On the Subject of Fats: Cooking Oils

By: Matthew McKenzie

Alright, so here’s the short version, guys (if you can believe it, this wall of text really is a VERY truncated version). There are dozens and dozens of cooking oils out there, and entire wall of them at every grocery store. So which oil is the good-for-you oil? None of them. Not a single one. Now, don’t take me wrong here; I’m not saying “never use oil because it’s bad for you.” What I’m saying is that despite what broscience, pinterest or your yoga teacher have to say on the subject, there is no such thing as an oil that could be unironically classified as a health food.

All cooking oils are simply refined fats. They’ve had all of the fiber and most of the nutrients removed, resulting in a pure oil that’s about as calorically dense as it’s currently possible to make a food. +/- a calorie or two, all common cooking oils have 120 calories per Tbsp. So let’s assume you are very careful and only add 1 Tbsp. of oil to your food when you cook it. What’s happened is that you’ve added 120 calories to your intake, but nothing else. You haven’t added any fiber, minerals or vitamins. Has the addition of those 120 calories put any more bulk in your stomach or somehow increased your satiety (the amount of time you feel full after eating)? Nope. In short, you gain nothing from oil except for extra calories.

“But I heard that [oil X] has [fringe benefit]!”
Yeah. Here’s the thing about that. The US government recognizes 4 classifications of health food claim. A grade A claim is what we’d love all health claims to be, proven science that the vast majority of the scientific community agrees on as fact. After that, though, the graded claims get less proven. Grades B-D range from there being evidence to suggest that the health claim is true, but proper testing is currently incomplete all the way down to “we ran simulation after simulation ten thousand times and selected the one time that our desired result came up to present as evidence that it’s not outside the realm of physical possibility that our health claim is true.” I’m not exaggerating.

The reason I bring this up is because while the health claims themselves are graded based on having met a certain burden of proof, there is currently no mechanism in place to inform the consumer as to what level their health claim is. That means that on product packaging, there’s no difference between a grade A claim and a grade D claim; they’re all presented to you as fact. A really good and relevant example of this is the “good fats” claim that mono-unsaturated fats are heart-healthy and reduce your chance of heart disease. The average consumer reads “a heart-healthy fat” and “can help reduce heart disease” on the packaging and decides that this is a health food. “I’m doing something good for myself. This stuff’s good for my heart, so I can eat two bags of this instead of one.” But the problem is that while there’s evidence to back up the claim made on the packaging, it’s presented in a manner that’s extremely misleading. Mono-unsaturated fats do very little to help reduce heart disease. But saturated fats contribute a lot towards heart disease, so the studies have shown that a diet that makes use of mono-unsaturated fat *IN PLACE OF SATURATED AND TRANS FATS* can help reduce your chances of heart disease. See how that works?

Never believe anything printed on the front of the packaging. Assume everything that’s not in the ingredient list or the nutritional information block is lies, because the overwhelming likelihood is that it is, or that it’s heavily misleading at best.

The reason I mention all of that is because if you’ve heard some health claim about a type of oil, it’s very likely a grade D claim at best. We all assume olive oil is a health food. Why? Because it has a lower percentage of saturated fat than unsaturated. But it’s still 100% fat, 120 calories for no measurable positive benefit. Is it a health*IER* choice of fat than, say, palm oil? Yes it is, assuming you’re trying to avoid saturated fat. Does that make it a health food? No, it does not.

As I close this up, I think coconut oil deserves special mention because it’s so remarkably popular these days. All the hype that surrounds coconut oil these days? It was the same with olive oil 15 years ago. And vegetable shortening before that. If you can believe it, coconut oil has the highest percentage of saturated fat of any oil you’re gonna find on the shelf. A whopping 90% of it is saturated fat. The broscience experts will point out that is has medium-chain triglycerides and lauric acid, which taken together help offset the percentage of saturated fat. And to a point (a much lower point than they likely believe), this is true. But even taking that into consideration and ignoring a reasonable portion of the saturated fat because it evens out with the potential benefits, coconut oil still has a higher percentage of saturated fat than lard. LARD! To say that coconut oil is good for you because it has these beneficial compounds while ignoring the hefty amount of saturated fat it contains is a little bit like saying that the application of fire is good for your skin because it removes harmful bacteria (a good example of a grade D claim, actually).

So many people out there seem to be looking for some magic bullet in the foods they eat, most especially in fats. Honestly, in my estimation we all ought to stop looking for that magical version of a thing that’s somehow healthier than normal and just eat right and in moderation to begin with. Even if coconut oil worked as advertised, it’s still refined fat, which as I mentioned above, always has a calorie content right at 120 calories per Tbsp. and a shitload of saturated fat. It’s fine to cherry pick your oil based on what ratio of fat type you think is best for your particular goal (hint: it’s almost always canola/rapeseed oil), but at the end of the day, it’s still 120 kcal/Tbsp that adds only those calories and adds no fiber, no satiety and no extra mass to your food. Coconut oil is just the latest in the horrible “superfood” craze. It is not a health food. In the grand scheme of things, it rarely matters as much whether you choose olive oil or peanut oil as it does that you add minimal oil to your food.

The point I’m making is not that oil is going to kill us all or that it’s poison and should be avoided at all costs. I work for Whole Foods, I hear that shit day in and day out from some of our less-stable customers. What I’m trying to get across here is that you should never allow yourself to think of oil as a health food in any way. Just like everything else, there are health*IER* choices in oil, depending on your particular goals, but in a perfect world, you’ll ignore all the claims about this oil having omega-3 and that oil being better for your heart and base your choice of oil on flavor and its breakdown of saturated to unsaturated fat based on your particular goals, always keeping in mind the fact that at the end of the day, oil is oil and should never be confused for a healthy food.

-Chart stolen shamelessly from http://www.nutristrategy.com: