Fat is a very misunderstood component of a healthy diet. Up until recently the food industry, and the majority of nutritionists, have championed a low fat diet and it hasn’t worked out. As a nation, the United States has been growing in the categories of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and for the first time in decades the life expectancy has seen a slight decrease. Take a step back and look at the dominoes that had to fall to create this public health crisis. When the food giants began processing their products to lower the fat content and market them as low-fat, they had to add some kind of filler to take its place. Most often this filler was the S-word… sugar. Now if you are on the paleo diet I think it’s safe to say that you understand the importance of fat in a healthy diet and are aware of the differences between dietary fat and adipose tissue. As the high fat diet gains traction around the world (in 2013 Sweden adopted national guidelines that promote a high fat/low carb diet) it’s important to know that not all fats are created equal.
There are basically 3 types of fat found in the foods we eat: Saturated, Monounsaturated, and Polyunsaturated. The chemical structure of the different types of fat provide us insight on the stability of each, and how they should best be used in the kitchen. Saturated fats (i.e., animal fat, coconut oil) are the most stable because all available carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen atoms, meaning it is safe for high heat cooking. Monounsaturated fats (i.e., olive oil, avocado oil) are comprised of a single double bond and are more fragile when exposed to heat. These oils are liquid at room temperature so they are perfect in raw dishes, salad dressings, or a light saute. With every story there has to be a bad guy, in our it is polyunsaturated fats (i.e., corn oil, canola oil), these fats are comprised of more than one double bond and should be avoided, for the most part. Polyunsaturated fats from grains are terribly unbalanced in terms of their omega 3 to omega 6 ratio resulting in widespread inflammation, high blood pressure, lowered immune functions, and less than ideal brain development. Another thing to keep in mind is the smoking point of the oil you are using, the higher the smoking point the higher temperatures the oil can handle without degrading and releasing free radicals, which is the opposite of what your healthy lifestyle is aiming to achieve.
Knowing all this information is handy, and it’s just scratching the surface of the nutritional science behind oils. But knowing how the chemical bonds are bonded doesn’t mean much in our daily routine until you know how to apply this information while you’re in the kitchen. So here is a breakdown of some of the most popular paleo cooking oils including what they are good for.
Coconut Oil is one of the most widely used cooking oils among paleo dieters. It is derived from the meat of a mature coconut. When shopping for a quality coconut oil, you’ll come across two kinds, refined and unrefined. Refined coconut oil is more processed than its unrefined counterpart, and the taste of coconut has been removed by the manufacturer. In the true spirit of paleo, processed foods are avoided so stick with the unrefined pure coconut oil. Coconut oil is mainly comprised of saturated fat, so it has a smoke point around 350oF which makes it great for sauteing, but it can also be used in baking, light frying, or any other medium to high temperature cooking application.
Olive Oil is another common staple among healthy eaters almost regardless of any other dietary preference. The oil is the byproduct of olives that have been pressed under immense pressure. Like coconut oil, it can be found in refined and unrefined types, and you’ll want to stick with the unrefined extra virgin olive oil for the purest version. Olive oil is predominantly comprised of monounsaturated fats, so it’s okay for a light saute’, but avoid high heat cooking because it has a relatively low smoking point and there are better options (avocado oil, animal fat) for those situations. Olive oil makes a great salad dressing or can be drizzled over raw dishes to provide a deeper element of flavor.
Avocado Oil is somewhat new to the spotlight and it’s gaining a lot of traction with the health conscious crowd. The oil is pressed from the fleshy portion of the avocado surrounding the pit. Avocado oil has an unusually high smoking point (between 400-500oF), so despite the fact that monounsaturated fats make up the majority of its fats, it is an excellent option for frying and roasting. It also has a great flavor so feel free to use it in salad dressings or to drizzle over dishes from time to time.
Nut Oil comes in a variety of options, but the one you’ll most likely come across on a supermarket shelf are almond oil, walnut oil, and macadamia oil. If you are under the impression peanut’s are nuts, I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but they are technically legumes and are a major cause of inflammation so steer clear of peanut oil. Each different nut has a different smoke point and a different nutritional breakdown, but typically they should be used the same way as olive oil.
Animal Fat is the most paleolithic option for cooking, and arguably the most tasty. If you are old school or a homesteader you may be familiar with rendering your own animal fat, but this is a time consuming process in which you cook the fat at a low temperature until the fat melts. If you’re in more of a hurry, you can usually find beef tallow, lard, or duck fat from specialty retailers. Animal fat consists of saturated fat and most have a smoke point around 400oF, making them a safe and delicious choice for frying or other high heat cooking options.
Ghee is butter with the milk solids (lactose, casein) removed through a process of heating and filtering. Like animal fat, it can be made at home or found in stores or online. Ghee has a nutty flavor and is a delicious alternative anywhere a recipe calls for butter. It’s largely comprised of saturated fats and has a smoking point around 485oF so it is safe for high heat.
By no means is this a exhaustive list of all the cooking oils and fats out there. Unlike our paleolithic ancestors we have a plethora of options to choose from and we have to contend with artificiality in our foods. So in the spirit of paleo and healthy eating always look for the purest and most unprocessed version of whichever cooking oil you choose.