You’ve probably heard that some oils are healthy and some others aren’t…but why? What exactly does that mean?

Due to the sheer amount of contradictory statements online about the health benefits vs. dangers of oils and fats, certified nutritionist Tanja Guigon-Rech takes some time to talk us through the facts.

Oil could turn carcinogenic!

Firstly, what does the word carcinogenic mean? It means that the food you eat contains more toxins or free radicals than recommended. An abundance of free radicals can alter cells and turn them carcinogenic. So, that’s pretty much a bad thing!

So, how do we determine whether or not oil is carcinogenic?

Oils have a very fragile chemical structure and some oils change their chemical setup under heat. Certain oils are more heat sensitive than others and those with a low heat resistance turn carcinogenic with small changes in temperature. That’s not good news for Hong Kong, as it’s generally pretty hot here. For example, flax seed oil is extremely healthy when it’s unrefined and cold pressed. However, it needs to be stored in the fridge and it can actually begin to develop free radicals at room temperature.

Image titlePhoto credit: Mattie Hagedorn

Another great example is margarine. The ideal component for many “healthy, low fat diets” is known to be full of free radicals! Think about it. What is margarine made of? Vegetable oil! Is vegetable oil solid in room temperature? No. So why is margarine? The answer is simple. The chemical structure of the oil has been altered and now contains free radicals. It is a well-known fact in the health industry but unfortunately the food industry is making too much money with margarine to stop all of the unhealthy products out there. There may be a few brands on the market that are better than others but our general rule of thumb is: stay away from margarine.

The more heat stable an oil is, the better it is for cooking or baking. That doesn’t mean that you should omit all of these healthy, yummy, more heat sensitive oils. It just means that you should add them to your salads rather than using them when you are cooking, frying or baking.

Let’s look at a general overview:

Oils with a lower smoking point:

  • Flax seed oil
  • Cold-pressed walnut oil
  • Olive oil (most olive oil varieties have a medium stable heat resistance)

Oils with a more stable smoking point:

  • Coconut oil
  • Butter
  • Avocado oil
  • High-quality refined sunflower oil

Note that this is only a short overview to give you a better understanding. There are many other oils and different smoking points to mention.

Image titlePhoto credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The important point to remember is: only use oils of high-quality with a high smoking point for frying or baking.

If you like to add olive oil to your soup, how about waiting until you’ve cooked it and simply drizzling it over the soup?

What should you do now?

You may want to ensure you have 3 different oils in your cupboard; coconut oil for high heat or raw treats, olive oil for salad or drizzling flavour on top of your food and a high-quality refined vegetable oil for high heat cooking. You can use butter or ghee for baking or frying sometimes as well. This will ensure a good mix of oils and produce a meal free of toxins (at least the toxins that may come from oils).

Why should you have a mix of oils and not just use butter or coconut oil for everything?

Simple! In nutrition, the secret is that there is no secret! If we eat one sided, we may be overly exposed to certain ingredients and lack others. If you just stick to coconut oil or butter, you are possibly missing oils with different fatty acids and heath benefits and are overly exposed to saturated fats. Therefore, you may want to look into a healthy balance of different oils and then you can enjoy your oils and fats in variation!

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Photo credit: Rob K.

What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats?

We follow a simple rule of thumb to differentiate saturated from non saturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats mean that the bonds are filled with hydrogen molecules, whereas unsaturated fats have double bonds and don’t contain hydrogen molecules.

Unless you have pre-existing heath conditions, you can eat a balanced diet of different fats and oils – saturated as well as unsaturated. If you eat too much of one, you will be overly exposed to one certain fat, which eventually leads to an imbalance and possible health problems. Too much unsaturated fat may lead to an imbalance in your omega 3-6 fatty acids, which in turn makes you prone to inflammation or other diseases. Too much saturated fat is said to increase the cholesterol level (which is not the whole truth about cholesterol but it’s certainly not recommended to rely on saturated fats exclusively).

Coconut oil for example, contains mostly saturated fats. However, it also provides many health benefits and it may even positively influence the structure of your bad cholesterol. As long as you don’t over consume coconut oil, don’t be scared to use it.

Olive oil is said to lower cholesterol levels and act as an anti-inflammatory. It contains more unsaturated fatty acids than saturated fats.

What is the lesson here?

Don’t be scared to eat oils and fats but try to ensure a healthy mix with your oil intake! To function properly we need fats – saturated as well as unsaturated! Enjoy a balanced diet and your daily fat intake! 

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