Deconstructing Oils for Your Health

Oils have a huge importance in health. Depending on the oils you use, oils can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

Oils are fats. They’re neutral, nonpolar chemical substances that at ambient temperatures are viscous liquids. They are both hydrophobic (“water fearing”) and lipophilic (“fat loving”). Oils are essential for cooking and baking, and are found on the ingredient lists of foods that you buy.

As Chris mentions in this post on fat, not all fat is bad for your health. “Good fats” are essential and oils can be some of the best ways to get these kinds of fats in your diet.

However, the wrong types of oil (or fat) can contribute to obesity, chronic disease, and overall inflammation (a major culprit in Alzheimer’s, cancer, and autoimmune disease).

People often wonder what type of fat is best to cook with. Unfortunately, a great deal of what people have been told on this subject is wrong. We are here to help you break down these oils and provide you with necessary information to make the right decision on choosing the oil that is best for you health.

A quick segway before we begin. We’ll be talking about the different fat categories, namely saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These names relate to the chemical structure of the fats: saturated fat has no double bonds, monounsaturated fat has 1 double bond (hence the “mono”, and polyunsaturated fat has multiple double bonds). Within these classes, there are multiple specific fatty acids (as you’ll see below).

One thing to note, saturated fat is not bad for you. That’s its own post, coming soon, but take our word for it.

You also have likely heard of omega-3 fatty acids and their super-healthy qualities. Omega 3 fatty acids are a kind of unsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids with three double bonds at particular positions in the hydrocarbon chain. Whereas the Omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids whose carbon chain has its first double bond six carbons from the beginning.

Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important in multiple biological processes such as brain development, blood clotting, and immune function. A study that just came out this summer found that Omega-3 fatty acids lowered the risk of fatal heart disease in a large international cohort of healthy individual.

The western diet is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids while also containing excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids – which is basically a recipe for disaster. The excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids and a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, inflammatory, autoimmune disease, and depression. Oils high in omega-6 fatty acids also lead to increased fat tissue generation, contributing to the increase in obesity.

As I will describe below, it is incredibly important to pay attention to the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio in your diet. Oils prevalent in the Western diet (as I will describe further) have a higher omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio, leading to the increased risk of disease.

The big take home here is this: Avoid omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and eat plenty of saturated, monounsaturated, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats – from good sources.

Here is the Oil break down:

Olive Oil is obtained from the olive, grown from a traditional tree in the Mediterranean basin. This oil has been used for thousands of years and goes back to ancient times. As my personal favorite (being of Mediterranean descent myself) it is extremely healthy for you.

Fat Facts:

13% saturated fat

75% Oleic Acid

10% Omega-6

2% Omega-3

The majority of olive oil contains oleic acid, a stable monounsaturated fat. Olive oil is predominant in Mediterranean cuisine, a diet full of good fats consisting mostly of these monosaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are amazing for cardiovascular health because they increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) aka “good-cholesterol”, which prevents both atherosclerosis and strokes. Olive oil also contains antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, essential vitamins, and has been shown to prevent cancer. A recent scientific review also describes oleic acid’s health benefits in immunomodulation, cardiovascular disease prevention, wound-repair (important in autoimmune disease, skin and lung disease), and in preventing inflammatory conditions.

Recommendation: I am biased, but I love Olive Oil. It contains essential fats that are beneficial for your health. No need to worry about using this beautiful oil in your diet! Chris and I were lucky enough to visit an olive oil sommelier: an expert in producing olive oil in Abruzzo, Italy. You can find Francesca’s website here. With our visit to Francesca’s restored Olive oil museum, she shared with us essential and useful facts for picking healthy, high quality olive oil:

