Choosing the Best Fats and Oils

Uncovering the Mystery

Strolling down the oils aisle can be daunting, confusing at best. Media attention has blurred our understanding of which to choose – one day an oil is good, the next day it’s bad! In this article we will go into detail about the different choices, how to use them, and the unique benefits of each. For more information on the values of fats and oils, the use of traditional sources, and the concerns of a low-fat diet check out the Natural Grocers’ Customer Literature File Fats.

Fats and Oil Processing

How a fat is processed helps determine whether it is a good choice. The types of fats historically consumed by our ancestors were the most easily extractable – butter and other animal fats, coconut and palm oil, olive oil, sesame and peanut oils, flaxseed oil, and fish oils. Back in that day, extraction was achieved by slow-moving stone presses or rollers. Although some of today’s companies maintain these traditional methods, most commercial oils are processed by crushing the oil-bearing seeds and overheating them (often up to 450°F). In addition to excessive temperatures, the oils are also exposed to high pressure, light, oxygen, and solvents (usually hexane). This creates an undesirable food that has been bruised and battered – especially so for the less-stable polyunsaturate-rich vegetable oils. This is why most commercial oils become rancid before even hitting the grocery store shelves![1] The damage gets worse with using an oil repeatedly, as is done in most fast food restaurants. Research has found that damaged cooking oils reused for deep frying significantly reduce blood flow throughout the body for up to four hours after a meal.[2]

Natural oil processing does not include solvents or high heat. A safe modern technique for extraction, called expeller-pressing, which is frequently referred to as cold-pressing, creates unrefined oils by drilling into the seeds and extracting the oil and all its nutrients. Quality extra virgin olive oil is produced by crushing olives between stone or steel rollers. These gentle approaches preserve the integrity of the fatty acids and the natural preservatives many oils contain that aid in their stability.1,[3] These unrefined oils will remain fresh for quite some time if stored in the refrigerator. Finally, if available, organic sources are ideal, as they are likely to be free of pesticides and contaminants that ordinarily concentrate in fat.

Fat and Oil Choices


This golden delicacy is one of the most nutritive foods available if it has been made from the best quality cream. Cows grazing on green grass and living the “good life” produce much more nutrient-dense cream than do cows raised conventionally. For example, pasture-grazed cows have 500% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in their milk than those fed corn and soy.[4] This special fatty acid has strong anticancer properties, supports immune function, and inhibits weight gain.[5] Butter is also a valuable source of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Its lower melting point allows it to bestow wonderful texture to baked goods but also makes it more likely to burn, so keep it for spreads, flavoring vegetable dishes, baking, and low-temperature sautéing.[6]

Clarified butter/Ghee

Ghee is butter that has had the milk solids removed.[7] This is why those with an intolerance to milk protein (casein) often do well with ghee.[8] This also creates a higher butterfat content. Ghee has a longer shelf life and higher smoke point than butter, which means it can be used in higher temperature cooking.[9]


This is one of the oldest of dietary fats and was extensively used in the late 1800s.1 It contains unique medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) that are digested and handled by the body differently than other fats. Once eaten, the body transforms MCFAs into powerful antimicrobial agents capable of defending the body against bacteria and viruses.[10] They also speed up the body’s metabolism (up to 50%[11]), and thus help burn more calories[12],[13] and promote weight loss.[14],[15] Coconut has good stability and is best used for baking, pan frying, sautéing, and making popcorn.

Palm oil

This tropical oil is extracted from the fruit of the palm, which is up to 70% oil. Because of this high oil content, solvent extraction is unnecessary, resulting in a cleaner, healthier end-product.[16] Palm oil has high levels of carotenoids, along with the vitamin E family of nutrients called tocopherols and tocotrienols. This oil is mostly saturated, which makes it naturally solid at room temperature and offers strong stability, which means that it does not easily turn rancid when heat is applied, such as with frying.1 This oil is commonly found in natural trans-fat-free, shelf-stable shortenings.

