Do you know what the healthiest cooking oil is? Most people say “olive oil”. Some even say “grapeseed” or “canola”. Science now shows that all those answers are wrong.
As a traditionally-trained physician who practices nutritional medicine, I’ve reviewed the studies and strongly believe that most people need an oil change! I’ll give you important facts about the disastrous fat-free fad; show you how many chronic health problems result from bad oil choices; describe how people make good oil into bad with improper handling; explain smoke point and help straighten out some common misunderstandings about canola and flax oils – a sneak peek into my upcoming book. But first, in case you’re in a hurry, I’ll give you the bottom line: the scientific record clearly shows that the very best culinary oil is from macadamia nuts. Here is why that’s true and how to know if you are selecting a good brand.
Macadamia nut oil is richer than other oils in the monounsaturated fats that made the heart-healthy Mediterranean way of eating so popular. Besides being deliciously buttery and nutty, it also has a very high smoke point (410 degree), allowing its fatty acid composition to stay intact while frying and baking at temperatures that make ordinary vegetable oils toxic.
The BEST fats: There is no question that the right oils and fats help us live longer and better. For example, monounsaturated fats, long popular in the Mediterranean diet, have been scientifically proven to help protect our cardiovascular systems. Macadamia nut oil at 85% and olive oil at 70% contain the highest amount of monounsaturates. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats help lower LDL cholesterol (this is the bad one that can lead to an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes) and raise HDL (the good cholesterol) as well as help normalize triglycerides. Monounsaturates help cell membranes incorporate the beneficial Omega 3’s that are needed to keep membranes flexible and effective at filtering nutrients in and wastes out of the cell.
Monounsaturates also reduce the risk of metabolic disorders, such as insulin-resistance and diabetes. Studies, performed with diabetics, have shown that subjects’ blood sugar was better controlled on a diet higher in monounsaturated fats.
Another study compared 3 diets: a macadamia nut based diet (one high in monounsaturated fat) with a standard American diet (same percentage of fat but higher in saturated fat) and a low-fat diet. Compared to either one of the other diets, those on the macadamia nut based diet showed improved cholesterol levels. That’s right, better than a low-fat diet! It is also impressive that these good fats are also associated with lower rates of some cancers.
Macadamia nut oil has pro-inflammatory omega 6 and anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids in a perfect 1:1 ratio – a critical determinant of good health (see “Balancing Act” below). Properly processed macadamia nut oil also contains significant amounts of vitamin E – as much as four times more than olive oil. Macadamia nut oil is so beneficial that the Australian Heart Foundation has given it its seal of approval. Some doctors recommend taking a tablespoon of the oil each day as a supplement. It is clearly the oil of choice for any low or moderate carbohydrate plans, such as my Thin For Good program. Just to clear up any potential confusion, macadamia nut oil has the same number of calories as any other oil.
Macadamia nut oil can also claim to be the highest botanical source of Palmitoleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. Palmitoleic acid has been used for stroke prevention and is now widely used in skin care because it is a wonderful emollient and moisturizer. Palmitoleic acid is naturally found in human skin oil and is known to diminish with aging.
Smoke Point – The temperature at which a fat burns is known as the “smoke point.’ Free radicals and Trans Fats (the worst fats) are formed when oil is overheated, in some cases well before the smoke point. A high smoke point generally means the oil is stable. However that is not necessarily true because there are many characteristics that make an oil stable and healthful enough to be the best oil and smoke point is only one. Olive oil is a popular choice for cooking, but even olive oil becomes harmful as it ages or is heated to too high a temperature. In fact, extra virgin olive oil deteriorates in just months at room temperature and has a smoke point, depending on age and quality, of 325ºF or below – lower than temperatures used in baking and sautéing. By comparison, pure macadamia nut oil is very stable and has a smoke point of 410ºF. Because of its particular combination of fatty acids and antioxidants, macadamia oil is also much less likely than other oils to develop the unhealthful trans fatty acids described below and lipid peroxides or free radicals when heated. Macadamia oil is so healthful, delicious and versatile that you probably won’t keep it around long. However, it is comforting to know that premium macadamia nut oil stored in a cool dark place has a shelf-life of up to 5 years.
I strongly recommend that you not pick your oil based solely on smoke point. For example, grapeseed oil has a high smoke point, but it is 72% pro-inflammatory Omega 6 fats, which are quite a problem in excess. Also, it is not a particularly tasty oil. Why settle? Macadamia nut oil has a delicious flavor, the best balance of fatty acids, excellent stability and a very high smoke point (410? F).
Shopping for the BEST brand of the BEST oil. There is a huge difference in macadamia nut oils, so how do you pick the right one? First, look for oil from Australia. The nuts are native to Australia where the climate and soil are perfect for producing the most delicious premium quality nuts. Also, be sure the oil is minimally processed. Specifically the nuts should be pressed in chilled expellers and filtered, without the use of heat or chemicals. And, don’t be fooled by the term “cold-pressed.” That may mean that the oil is not “cooked” with added heat but it does not assure you that the product did not become quite hot from friction during manufacturing. “Cold-pressed” is actually an archaic manufacturing term that is not used any more. Properly processed oil should truly be raw. The macadamia nut oil should also be the only product processed in the plant to avoid contamination with peanuts or other nuts that might cause an allergic reaction. A Kosher approval is further assurance that high quality standards are followed.