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the purest with a maximum of 0.8% free acidity, which refers to the amount of free oleic acid in the oil.
  • Forget about the color of the oil. Fake olive oils can be dyed green to appear real. The best test for choosing the right oil is to use your sense by smelling and tasting it. The olive oil should smell fresh and “green” like grass or as we referenced like a garden.
  • The olive oil also should taste “green” as well and be bitter or peppery in taste. I am not an expert, but to experience the correct smell and tastes of real, fresh olive oil, I recommend attending an olive oil tasting. Both Chris and I did this with Francesca, and we definitely could tell how striking the senses are of healthy, high quality olive oil!
  • Buying from smaller producers also ensures higher quality olive oil with proper certifications, along with fresh processing of the oil.
  • Dates are important as well. Olive oil lasts for 18 months after harvest, anything after that has lost its quality and beneficial properties.
  • Amber bottles are also important for storage of the oil because olive oil will go rancid if exposed to light.

Quick Note: Yes, olive oil contains more omega-6 than omega-3, but it’s the absolute amount that matters. Omega-6 only makes up 10% of the fat content in olive oil, much less than many of the oils you’ll see below

Canola Oil is derived from the rape seed, which contains erucic acid. Erucic acid has been shown to damage cardiac muscle and results in fibrosis of the heart (Yikes! Right?). Not only does canola oil contain this harmful acid, over 90% of canola oil is genetically modified. This oil has been shown to retard normal growth (controversy exists about whether it should be in infant formula or not due to retardation of normal development of infants). Canola oil has also been shown to deplete Vitamin E and contains high sulfur content that exacerbates allergies and asthma. It also becomes moldy quickly and goes rancid fast! When it becomes rancid, it is extremely toxic and has been the culprit of deaths due to its toxicity. Have I convinced you yet to not want to use this oil? Another fact is that canola oil undergoes hydrogenation, leading to the production of trans fatty acids. Basically taking out all the good Omega-3 fats and transforming them into health-hazardous trans fats wreaking havoc on your body.

Fat Facts:

5% of saturated fat

57% Oleic Acid

23% Omega-6

10-15% Omega-3

*The Omega-6 fat content is higher, meaning this oil is bad for you, even with the oleic acid present.

Recommendation: This oil is a NO NO! Do not use it! Please avoid at all costs! Salad dressings sneak this oil into their ingredients. Always make sure you check your ingredient labels to see if they contain this oil. Restaurants use canola oil frequently, and canola oils is popular at Whole Food’s takeout food, and it is prevalent in baked goods. I have even seen it in “health grocery store/vegan” baked goods. The reason it is used so widely is because it is cheap and stable.  But this oil is a major culprit of the obesity epidemic, cardiovascular disease risk, cancer, and inflammation.

Soybean Oil is extracted from the seeds of the soybean. It is one of the most widely consumed cooking oils and is prevalent in processed foods. A majority of the soybean oil in the US is from “Roundup Ready” soybeans (genetically modified). “Roundup Ready” means that the soybeans are modified to tolerate glyphosate, a strong pesticide that kills everything else surrounding the soybeans, but allows the soybeans to survive. The World Health Organization declared glyphosate a carcinogen and controversy surrounds it as a possible neurotoxin. Soybean oil, like canola oil, undergoes hydrogenation, converting good fats into trans fats that again wreak havoc on our body. Soybean oil is one of the worst oils to eat, but once again has been encouraged in the US because it is cheap and is “home grown” from crops in the US. Funny that local can be bad for us right? Soybean Oil also contains a high content of Omega-6 fats.

Fat Facts:

10% of saturated fat

Over 50% Omega-6

Minimal amounts Omega-3

Recommendation: Again, this oil is incredibly unhealthy as mentioned above! It is safest to not use this oil to avoid health consequences.

Corn Oil is oil extracted from the germ of corn. It is used as a frying oil and a key ingredient in margarines. Again, corn oil is cheap and less expensive than other types of vegetable oils (home-grown in the US). Corn oil has a high content of Omega-6 fatty acids and requires an incredible amount of chemical processing to extract from corn kernels. Those chemicals make it into the oil used in food.

