There are so many mixed messages in the media about healthy eating and one of the most confusing topics is fat. I’m going to be discussing the most healthful fats and oils to use in cooking and food preparation.

Why do we need fat?

Fat is an essential part of the diet. It serves numerous functions and is a vital part of our cells. Our brains are made from about 60% fat and fat and cholesterol are essential components of the myelin sheaths, an insulating layer surrounding part of the nerve cells in the brain that send and receive messages to the brain and the nervous system. Fat also cushions vital organs, lubricates joints, allows absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and is essential for sex hormone production.

Different Fats

Most people have heard of polyunsaturated (omega 6 and omega 3), monounsaturated and saturated fats and despite bad press regarding saturated fat, we need all types in the diet. Within these types of fats there are numerous other sub-groups with their own properties such as lauric acid in coconut oil and oleic acid in olive oil. Most foods that contain fat usually contain more than one kind. For example, beef contains almost equal amounts of monounsaturated and saturated fat as well as some polyunsaturated fat. The only ‘bad’ fat that the body does not need is trans fat or hydrogenated fat found in fried foods, processed foods, biscuits, cakes and margarines.

Which type is best for cooking?

This can be explained with a bit of chemistry. Saturated fats are called this because they are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen. Every carbon atom in this fat is attached to a hydrogen atom. This makes the fat ‘stable’ and solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats (such as polyunsaturated) have fewer hydrogen atoms so some of the carbon atoms have to pair up with a neighbour to form a ‘double bond’. If a fat has just one double bond it is a ‘monounsaturated’ fat. If a fat has more than one double bond it is a ‘polyunsaturated’ fat. Because of these double bonds the fats are more ‘unstable’ and are liquid at room temperature. Because they are unstable these fats can go rancid (oxidized) easily. These fats are easily damaged by heat and can produce harmful compounds and free radicals in the body that can lead to disease such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.

The safest oils to cook with

Although there’s no denying that ‘vegetable oils’ like sunflower and rapeseed produce crispy roast potatoes, chips and crisps, these are oils that you do not want to consume heated. For cooking at high temperatures when making your own chips or roast potatoes, a high saturated fat content should be used. For example: beef fat, lamb fat, lard, duck/goose fat, clarified butter (ghee) or coconut oil. It is safe to cook with extra virgin olive oil because the antioxidants in the oil protect it from damage.

Cooking on low heat

When cooking at a lower temperature, some fats with a lower percentage of saturates can be used, for example, extra virgin olive oil, but I also suggest coconut oil, pure butter or ghee.

Oils for baking

For baking cakes, biscuits, pastry etc. only use butter or lard. If a cake recipe lists margarine in the ingredients use softened butter instead. Margarine, such as Stork, contains vegetable oils, flavourings and emulsifiers. These vegetable oils will have been hydrogenated, changing them to a trans fat which is harmful to health.

Oils for other culinary uses

Your liquid oils should be enjoyed cold (room temperature) drizzled on salads, vegetables or soups etc. Olive oil contains oleic acid (also found in beef), which has been linked to many health benefits so this is an excellent choice for dressings. Olive oil also contains vitamins E and K. Store liquid oils in a cupboard away from light and heat, not next to the hob. Nut oils can also make good salad dressings, as can avocado oil.

Fats and oils as spreads

The most healthful ‘spread’ is pure grass-fed (from cows grazed on pastures) butter, such as Kerrygold block butter or a local farm butter. Pure butter can be stored in a butter dish on your counter at room temperature for several weeks and will spread easily like this. Butter naturally contains many vitamins and minerals. Margarine or ‘spreadable’ butters are made with vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated and should be avoided.  There are many dairy-free options on the market but I would advise you to look very carefully at the ingredients list and avoid corn oil and sunflower oil. Instead I would recommend natural alternatives such as fresh avocado, drizzled olive oil, crushed ripe tomatoes or softly cooked squash.

I hope this article has shed some light onto the subject of cooking with fats and oils. If you enjoyed this article please share it via the social media buttons below or follow me on my Facebook page. Please feel free to email me with any questions.

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