Olive oil

Studies indicate that olive oil can inhibit LDL cholesterol oxidation and platelet aggregation, two factors involved in heart disease.[17],[18] Olive oil may also lessen the risk of some cancers.[19] These protective actions of olive oil are partly due to its antioxidant nutrients, such as chlorophyll and carotenoids.[20],[21] There are different grades of olive oil, starting with extra virgin, which is derived from the first pressing of the olives. It tends to have a stronger flavor and more nutritional value. Virgin, or fine virgin, is from the second or third pressing and usually has a milder flavor and varies in quality. The best approach is to favor unrefined, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and use it in no- or low-heat situations, such as adding it to a dish already cooked or to salads.

Nut oils

These flavorful choices have much to offer the palate. Macadamia oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, reaching 85%, while olive oil hovers around 73%. The lower polyunsaturated fat content helps make this oil more stable when exposed to the elements.[22] Macadamia, as well as several other nut oils, including walnut, almond, and hazelnut, possess high concentrations of powerful nutrients, namely tocopherols, squalene, and phytosterols.[23] It is a combination of the nutrients and fatty acids that makes these nuts and nut oils heart protective.[24] Omega-3-rich walnut oil helps inhibit LDL cholesterol oxidation.[25] Almond oil is being noticed for its ability to lower triglyceride levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.[26] Bear in mind, most nut oils are polyunsaturate-dominant, which makes them more easily damaged by cooking. Thus, store these oils carefully and use them on salads and unheated dishes, or jazz up a meal with these stronger flavored oils after having cooked with a more stable fat.

Seed oils

Flaxseed oil, hemp seed oil, and pumpkin seed oil are all rich in the omega-3 fat, linolenic acid.1,[27] Their use may help improve the omega-3-to-6 imbalance so prevalent in America today. Pumpkin seed oil is also chock-full of nutrients,[28] many of which are prostate-supportive.[29] These oils should be kept refrigerated, never heated, and consumed in small amounts in salad dressings and spreads.1 Unlike most other seed oils, sesame oil is appropriate for higher temperature cooking because it contains unique antioxidants, particularly sesamin, that give it an extra level of heat protection.1 Sesame oil can also be added to other oils to enhance their stability during heating. Research shows that sesame oil also contains cancer-preventing and heart-healthy compounds.[30],[31] Take advantage of its unique taste by tossing it in salads or drizzling it on cooked chicken.

Vegetable/Polyunsaturated oils

safflower, corn, canola, sunflower, soybean, etc: These are the grouping of polyunsaturated oils that should be used with caution because of their delicate structural nature. High oleic safflower and sunflower oils are produced from hybrid plants and have a composition similar to that of olive oil. They are thus more stable than traditional varieties.1

Peanut oil

This oil is fairly stable and has good antioxidant content; therefore, it is appropriate for stir-frying and the occasional fried dish. However, it still does not provide as desirable a nutrient profile as other oils and therefore should not be used exclusively.1

Using Fats in the Kitchen

Deciding how to use any fat or oil is easy once you know its fatty acid make-up. The more unsaturated, especially polyunsaturated, the more susceptible it is to damage from heat, light, and oxygen, and thus the more careful you need to be with handling it in the kitchen. To quickly review, oils most suitable for light cooking/sautéing include coconut, palm, sesame, and peanut oils. For all-purpose light frying oil, try this mix: coconut oil (1/3), sesame oil (1/3), and olive oil (1/3). For those few dishes that require deep frying, look to palm oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, or lard (if you can get your hands on some). Baking usually turns out best with solid fats such as butter, coconut oil, palm oil, and lard. Those oils that should always be left unheated include flaxseed oil, most nut oils, and any other highly-polyunsaturated oil.

Going back to traditional fats that have been prepared in the highest quality fashion is the key to eliminating the mystery in the oils aisle. You need fat in your diet. Too little fat creates hunger and compromises body function, (though excess fat will contribute to weight gain and imbalance). Now you can shop the oils aisle with confidence and use these foods to bring your homemade dishes to life with flavor and nutrition.


[1] Enig, Mary, Ph.D. Know Your Fats. Bethesda Press, Silver Spring, MD. 2000

[2] Williams MJ, Sutherland WH. et al. Impaired endothelial function following a meal rich in used cooking fat. J Am Coll Cardiol 1999. March 15;33(4):1050-5

[3] Enig, Mary Ph.D. and Fallon, Sally. The Skinny on Fats. Found at Published 1999. Found on Dec. 18th 2001.