Fat Facts:

9% of saturated fat

98% Omega-6

Minimal amounts Omega-3

Recommendation: I do not recommend this oil, similar to reasons I do not recommend canola oil. This oil is again used so widely is because it is cheap. The high Omega-6 fatty acids increase the risk of heart disease and other inflammatory conditions as mentioned above. It is best to not use this oil and to check labels to ensure it is not in anything you are eating.

Coconut oil is an example of a tropical oil. It is extracted from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm. It is incredibly stable and can be kept at room temperature. This oil is resistant to rancidification. A recent study assessed coconut oil’s effect on cardiovascular disease risk and found that coconut oil results in a reduction of risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Another study also demonstrated that coconut oil results in increased production of brain antioxidants and decreased serum cholesterol, triglyceride, glucose, and corticosterone levels. All of these are incredibly important in managing heart disease risk, insulin resistance, and also in involved in anti-stress regulation aka important as an anti-depressant agent.

Fat Facts:

91% of saturated fat

6% Oleic Acid

Recommendation: I absolutely love Coconut Oil. It contains essential fats that are beneficial for your health. My overall message to you is buy this oil immediately and start using it!!! It is amazing, trust me! Coconut oil is great for a variety of cooking uses such as baking, frying, etc. Chris and I always have a huge tub of this oil in our kitchen to cook and bake with. Make sure you buy organic, virgin coconut oil that has been minimally processed.

Avocado Oil is derived from the fruit of the avocado. Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated oleic fats and Vitamin E. It can be used in various cooking methods and even in frying due to its high smoke point at up to 520 degrees Fahrenheit. Avocado oil is similar to olive oil due to its properties (containing mostly monounsaturated oleic fats), health benefits, and due to its “green color” from avocado’s chlorophyll content. Avocado oil contains plentiful antioxidants (such as carotenoids) and essential good fats, contributing to decreasing the risk of heart disease, preventing metabolic syndrome, cancer, and aging, along with preventing autoimmune disease flare ups.

Recommendation: Avocado oil is another good choice that we definitely recommend!

Take Home Message:

  • Avoid the following vegetable oils: Canola, Soybean, and Corn. They have higher Omega 6 to 3  ratios, are pro-inflammatory, possibly carcinogenic, affect insulin signaling, fat deposition, and contain compounds that may be toxic (due to the need for chemical extraction).
  • Olive Oil is an ideal oil choice, but make sure you are buying quality olive oil as described above! It contains essential fats, prevents heart disease and cancer!
  • Tropical Oils such as Coconut Oil are a great choice. This oil contains high medium chain fatty acids aka known as saturated fats thought of as “bad fats”, but are actually incredibly beneficial fats. To boot coconut oil is incredibly easy to cook with due to its stability! Coconut oil is scientifically proven to contain anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, and various other health benefits due to the medium chain fatty acids. I also use this oil to manage my eczema and it works wonders.

Every body is different, and the way you respond to oil also varies. I am a strong believer in individual, genetic, personalized responses to oil (and to food). I am incredibly sensitive to oils and struggled since childhood with oils wreaking havoc on my gut (and exacerbating my eczema!). I honestly believe it is due to my Mediterranean ethnic background where high quality olive oil has been the main oil of consumption for centuries (especially in Abruzzo). As I mentioned before, olive oil’s main ingredient oleic acid has been scientifically proven to be beneficial in immune system modulation and wound-repair (important in skin autoimmune diseases such as eczema). Vegetable oils (besides Olive Oil) literally destroy my stomach and worsen my gut. I have to avoid them at all costs. Due to my own personal experience and sensitivity to oils, I really emphasize the importance of getting to know your body and understanding how important oils are in your diet.

Similar to my “hypothesized” Mediterranean sensitivity, pacific islanders suffer from chronic disease conditions and are more sensitive to obesity due to the change in consumption of cheap, imported, western oils that differ from their standard, ancestral diet (consuming mostly of coconuts aka tropical oils).

I hope this article provides you with useful information for making excellent oil choices for your health!

We would love to hear your own experiences with oil! Reach out to us, and if you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us!



About the Author

Sarah Ferrante, Ph.D.

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