A Happy, Healthy Family


Olive, Coconut, Grapeseed, Butter...Which Fat is Best?

Some people are devoted to coconut oil. For others, it's olive oil all the way. For yet others, good old-fashioned butter is best.

If you look at the oil section at the grocery store, you'll see many more choices--vegetable, canola, grapeseed, avocado, and sunflower, just to name a few.

Then, with each type of oil, you have to worry about whether it's organic, what extraction method was used, what the smoke point is. It all gets very confusing!

So which is best?? Well, it often depends on what you're making.

First, let's get some terminology straight.

Smoke Point
Smoke point is the point at which fats begin to break down. Smoke point matters because as soon as an oil starts smoking, the fat molecules start breaking down and a cancer-causing substance called acrolein develops. All fats have different smoke points, some much higher than others, so you need to be aware of which fats are best suited for high-heat cooking, which are best served raw, etc.

Extraction Method
Extraction method refers to the way oils are extracted from their original food sources (olives, seeds, nuts, etc.). Extraction method matters because there are certain techniques that use chemicals and high-heat that essentially contaminate the resulting product, making it very unhealthy for us. Unfortunately, the safer extraction methods also result in a more expensive oil, but it is probably worth it to go the safer route. Always look for the terms "cold-pressed" or "expeller-pressed" when buying oils, and if you can afford organic, choose that as well.

Now let's talk about some of the most common fats and their pros and cons.

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It's familiar, many people love the taste of it, and it's the go-to fat in many recipes. Some people even put it in their coffee. Obviously, if you're vegan or going dairy-free for other reasons, you're not using it, but what about everyone else? Butter is high in saturated fat (a mere tablespoon contains 36% of your daily limit of saturated fat) and cholesterol, both of which clog arteries and lead to heart disease. Butter is, however, savory and creamy and adds what most people consider a pleasant taste to baked goods as well as meats, fish, and vegetables. And, it's less processed than something like margarine, so it's not the worst choice you could make. Still, its saturated fat content is important to keep in mind.

Ghee is clarified butter that retains butter's classic taste and has a high smoke point but very little lactose, so lactose-intolerant people can often still eat it. It is still high in saturated fat, though, so use it sparingly.

Olive Oil
Olive oil is generally considered the "healthy" oil, and it is, in some cases. It is much lower in saturated fat than butter and high in monounsaturated fats, which are heart-healthy. Virgin and extra-virgin olive oils are less processed than standard olive oil and also contain heart-healthy antioxidants called polyphenols. What you need to be careful of, however, is the smoke point. Olive oils generally have a smoke point around 375 degrees Fahrenheit, with the less-refined (aka less-processed) olive oils sometimes smoking as low as 220 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, some researchers believe that olive oil is healthiest and best served raw--in salads dressings, on bread, etc. Depending on the temperature of your oven, you can bake with olive oil, and I use it often for breads and muffins.

Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is having a heyday--it's everywhere, from baked goods to health remedies. So what's the big deal? Like butter, it is very high in saturated fat, BUT it is a plant-based fat, so it is more natural than butter. Still, it is pure fat and most of that is saturated fat. However, unrefined, organic, virgin coconut oil does have some benefits, one of which is its ability to raise HDL (the good cholesterol). Coconut oil can also have a high smoke point, which makes it ideal for frying (although that is an unhealthy cooking method in general), and it performs well in baked goods. It does not do well served raw, as it is solid below 77 degrees Fahrenheit. I don't like the taste of butter, so I often turn to coconut oil when baking cookies and have been pleased with the results.

Avocado Oil
Avocado oil has a very high smoke point of 480-520 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why I have switched to it for roasting, stir-frying, and grilling. Cold-pressed, unrefined avocado oil also has very high levels of healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and lutein. However, because it is a fairly uncommon oil, it is expensive.

I have found avocado oil at the grocery store, but you can also get it here.

Grapeseed Oil
Grapeseed oil is becoming a popular alternative to olive oil because of its high smoke point, high levels of healthy fats and vitamin E, and neutral taste, but the issue to be wary of with this oil is its extraction method. Grapeseed oil is a by-product of wine making (tons of grape seeds are left over after the wine is made), but factories use high-heat and chemicals to extract the oil from the seeds, which creates a highly-processed food which sometimes even contains a toxic chemical called hexane. Most grapeseed oil is produced this way, so if you want to use it, look for a bottle that explicitly states "cold-pressed" or "expeller-pressed." If your bottle doesn't contain one of those terms, consider the oil unhealthy. 

Canola Oil
Canola oil has seen better days. Made from rapeseed, it is high in healthy fats and low in bad ones and, due to its high smoke point and the fact that it is plentiful and cheap, it is many people's go-to oil. The problem, though, is that around 80% of the canola plants in North America are now genetically engineered, which means that the oil is contaminated with chemicals (canola oil from Europe is made from non-engineered plants only). It also has an unpleasant smell that manufacturers remove with even more chemicals. Organic cold-pressed or expeller-pressed canola oil can have its place in the kitchen, but if it is not organic or European, beware.

Soybean Oil
Take a look at almost any processed food, from salad dressing to chips to cookies, and you will find soybean oil as an ingredient. If you buy "vegetable oil," it's usually just soybean oil. If you buy margarine, it's probably made with soybean oil. Soybean oil is high in healthy fats and has a neutral taste. The problem with it, however, is that 90% of the soy plants in the US are genetically engineered and laced with pesticides. Like canola oil, the extraction process includes deodorization, bleaching, and tons of chemicals. It's cheap, but it's not worth it.

A Side Note on How to Store Oils
Oils don't have to be refrigerated, but you should store them in a cool, dark place, not next to the stove, where heat can damage them. Always choose oils packaged in dark glass; if they are in plastic and/or clear glass, they will go rancid sooner, and the cheaper packaging may indicate an inferior product (there are some cheap olive oils that are actually mixed with soybean oil).

Bottom Line
Any fat, whether it's non-organic butter from the grocery store or the most expensive organic, cold-pressed olive oil you can find, should be used sparingly. Fats are incredibly calorie-dense, so your food shouldn't be swimming in them. Furthermore, pay attention to the quality of the oil or butter you're buying--go as unprocessed as possible. Look for cold-pressed oils and words organic, virgin, or unrefined. When it comes to oils, it is worth paying more for a quality product--cheap usually means unhealthy or dangerous, in this case. Also, don't stick to just one type of fat--different oils have different uses. Finally, it's always good to explore ways to create your favorite foods with less fat. Sometimes it just means adjusting the herbs to replace the butter or oil flavor with something a little more healthy or spreading hummus on your bread instead of butter. Be creative and challenge yourself--being healthy doesn't have to be boring!

Learn More
To read about more types of oil and compare their nutritional benefits on a chart, click here.

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