Are you confused about cooking oils? I am a religious food label reader, but monounsaturated, saturated, polyunsaturated, what do they mean? Most of us make the sign of the cross when approaching a transfat–margarine, fake butters and excess fried foods. We know they are bad for us but are not exactly sure why. I go numb listening to MDs and diet experts who describe foods as chemicals, forgetting that food has taste appeal and a long history of use by healthy, attractive people.

There are problems in choosing oils for cooking, salad dressings or topical application. One problem is that experts can’t agree which oils are best, how they should be used and stored. To broaden cooking enjoyment, I went on a quest for healthy oils and found a few surprises that are confined to ethnic cooking or have been out of favor for one reason or another.

Oils high in monounsaturated fats are said to be best for cooking due to their stability when heated, as well as their potential health benefits. Examples include olive, avocado, and canola oil. We can skip canola because it may contain transfat, also because of its source, processing and speed of turning rancid. Rapeseed oil, the main source of canola oil, contains high levels of erucic acid associated with heart, kidney and liver damage and high blood pressure. Unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils, when they’re heated, tend to oxidize so that they’re more dangerous to body tissues and can trigger inflammation, a known risk factor for making blood-vessel plaques unstable enough to cause a heart attack.

Avocado oil is popular with a mild flavor and high smoking point which makes it useful for stir-frying. It is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and it has a high smoke point (375 to 400 degrees F) without being chemically processed like canola and vegetable oil. The downside is that avocado oil is expensive. I go out to the Arab neighborhood in Brooklyn near Atlantic Avenue and 4th Avenue to buy an economy size avocado oil for a quarter of the Manhattan price.

I also get black seed oil from small East Indian and Arab grocers. Nigella sativa (aka kalonji, black seed oil, black cumin) is the seed of a flowering plant in many parts of the world. I pour the dark pungent oil over buckwheat noodles and boil the seeds as tea or cook with grains. Kalonji oil is unsaturated but too heavy and smoky tasting for frying or use in recipes as a butter substitute. Nut, seed and fish oils are especially susceptible to oxidation, so are best kept in the refrigerator. Nigella sativa, kalonji seeds are used as traditional medicine for obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. In some small studies, supplements made with it have been shown to lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. Some authorities claim it improves asthma, hypertension, diabetes, inflammation, headache, eczema, fever, dizziness and the flu. Medical News Today reports: “Research has shown that black seed supplementation can help lower people’s body mass index (BMI). … A systematic review published in the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders in 2013 found that black seed oil could be effective in tackling obesity..” Black seed is rich in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.

What does that mean? Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and come from animal sources, while unsaturated fats are usually liquid and from plant sources. Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen. Partially hydrogenated oils contain transfat, which raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol and has other harmful effects. Fully hydrogenated oils, in essence, become saturated fats. They are used to make oils solid like the fat in meat. They are most commonly found in foods that also have saturated fat, such as:

  • margarine.
  • vegetable shortening.
  • packaged snacks.
  • baked foods, especially pre-made versions.
  • ready-to-use dough.
  • fried foods.
  • coffee creamers, both dairy and nondairy.

Nam Singh had a handy way to measure the value of a cooking oil as he explained during his April virtual class for Academy of Healing Nutrition. He said simply, “A fat that melts in your hand will more easily leave your body.” Perfect, a chemistry lesson as a simple, elegant action. The oil that easily melts from body warmth is less congesting in a way that helps prevent heart disease. There is an omega problem with oils. Omega-6 is the fat we get from eating meat and dairy foods especially cheese. We need some omega-6 to help balance Omega-3 which is considered healthy, found in oily ocean fish and shiso leaf. But you may want to avoid vegetable oils high in omega-6:

  • soybean oil.
  • corn oil.
  • cottonseed oil.
  • sunflower oil.
  • peanut oil.
  • sesame oil.
  • rice bran oil.

Then there is the GMO problem. Corn, (aka maize,) is ruined by genetic modification which produces nicely plump, evenly spaced rows of corn kernels on the cob. However genetic modification eventually affects our genes, not to mention negatively impacting the gut. So many food experts warn against using vegetable and seed oils, except olive oil and coconut oil which are safe, stable and have a relatively long shelf life and higher smoking point. There is still the geo-political/environmental problem. I avoid palm oil. It is overused in processed foods, cosmetics and even dried cereals. Think Kelloggs, General Mills, even  Whole Earth Muesli. Looking deeper into its source we find that Brazilian locals as well as international industrial companies are raping the Amazon rain forest cutting down palm trees to get palm oil. Leaving big areas of the Amazon bald causes regularly occurring out of control fires, loss of wild life and world wide pollution. Much of the earth has already been laid bare in order to grow coffee with pesticides and harvest sources of cooking oil.

So, if we are keeping score, we have olive oil, coconut oil the healthy saturated fat, avocado oil, black seed oil and, for those who can tolerate it, butter. Ghee removes the milk solids to prevent cramps. Butter is one of the most complex of all dietary fats, containing more than 400 different fatty acids. It is very high in saturated fatty acids (about 70%) and holds about 25% of monounsaturated fatty acids. Where would French chefs be without butter and cream? They may add a little olive oil along with butter when pan frying, but they “finish” a sauce, a voloute, with a dab of butter. They thicken a sauce or soup with Beurre manié made with equal parts of flour and butter. French chefs also like duck or goose fat for their rich taste. They balance the cooking fats with wine and soup stock made with bones, vegetables and a bouquet garni—a bundle of herbs—usually parsley, thyme, a bay leaf wrapped in a piece of the green part of leek and tied with a string.

Let’s drop the chemistry and talk about taste. If you are interested to compare the relative values, cholesterol, and food energy in foods, for example duck fat as opposed to chicken fat here is a useful website: Chicken fat has less saturated fat than duck fat. Who ever heard of cooking with chicken fat? The Jewish world that’s who. Better known as “schmaltz,” chicken fat was a major ingredient for Ashkenazi Jews, who had little or no access to olive oil that Jews living in the Middle East used in cooking. The fat has a fairly mild taste with strong chicken overtones. Pour the liquid fat into a glass jar after browning chicken pieces. The fat is creamy at room temperature and is best kept in an airtight jar in the refrigerator. You can brown toast on the stove with chicken fat and when done add a pinch of salt for tasty chicken flavored toast.

Lard is another option. Someone in class asked where do you buy lard? And what is it? Lard is the fat from bacon drippings you collect after frying bacon. Use it for stir frying or add a little to split pea soup instead of adding ham hocks. Lard compared to butter is better: Lots less sugar, less saturated fat, more zinc and choline, more food energy, more vitamins D2 and D3. Lard is part of the healthy Okinawan diet which features six vegetables a day including yam. When I mentioned that I grew up in a Hungarian family who added bacon to morning oatmeal, Roger Green, founder of Academy of Healing Nutrition, said that the addition of fat could help to reduce a blood sugar spike from the grain. A good thing to remember.

So how fat is fat? It depends upon the taste you want, remembering to keep it natural, a fat used by healthy populations throughout history, tested in a laboratory for its chemistry, but proven in your kitchen.