After decades of low-fat and no-fat hype, health experts agree that fats have an important place in the diet. After all, fat adds flavor, provides energy, helps you feel full, and promotes healthy neurological function.
The three main types are saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. Saturated and trans fats have tight bonds that make them solid at room temperature. Examples include butter, coconut oil, shortening, and bacon fat. Unsaturated fats have looser bonds, making them fluid at room temperature. Examples include olive oil and canola oil.
While the body needs fat to function, experts recommend consuming saturated fat in limited amounts. Saturated fats have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol (also known as bad cholesterol) and can lead to an increased risk of heart disease. Trans fats also raise LDL cholesterol and have been shown to decrease HDL cholesterol (also known as good cholesterol). For these reasons, experts recommend avoiding artificial trans fats altogether. This has become easier in recent years as more companies have removed artificial trans fats from foods.
Now that you know the background, let’s look at today’s trends. The recognition of fat’s value has increased the popularity of coconut, avocado, flaxseed, and sunflower oils. Here are some quick facts about these trendy oils and how you can enjoy them.
Coconut oil is the most saturated of all plant oils, which is why it’s firm at room temperature. Use coconut oil sparingly, because it’s a saturated fat. As you might expect, 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 because of 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, which the body converts into eicosapentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid — the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. While more research is needed, alpha-linolenic acid is thought to help lessen inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease. Flaxseed oil’s slightly nutty flavor is best in dressings, sauces, and smoothies. Because flaxseed oil has a low smoke point of 225°F, you shouldn’t use it when frying or sautéing.
There are four kinds of sunflower oil, each from a different seed bred to create oil with unique fatty acid compositions. The kind commonly available for home cooking is high in omega-6 fatty acids. Sunflower seed oil has a neutral taste. It’s also readily available because of 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.