Pick the oil favored by celebrity chefs. Such an oil is versatile and can be used in everything from baking fish to stir fry to omelets to pancakes or baked goods. Some brands of oil are apparently over-processed and literally pale in comparison – both in flavor and color. They just do not perform the same. If you follow these guidelines in choosing your macadamia nut oil, you will find a rich golden oil with a delicious buttery flavor and nutty aroma. It will also be a good value, typically priced lower than a comparable grade of ordinary olive oil.
The WORST Fats: Trans Fats are the worst fats we can eat. They are mangled, unnatural fats that may increase the risk for breast cancer, increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol & Lipoprotein-a (a cardiac risk factor), decrease HDL (“good”) cholesterol, increase triglycerides, increase insulin & free radicals and interfere with proper function of the cell membrane.
Trans Fats are unfortunately probably the most common, being found in over 42,000 foods. They are produced during the hydrogenation of vegetable oil. Whenever you see “partially hydrogenated” on a label such as on margarine, shortening and most packaged foods, the product contains Trans Fats. As you clean out your cupboard, don’t forget to look at breakfast cereals; you’ll be surprised to find partially hydrogenated fats in some of them.
Canola Oil – Even oils that don’t say “partially hydrogenated” can be high in dreaded Trans Fats. Canola oil is an example. Like most common vegetable oils, the oil is removed from the source (rapeseeds) by a combination of high temperature mechanical pressing and solvent extraction. Traces of the solvent (usually hexane) typically remain in the oil, even after considerable processing. There is caustic refining, bleaching and de-gumming, which involve high temperatures or chemicals of dubious safety. Because canola oil is relatively high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid when subjected to oxygen and high temperatures, canola oil must be deodorized – a process that turns much of the omega-3 fatty acids into trans fatty acids. Research at the University of Florida at Gainesville, found Trans Fats levels as high as 4.6% in commercial liquid canola oil.
While canola oil may be moderately high in monounsaturated fats at 56% and have a high smoke point depending on how processed the oil is, I think it is one of the most unhealthful oils on the market, because of its high level of trans fats and the deterioration of its chemical makeup due to over-processing.
Saturated fats are solid or at least semi-solid at room temperature and are typically classified as unhealthy fats. However, that is not completely true and these are certainly healthier than most of the polyunsaturated fats that people use. (See the exceptions to that statement and details about polyunsaturated fats below.) There are many different types and sub-categories of saturated fat. Medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s) are saturated but have been found to be cardio-protective. Stearic acid is a saturated fat found to be protective against heart lesions. Most all oils have some percentage of saturated fats. Coconut oil for example is 91% saturated and there isn’t good science showing the effects of using it as a substantial part of the typical diet. Macadamia nut oil has a very low level of saturated fat and a large part of that is in the form of Stearic acid – one of the healthiest saturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids – these were the darlings of medicine for years based on a series of assumptions. The guess was, because they are low in saturated fats and cholesterol, somehow they must good for you. They are used extensively in junk food because they are cheap. The typical commercial vegetable oil is highly processed as discussed above regarding canola and is unstable, meaning it can easily form free radicals and Trans Fats. The health problem with these is that they lower both good and bad cholesterol but good cholesterol at a higher rate, actually increasing risk for heart disease. These should be avoided in cooking. In my extensively researched opinion, they are inedible.
This is a complicated part of science and there are some very beneficial polyunsaturated fats, a sub-group, the essential fatty acids (EFA’s = omega 3 and omega 6), which in proper balance are healthful and sub-categories of the EFA’s that are therapeutic.
Essential fatty acids – EFA’s are polyunsaturated, but, as the name implies, they are also essential. That means they must be consumed in the diet because they cannot be manufactured in the body. EFA’s are necessary for normal growth and development and are involved in breathing, blood pressure, immune system regulation, pain perception, allergies, and the level of inflammation in the body. There are two different types with quite different effects: omega – 6 fatty acids and omega- 3 fatty acids, shown below.
Metabolite of omega 6 and
Omega-6 fatty acids (but not GLA) foster inflammation. An excess of omega 6 can lead to many of the common diseases people are affected by including: asthma (15 million people), allergies (100 million people), arthritis (45 million people), heart disease (leading cause of death in the United States), irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue. As you can see, Omega-6 fatty acids are most abundant in common commercial vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, cottonseed, and sunflower. These are the oils typically used in processed foods.
GLA – This is a healthful constituent of Evening Primrose Oil, Borage Oil and Black Current Seed Oil. Under the proper conditions, the body can also turn Omega 6 fats into GLA. Converting dietary omega 6 is not so easy. GLA has been shown to benefit heart health, skin, PMS, aging and reduces inflammation.
