Fat is back! After decades of low-fat and no-fat hype, most dietitians agree that healthy fats have a place in our diet. After all, fat adds flavor, provides energy, helps you feel full, and promotes healthy neurological function and homeostasis.
There are three main types of fatty acid—saturated, unsaturated, and trans—that compose any macromolecular “fat” that we can see or consume. Saturated and trans fats have tight bonds that tend to make them solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats are loosely bound, making them fluid. While our body needs fat to function, both saturated and trans fats raise bad LDL cholesterol and can lead to an increased risk of heart disease. To add insult to injury, trans fats also decrease good HDL cholesterol—so while unsaturated fats are recommended and saturated fats are appropriate in moderation, try to include as few trans fats as possible in your eating pattern.
A good source of healthy unsaturated fats is cooking oils, which are (usually) liquid at room temperature. As a result of public recognition of fat’s value, unusual oils like coconut, avocado, flaxseed and sunflower have become more popular. There’s a lot of competing information about potential health benefits in circulation, so here are some quick facts about oils you might choose to cook with.
Coconut oil is the most saturated of all food oils. It’s become popular as a weight-loss aid because it’s thought that its fats are burned as energy rather than stored; however, more research needs to be done. As you might suspect, coconut oil tastes like coconut. It’s best used in candies, pastries, and desserts; to replace butter or oil in many recipes; or to add a depth of flavor to soups, smoothies, and curries. With a smoke point of 350°F, it’s safe for sautéing.
Sometimes known as “vegetable butter” or “butter pear” due to its buttery flavor, avocado oil is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are known for their heart-healthy properties. It also contains vitamin E, a well-known antioxidant, and lutein, which is being studied for its potential to reduce age-related macular degeneration. Avocado oil has a characteristic mushroom flavor with underlying grassy notes. It has an incredibly high smoke point of 520°F, so it’s great for sautéing and even deep frying. And it’s delicious as a garnish for soup or drizzled over warm, crusty bread.
Flaxseed oil contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body converts into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. While more research is needed, ALA is thought to help lessen inflammation and reduce the risk for heart disease. Flaxseed oil’s slightly nutty flavor is best in dressings, sauces, and smoothies. Due to its low smoke point of 225°F, it shouldn’t be used to fry or sauté.
Sunflower Seed Oil
High in omega-6 fatty acids, sunflower seed oil is a good, neutral-tasting oil. It’s also readily available due to its use in the food industry—think how many potato chips are fried in sunflower oil! With a relatively high smoke point of 440°F, it’s best for high-temperature searing and sautéing when you don’t want the oil to impart a lot of flavor.