[4] Larry Satter is at the USDA-ARS U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, 1950 Linden Lane, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706

[5] Belury, M A, Nutr Rev, April 1995, 53:(4)83-89; Kelly, M L, et al, J Dairy Sci, Jun 1998, 81(6):1630-6

[6] Nutr Week, Mar 22, 1991, 21:12:2-3

[7] Fife, Bruce N.D. Saturated Fat May Save Your Life. Health Wise. 1999.

[8] Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing. 2001.

[9] 1995 by Barron’s Educational Series, from The New Food Lover’s Companion, Second Edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst

[10] Enig, Mary. Ph.D., F.A.C.N., Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century. Found at on Jan 2001.

[11] A.A. Pamandjaris, et al. Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: Obesity treatment implications. Life Sciences 1998; 62(14):1203-15

[12] Scalfi L, Coltorti A, Contaldo F. Postprandial thermogenesis in lean and obese subjects after meals supplemented with medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;53:1130–3.

[13] Seaton TB, Welle SL, Warenko MK, et al. Thermic effect of medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides in man. Am J Clin Nutr 1986;44:630–4.

[14] Fife, Bruce, M.D. The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil. Healthwise, Colorado Springs, CO. 2001

[15] Ross, Julia. M.A. The Diet Cure. Penguin Book. New York 2000

[16] Enig, Mary. Ph.D. Know Your Fats. Bethesda Press. 2000.

[17] Frost Larsen L, Jespersen J, Marckmann P. Are olive oil diets antithrombotic? Diets enriched with olive, rapeseed, or sunflower oil affect postprandial factor VII differently. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70:976–82

[18] Francesco Visioli and Claudio Galli. Olive oil: more than just oleic acid. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Found at

[19] Menendez JA, Vellon L, Colomer R, Lupu R. Oleic acid, the main monounsaturated fatty acid of olive oil, suppresses Her-2/neu (erbB-2) expression and synergistically enhances the growth inhibitory effects of trastuzumab (HerceptinTM) in breast cancer cells with Her-2/neu oncogene amplification. Ann Oncol. 2005 Jan 10;

[20] Valavanidis A, Nisiotou C, Papageorgiou Y, Kremli I, Satravelas N, Zinieris N, Zygalaki H. Comparison of the Radical Scavenging Potential of Polar and Lipidic Fractions of Olive Oil and Other Vegetable Oils under Normal Conditions and after Thermal Treatment. .J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Apr 21;52(8):2358-65.

[21] Morello JR, Motilva MJ, Tovar MJ, Romero MP. Changes in commercial virgin olive oil (cv Arbequina) during storage, with special emphasis on the phenolic fraction. J Agric Food Chem, 2004 May; 85(3):357-364

[22] JAMA, Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 158, pp 41-45, Jan. 12, 1998

[23] Maguire LS, O’Sullivan SM, Galvin K, O’Connor TP, O’Brien NM. Fatty acid profile, tocopherol, squalene and phytosterol content of walnuts, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and the macadamia nut. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2004 May;55(3):171-8

[24] Hiraoka-Yamamoto J, Ikeda K, Negishi H, Mori M, Hirose A, Sawada S, Onobayashi Y, Kitamori K, Kitano S, Tashiro M, Miki T, Yamori Y. Serum lipid effects of a monounsaturated (palmitoleic) Fatty Acid-rich diet based on macadamia nuts in healthy, young Japanese women. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2004 Dec;31 Suppl 2:S37-8

[25] Journal of Nutrition, 2001, vol. 131, no. 11

[26] Journal of Nutrition, 2002, vol. 132, no. 4

[27] Ristic-Medic D, Ristic G, Tepsic V. Alpha-linolenic acid and cardiovascular diseases. Med Pregl. 2003;56 Suppl 1:19-25.

[28] Pharmacological Research, 1997, vol. 35, no. 5

[29] Roasted Pumpkin Seed Oil. Found at,1471,979,00.html on February 19, 2005.

[30] Pharmacological Research, 2002, vol. 45, no. 6;

[31] Nutrition and Cancer, 2001, vol. 39, no. 1