In the last few days I have had literally hundreds of questions around this topic, either via email, or through social media etc. The question is ‘what type of cooking oil should I use? What is a healthy cooking oil? There seems such conflicting advice around, that I wanted to add my two pennies worth to the debate.
When it comes to cooking oils, I only use 2. They are olive oil, and coconut oil! The reason that I use these two is that I am greatly concerned about the very serious issue of fatty acid balance, and the influence this has upon long term health. So, this is where I will start, so as to put the whole subject into perspective.
Fatty acid balance
Essential fatty acids are a group of fats that are biologically active and absolutely vital to our health and the health of every single cell in the body. They are called essential because we have to get them from our diet. Our body cannot manufacture them. There are 2 essential fatty acids – Omega 3 and Omega 6. You may have heard of omega 9 too, but the body can actually convert omega 6 into omega 9, so its essentiality is a much lesser concern. These fatty acids play such a vast and varied role in Human physiology that it is really rather mind blowing.
All great so far. The thing is, our intake of these fatty acids cannot just be willy nilly. We need to get some balance, and I strongly urge anyone reading this to become acutely aware of how to achieve omega balance. The reason for needing balance? If we consume too much of one of them, then we can unleash a whole world of problems upon our physiology. The one that I am talking about is Omega 6. This group of essential fatty acid IS vital to the body. Omega 6 fatty acids are used for normal brain function, growth, and development. However, we only need a very VERY small amount of these per day in order to achieve their physiological goals. The good thing is that omega 6 is so ubiquitous in foods, you will only be deficient if you become a breatharian!
When we consume both omega 3 and omega 6, they go through a series of metabolic pathways. These are streams of chemical reactions that alter them and transform them into end products that play various roles in physiology. When we consume our required amount of omega 6, it is converted into several important substances that do their jobs nice and quietly. The problem arises however when we consume too much omega 6. Once we consume more than we need, omega 6 gets shuttled down a slightly different metabolic pathway and begins to form something called a series 2 prostaglandin. This active compound actually switches on and exacerbates inflammation. Here is the final lightening bolt. here in the UK we are consuming on average TWENTY THREE TIMES MORE omega six than we need PER DAY!!! This means that the average person following a typical UK diet will be putting themselves in a position where they are in a state of chronic (ongoing, long term) sub-clinical (ie not immediately obvious, only revealed by blood tests) inflammation within tissues. Why is this a problem? Well, low grade chronic inflammation is linked to many of the chronic diseases that plague us in the West. Heart disease for example is essentially caused by inflammation. Inflammation of the endothelium (inner skin of blood vessel) is the first thing that occurs.. The body then responds to this and attempts to repair it. This is when substances like cholesterol etc get caught up in it and plaques begin to form in the arteries. Inflammation of the endothelium also makes the vessels less responsive to natural variations in blood flow, contributing to elevated blood pressure. Chronic low grade inflammation is also an important factor in the aetiology of cancer. Ongoing inflammation in a tissue can activate certain genes and affect the natural cycle of cell replication. So being in this state is serious. You wont be aware of it as it is a slow burner that gives no sign.
So, how on Earth did we get into this mess in the first place. Well, it was the mid 70’s onwards that the message about our diet and what constituted a healthy diet changed drastically. Massive public health campaigns persuaded us that saturated fat was the Devil and was the thing in our diet that would ensure an early grave. We were instead encouraged to opt for ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils and margarines. We were all cooking with sunflower oil and slathering our toast with margarine like it was going out of fashion. Food manufacturers, wanting to appear like the good samaritans, heeded these campaigns too, and started using ‘healthy’ vegetable oil in their foods. And there we have it. Suddenly our intake of vegetable oils was way beyond anything that would have ever occurred in our natural diet. Bang….the fatty acid balance took a nose dive.
This is why I only use olive oil and coconut oil. Olive oil contains 63% of its fatty acids as Oleic acid aka Omega 9 (which has no effect upon the omega 3/omega 6 balance), 13.8% as saturated fat, and the remainder being ALA (plant form of omega 3) and a small amount of omega 6. Coconut oil on the other hand, is purely a saturated fat, so contains no polyunsaturated fatty acids whatsoever. Its main fatty acids are the saturated variety such as lauric acid and caprylic acid. That is why I use these two…they have virtually zero bearing upon fatty acid balance.
What I strive for every day is to consume more omega 3 than omega 6. Omega three can almost be considered as the antidote to omega 6. When omega 3 is metabolised, it forms two prostaglandins – series 1 and series 3, both of which are powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. Omega 3 fatty acids also give rise to a newly discovered group of compounds called resolvins, which actively turn down current, active inflammation. To read more about dietary omega 3, click here: http://www.dalepinnock.com/news-posts/understanding-dietary-omega-3/
So, when faced with a choice of what oil to use, I would personally say that olive oil for most of your every day stove top cooking, and coconut oil for higher temperature stuf (and the most epic roast potatoes ever!!).