Cracking through the Tough Shell to the Facts
Input from Dr. Alex Del Duca, ND and Dr. Courtenay Boer, ND
Over the last 5 years the popularity of coconut oil has grown into a 2.7 billion dollar industry! The ubiquitous oil can be found in nearly every grocery store. Its surge in popularity stems from both culinary and health benefits. There are many different variables that are taken into consideration when choosing an oil, both in the lens of cooking and health. Recent media attention on coconut oil has attacked the fact that the oil is a saturated fat, thus may not be as healthy as previously thought.
Saturated fats, such as coconut oil, lard, butter and shortening are only one variable to consider when choosing fats. Unfortunately the world of fat seems to be far more complex than one variable. Choosing to not use something based on only one variable may be an oversimplification of a subject and lead to unintended vilification. Let’s address some of these questions!
What are some things to think about when choosing any oil/fat?
- The Omegas
We have all heard of them, Omega 3, 6 and 9. Too much or too little of each of these may be unsustainable in our diets. Life is a continuing balance and omegas are part of that balance.
The standard North American Diet is typically high in omega 6 oil due to its abundance in processed foods, restaurant cooking and inexpensive costs. Oils that are rich in omega 6 include coconut, peanuts, grapeseed, vegetables, sunflower oil and corn oil. This particular omega 6 when eaten in high abundance, can increase our bodies inflammatory response and result in premature aging.
Omega 3, which is found in most fatty fish such as salmon is often considered helpful when addressing inflammation in a whole body perspective. Among many other health benefits Omega 3s are overlooked and are often outnumbered in intake compared to omega 6s. As with Omega 6, moderation must be taken into account as the oceans fish are often high in heavy metals such as mercury, a known neurotoxin. Choosing smaller fish such as anchovies may be a good way to circumvent this. Alternately, choosing hemp, pumpkin or flaxseed oil are also sources of omega 3 oils.
Omega 9 is found mostly in olive and nut oils. Technically a non-essential oil since we can make this in our body, this oil is known for its cardiovascular protective effects by decreasing our bad cholesterol. Overall this oil is a sustainable health choice when taken in moderation.
- Smoke Point
Smoke point is the temperature your oil begins to breakdown and burn, as carbons are released from fats the oil loses its structure and creates carcinogens. Even the most objectively healthy oil cannot be considered good for anyone if it is burnt. Higher smoke point oils that are traditionally used are peanut, canola, vegetable and avocado.
- The length of the fatty acid chain
When looking under a microscope there are subtle difference to fats. The length of the fat (also called a chain) can have different impacts on the body. Long Chain fatty Acids are what most oils are made up of. Where coconut oil differs is its high abundance of medium chains. These shorter chains are easier to turn into energy and can positively impact your microbiome. This makes coconut oil unique over other fats in our diet and in moderation may support a healthy intestinal environment.
- Cold pressed factors
This is a factor that is becoming more and more the norm when processing oil. When a crop is processed through high heat press, the oils lose a percentage of their antioxidants. If a cold or chilled press is used the retention antioxidant is higher and is considered more sustainable to our longevity.
When we choose to buy organic food, we are benefiting from sparing our bodies of pesticides and it’s most toxic component, glyphosate. A pesticide is used to kill bugs by attacking their nervous system. This approach works well for the farmers yield and from a corporate perspective saves money. Unfortunately, this process is known to hurt people who eat large amounts of foods containing pesticides. From this perspective oil is no different, glyphosates survive the oiling process and can end up in our bodies. When possible, eat organic foods.
So where does this leave us now? What are some simple tips to follow when buying my kitchen oils?
Current studies have linked coconut oil to weight loss, healthy microbiomes and can help lower bad cholesterol. These sound like good reasons to keep this in the pantry. On the other side, the saturated fat factor falls under the umbrella of fats that have a history of questionable heart health. We know that coconut oil is certainly better for overall health than shortening and may make a suitable sustainable replacement. Where is the balance?
Here are some general tips to think about when buying your kitchen oils, including coconut oil:
- Moderation – this rule won’t be changing anytime soon.
- Variety – balance fish oils (omega 3), nut oils (omega 9), and coconut oil (omega 6). No one oil should be your “go to” in the kitchen.
- Organic – spare the pesticides!
- Cold Pressed – maintains a higher percent of antioxidants.
- Read labels – Be suspicious of “flashy” health claims.