I had a request from my friend Shira Miller for a post on the nutritional value of cooking sprays like PAM. I thought this was a great idea, and I decided to expand it to include oils as well. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about which oils are healthiest and which ones are best for cooking.
For example, I see clients every day who are cooking with olive oil because they’ve heard it’s good for them. What they don’t realize is that olive oil is an unstable fat with a low smoke point (marks the beginning of both flavor and nutritional degradation), so it really shouldn’t be heated to high temperatures. Organic, unrefined, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil has the lowest smoke point (200-250 degrees) of all the other forms of olive oil. It’s one of the healthiest foods you can eat, but it’s better for marinades and dressings and not for high temperature cooking. (The other night I had some brussel sprouts for dinner, but I waited until after I steamed them to drizzle a little olive oil on them. I got to enjoy the flavor of the oil without losing the antioxidants and other health benefits.)
The problem with cooking sprays is that they’re often made with other unstable fats like canola or soybean oil, which also have a low smoke point. Processing companies often refine these oils to raise their smoke points by another 100 degrees or so, but refining results in nutrient loss as well.
When you heat any oil to its smoke point, you inflict damage that comes in several forms:
- Heating causes loss of available nutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin E and the phytonutrients that give oils their colors, smells and flavors.
- Heating oils can cause the formation of free-radicals, molecules that can damage the oil by triggering unwanted oxidative reactions.
- Unwanted aromatic substances can form in unstable oils when they’re heated, increasing the risk of chronic health problems like cancer.
So if we shouldn’t use cooking sprays or unstable oils like olive, canola and soybean, what the heck are we supposed to cook with? Don’t panic, there are a few healthy options out there:
- Chicken broth – It works great for sautéing. It gives food a great flavor and it can be more cost-effective than buying expensive oils if your family is on a tight budget.
- Butter – It’s a saturated fat, meaning it’s solid at room temperature and is highly stable (smoke point of 350 degrees). (Toss out that margarine, which is full of hydrogenated oils and other harmful preservatives.) Butter is great for cooking eggs and coating baking dishes.
- Coconut Oil – As far as health benefits and flavor goes, this oil takes the prize, and it’s great for high temperature heating (smoke point of 350 degrees). Of the saturated fat found in coconut oil, only 9% is palmitic acid, which is connected with increased risk of heart disease. In fact, coconut oil contains a large amount of a heart-protective fat called lauric acid. Coconut oil is also very easily digested and absorbed. It gives a great coconut taste to stir-fry dishes, and I love to throw a teaspoon of it in my shake each morning.
- Avocado Oil – With a smoke point of a whopping 520 degrees, avocado oil provides an ideal combination of vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids. It is supposed to improve skin and it helps lower cholesterol. This would be a great oil for frying or grilling. I think I’m going to give it a try!
Long story short, even the healthiest oils can be bad for us if they aren’t used properly. For example, flaxseed oil is extremely beneficial, but its structure is too delicate for heating. I’ve also tried cooking with red palm oil, which is another stable fat. I’ll keep you updated as I continue experimenting.
In the meantime, say goodbye to all those sprays and unstable oils like canola and switch to coconut oil, butter or another stable fat for high temperature cooking. Or, ditch the oil altogether and use chicken broth, and get the healthy fats into your diet through other foods like salad dressings, nut butters, fish oil, etc.
Here are a few more resources on this topic:
As always, feel free to contact me with questions!