The body makes DHA / EPA from omega 3’s. Only fish oil contains DHA / EPA
Omega-3 fatty acids tend to have the reverse effect of Omega 6. Especially in the EPA form, omega 3 is anti-inflammatory, lowers triglycerides, improves depression and reduces the risk of stroke, heart attack and some cancers. In the DHA form they help babies have normal eyes and brain (which explains why mother’s milk is such a rich source). Omega-3 fatty acids are found most abundantly in seafood, green leafy vegetables, fish, and walnuts. Please note that EPA and DHA are not contained in flax oil or other plant foods and our ability to create them out of omega 3 raw material is affected by other factors.
Conversions – To obtain the EPA, DHA or GLA by eating the respective omega 3 or 6 plant oil requires conversion by an enzyme that the body may be in short supply because of genetics. Also, stress, diseases, age, sugar, aspirin, alcohol, bad fats and nutrient deficiencies (especially B’s, C, Zinc and Magnesium) can all interfere with the process. That’s why most nutritionists recommend taking Fish Oil and GLA in addition to the diet.
Balancing Act – Not surprisingly given their powerful functions, new research shows that changing the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has dramatic effects on one’s health. Our bodies are healthiest when there is a perfect 1:1 balance of omega 3 and 6. This is just the way Mother Nature intended it and much closer to the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate (also known as the Paleolithic diet). Our ancestors consumed more greens, fish, nuts, seeds and wild game. It is a significant problem that we consume far less of these foods and therefore eat an estimated one-tenth the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that we require for good health. However, that’s not the only reason our diet is so imbalanced in omega 6 and 3 fatty acids.
Our Paleolithic role models also ate far fewer (if any) grains. By contrast, in modern society, we rely heavily on grain-based sustenance – breads, cereals, pastas, cakes and other processed foods. The grain itself is high in omega 6 as are the vegetable oils used in the “recipes.” Another major factor is that farm animals (even fish) are grain-fed, which as you would expect, affects the resulting food. For example, “factory-raised” eggs have a fatty acid ratio of 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3. Compare that to the perfect 1:1 ratio in an egg where the chicken is “free range” and can consume its natural diet of greens, insects, and worms.
It is shocking that medical leaders, the government – someone in a position of authority doesn’t acknowledge that when you change what you feed animals, you change the food we get from that animal. (I guess if they admitted that, they’d also have to agree that changing a human’s diet also changes their composition and health.) Anyway, this gross imbalance of omega 6 over omega 3 has been linked to a long list of very serious medical conditions. You can see that the diseases below can be considered diseases of “civilization:”
- Insulin Resistance
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Heart Disease
So, if you want to send cancer-fighting, heart-healthy, anti-aging messages to every cell in your entire body, it is important to consume the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Currently, the society that consumes the closest to this 1:1 ratio is the Japanese. They also have the longest life expectancy. Contrast that with the fact that 175 million Americans suffer from a chronic illness of one kind or another. Anti-inflammatory medications are some of the biggest sellers. When we consume a diet that is overwhelmingly high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, it is easy to see how this occurs and why we are so sick. Conveniently, macadamia nut oil has omega 6 and 3 in that perfect 1:1 ratio.
The Fat-Free Boondoggle – Don’t think for a minute you can avoid confusion by just avoiding fat. Americans have been misled for years and are fatter and sicker because of it. Alleged “authorities” harped that dietary fat was bad for us. Sadly, the “fat- free” scheme and resulting “food pyramid” were actually much more about lobbying and commercial interests than science. We should have been encouraged to choose quality fats and oils, but the hype only focused on the quantity of fat. We were also led to believe that it was okay to substitute sugar for fat in processed foods, that margarine (a Trans Fat laden fake-food) was better than butter. It’s high time to retire these myths.
Become Monounsaturated-Rich. At least “fat-free” was a simple message – now we need to understand the value of fats, how to select and use them for building health. We also have a new message, something simple and easy to understand – become monounsaturated rich and you will be getting good fats in your diet. We must have the proper fats for brain development (the brain is 60% fat); hormone balance; immune function; energy production, fertility, good eyesight, wound healing, oxygen uptake, maintaining metabolic rate, healthy hair, skin and nails. As we’ve seen, fats are indispensable – they are the fats of life. Oh, and is fat fattening? Any food in ridiculous excess can be fattening, but with a proper balance, the body actually burns body fat more efficiently if there is fat in the diet.
To review – here are some tips for improving your health with the right oils:
- Eat monounsaturate-rich foods such as macadamia nut oil for cooking and either macadamia nut oil or olive oil for cold uses.
- Consume more fatty fish, flaxseeds, and green leafy vegetables but also take a good omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
- Avoid oils high in omega-6: e.g. corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, or cottonseed – you’ll get enough omega 6 accidentally.
Those 3 steps will help keep omega 3’s (good, anti-inflammatory) equal to the Omega 6’s (bad, pro-inflammatory). Just remember, the more you eat from the omega 6 side (processed food), the more you need to balance with increasing your omega 3 intake.
- Avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats as if your life depended on it – because it does. Cut Trans Fats by cutting down on packaged foods, deep-fried foods, fast-foods and taking care to not heat oils past their stability point.
Congratulations on caring enough about your health to learn this foundational information about fats and oils. If you would like to be notified when my upcoming book on the miracle of good fats is available, please send an email to email@example.com.