Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Oil Should I Cook With?

Wow – this started out as a simple question, but I found several differences of opinion and a lot of confusing advice.  I’m not going to debate low-fat vs. high-fat diets here, as I’ve already decided to use The Wahls Protocol and The Rosedale Diet as guides during my year of getting strong, both of which are high in fat and low in grains, but not all carbs.  Here is an earlier post describing my choice.  In addition, in my reading about fat and cooking oil, I checked out the book The Abascal Way to Quiet Inflammation by Kathy Abascal, and websites of the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Andrew Weil and WebMD.

My bottom-line choices:  coconut oil (refined and unrefined), grass-fed butter, olive oil (cold-pressed next time), avocado oil and Stan's duck fat

Dr. Rosedale says the quality of the fat you eat is much more important than the quantity.  Kathy Abascal says fats are important in our bodies.  Every cell membrane is made of fat, as well as membranes around organelles within the cell, and the cell nucleus.   Most of us already know there are two kinds of fats our bodies cannot produce – omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.  For that reason, they are called “essential fatty acids” and we need to make a real effort in our present day diets to get a high enough ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s.

In paleo times, when people ate wild animals and fish along with leafy greens and berries, the ratio of omega-6s to 3s was about 2:1.  Today our ratio may be as high as 20:1.  Grains and seeds typically have more omega-6 than omega-3, and in addition to eating more grains and corn (a seed high in omega-6s) ourselves, we eat farmed fish and feedlot-raised animals that have been fed diets of grains.

I have some of the symptoms of a poor omega 6 to 3 ratio:  achy joints, cracked nails, dry skin, eczema, fatigue and forgetfulness.  To improve, I can cut back on grains and corn and eat more foods with a good ratio.  Kathy Abascal  recommends leafy greens and berries,  wild fish and grass-fed animals, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and hemp and flax seeds or oil.  Dr. Rosedale especially stresses the importance of fish and fish oil to turn on fat burning, nourish the brain, protect the heart and protect from inflammation and cancer.  Dr. Terry Wahls says “The brain is 60 to 70% fat.  We need healthy fats to make the myelin insulation for the wiring in your brain.”  She recommends wild fish, coconut oil, full-fat coconut milk and avocados.

So, back to the question, what are we to cook with??   

At the website of the Cleveland Clinic there is a list of oils by smoke point.  That is the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke and starts producing toxic fumes and harmful free radicals.  Usually the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point.  We want to use an oil that remains stable at the temperature it will be heated to for whatever we're cooking.  They make a point that it’s not a good idea to invest in a large variety of oils, as they go rancid fairly quickly.   Get a few, store them in a cool, dry place, and use them while still fresh.  Cleveland recommends olive oil for cooking and canola oil for baking because of its high smoke point and neutral flavor.  (Read on before shopping, however…)

Here’s what I have decided to use for myself:

Olive oil – This has been my go-to oil for many years, as soon as I started reading about health.  We buy extra-virgin olive oil in large bottles and store them in the pantry, with a smaller cool-looking bottle with a spout handy at the stove.  Olive oil is high in omega-9 fats, and doesn’t affect our omega-6 to 3 ratio.  Drs. Rosedale and Weil both recommend it for cooking.  According to an article on the Huffington Post blog, smoke points vary depending on the type of olive oil: Extra Virgin is 320°F, Virgin is 420°F, Pomace is 460°F, and Extra Light is 468°F.  (The article has a lot of info about oils, but it does not focus on the health aspects of each kind.)

Dr. Wahls, however, says “Never heat olive oil!”  Aarrrgh!  She says the best oils for cooking are the most stable – rendered animal fats like lard, tallow or chicken fat, or coconut oil if you must keep it vegetarian.  I have added a jar of coconut oil next to the olive oil by the stove, and I like the flavor it adds to my breakfast egg scramble.  However, realistically, Stan and I will probably continue to cook with olive oil too.  The bottle we have now is not cold-pressed, but I will look for that from now on, as heating the oil in processing is less healthy.

Rendered animal fat – I’m proud to say Stan is ahead of the curve on this one.  He cooks duck and saves the fat for future use.  I was surprised to read in our PCC Co-op newsletter that they not only have duck, cooked and uncooked, but they also sell duck fat.  They say it is a good source of beneficial fats and adds a “rich deep flavor that coats the palate”.  At the end of this post I’ll give you two delicious duck dishes that Stan makes.  A reward for wading through all this technical info!

