteria, combats inflammation, offers lots of good nutrients and is good for digestion.”

Ghee from grass fed, organic dairy is another traditional favorite according to Marion Hearth, founder of Goddess Ghee just outside of Asheville. “It doesn’t go rancid when heated, is high in vitamin A, D, K and E, and is easy to digest. It also reduces inflammation, lowers cholesterol and high blood pressure, and actually lowers body fat.”

So, which oil is best? “Balance is pretty key,” concludes Lewis. “There is a lot of value to good, natural oils that don’t spoil, but we don’t do any of it in excess.”

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