Organic butter from grass-fed cows – I have read that one dairy item allowed in paleo diets is butter.  My enjoyment of butter has really diminished since I stopped eating toast, but it still adds a good flavor to vegetables, and sometimes my morning eggs.  Stan points out that Irish butter is made from happy grass-fed Irish cows.  (He's Irish.)

Coconut oil – mentioned by Dr. Wahls as the best vegetarian oil for cooking.  I have seen coconut oil and full-fat coconut milk recommended for smoothies, and even in coffee.  I noticed that Whole Foods brand of coconut oil comes in more than one level of refinement and has the temperature limit on the label.  I also noticed that Whole Foods has an article on their website about which oils should be used for various types of cooking.

Macadamia oil – I looked this up only because I have an unopened bottle in the pantry, purchased for some recipe I never got around to trying.  It wasn’t mentioned in my resources, but I found a post on Mark’s Daily Apple extolling the virtues of macadamia oil.  I know Mark is a proponent of the paleo lifestyle, so I’m inclined to trust his judgement about the oil.

Walnut, Avocado and Sesame oils – It sounds like these are fine to use for cooking, however, WebMD says I should have stored my walnut oil in the fridge, and I should throw it away now, as it’s older than 3 months.  Sesame oil is nice for cooking Asian stir-fries.  I've been using toasted sesame oil, and now I learn I should cook with untoasted oil and sprinkle on the toasted oil for flavor at the last minute.

Fish oil and Flax oil – Never cook with these!  They are quite unstable and must be kept refrigerated.  I talked about fish oil in my post on supplements, and I take 1 tablespoon daily.  Flax oil is also high in omega-3s.  I don’t care for the flavor, but I drizzle a little on a salad and then also drizzle on olive oil and the taste doesn’t come through.

Oils to avoid:

We all know to avoid trans fats, found in some margarine, most fast food and especially French fries cooked in reused oil.  What I didn’t realize is that when cooking oils in my own home are heated higher than their smoke point, trans fats can be created.  Cleveland Clinic also warns that cooking sprays may have trans fats even though the label says they don’t, as they may legally be rounded down to zero for a serving size of less than ½ gram.  I bought my spray oil at Whole Foods, and I see it is grapeseed oil, which Cleveland lists as good for high heat.  Spectrum brand now also has a spray of coconut oil that I may try next time.

Canola oil?? – this is a bit tricky as some sources recommend it, but Kathy Abascal warns against it.  Canola oil was originally called rapeseed oil, from the rape plant, and was poisonous due to containing erucic acid.  It was hybridized to remove most (not all) of the erucic acid, and renamed for marketing purposes.  (CANada low OLeic Acid).  It is used often in prepared foods, and is promoted by a strong lobby.  Dr. Wahls says when heated, the omega-3 fatty acids in canola oil break down and become useless to the body.  She also mentions most soybean, corn and canola oils are made from GMOs.  Dr. Andrew Weil, in answer to a question on his blog, says he uses it when he wants a neutral tasting oil, but only organic expeller-pressed canola oil.

Whew.  Thanks for reading all that.  Gotta say, I feel a bit jerked around about what to eat by health officials and the media over the course of my lifetime, having used margarine instead of butter, switched to vegetable oils, and tried to eat as little fat as possible at various times.  I think my Mom, who lived to 93, was right – she said eat everything in moderation.   (She also said, around age 80 or so, that she wouldn’t be buying organic - she needed those preservatives!)

Okay - Two Yummy Duck Recipes from Stan!

Magrets de Canard aux Poires – this one takes a bit of effort, but is very delicious and impressive looking.  I don't have a closeup of the plate but you can click on the photo to see it larger.

Stan with our son-in-law Ben, enjoying duck breast with poached pears

Easy Duck Confit – also very delicious, and I serve it with Charla’s Asian pear butter that she makes from the Asian pear trees in her yard.  You could also use apple butter or current jelly.  (The vegetable with it is Brussels sprouts and apple hash from KCTS9 Cooks.)


  1. Great information, Pam. You are so much the scientist in your approach. You make things clear and even provide links and citations. Very impressed, I am. And, I am learning, not only about food and health, but about blogging by reading your well organized site. I know I need to add to mine but haven't gotten that far yet. Bare bones blogging, that's what I should have called mine. Thanks for all the information and insight into your journey.

    1. Thanks Charla. It's definitely a work in progress. Now I really appreciate the effort that has gone into the more professional blogs I read, like your friend the Detoxinista.