|WRONG! Bad advice! Danger! Danger!|
Finding a healthy cooking oil can be very challenging. Extra virgin olive oil is a common choice that just about everyone from every dietary philosophy can get behind. It’s mostly monounsaturated, plant based, and pleasing to the palette. The oil is obtained naturally; no solvents are needed to extract the oil from the fruit. However, extra virgin olive oil is unsuited for use in even moderate cooking temperatures.
Because olive oil varies widely by grade and method of manufacture, different olive oil manufacturers list different smoke points for their oils. Some companies list a temperature very close to the smoke point as their maximum limit for safe heating. While these relatively high temperature limits might be correct for avoiding the creation of huge amounts of harmful substances, they are too high to preserve the unique nutrients (especially polyphenols) found in high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil. Because of the oxidation of the nourishing substances in olive oil, as well as the potential for acrylamide formation, I don’t recommend cooking with extra-virgin olive oil.1Lite olive oils have much higher smoke points. However, the flavor an oil imparts to food may not always be desirable. A neutral tasting oil with a high smoke point would be an ideal all-around choice for a wide range of cooking applications.
In cooking, the smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which it begins to break down to glycerol and free fatty acids, and produce bluish smoke. The glycerol is then further broken down to acrolein which is a component of the smoke. It is the presence of the acrolein that causes the smoke to be extremely irritating to the eyes and throat. The smoke point also marks the beginning of both flavor and nutritional degradation. Therefore, it is a key consideration when selecting a fat for frying, with the smoke point of the specific oil dictating its maximum usable temperature and therefore its possible applications. For instance, since deep frying is a very high temperature process, it requires a fat with a high smoke point.2Taste and smoke point aren’t the only considerations. Omega 6:3 ratio and polyunsaturated fat content matter, too. The more polyunsaturated fat, the lower the shelf life and higher the odds of oxidation, especially when subjected to thermal stress. You know...like using it to cook food? Both polyunsaturated fats and monosaturated fats are vulnerable to oxidation due to their molecular structure.
Here’s a short excerpt from Good Eats, “Fry Hard,” season 2, episode 9 that explains this in a simpler way:
This chart summarizes some of the most popular oils and their attributes.3
Click image to enlarge.
Sadly, some of the nutritionally worst oils have the highest smoke points and relatively neutral flavor profiles. Let’s concentrate on the “green equals good” section. We see some familiar fats there. Beef tallow, palm oil and coconut oil were used frequently until the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “Saturated Fat Attack” campaign caused these good fats to fall out of favor and become replaced with trans-fats.4 Ghee (clarified butter) is another favorite, but it’s expensive and imparts a strong buttery flavor. There’s another oil on the list that keeps getting ignored. Its smoke point is about 400 degrees, contains the least amount of polyunsaturated fat, has an omega 6:3 ratio of 1:1, and has a very neutral flavor. It’s macadamia nut oil.
Low carb, paleo, and vegan folks love nuts. Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, and pistachios are on the recommended lists for all groups. However, all of those nuts have more omega 6 fat than macadamias. I was introduced to macadamia nuts as a food staple during a fat fast. I never considered them as a source for cooking oil until I began searching for a suitable replacement for canola and peanut oil. I got some from Amazon and it’s been a success so far. Trader Joe’s has been a great source for the nuts themselves. I use macadamias frequently to make Chocolate Almond Butter Bombs.
Macadamias are one of the most under-appreciated foods in history. The nuts and the oil produced from them are incredibly healthy and versatile. It has more oleic acid than olive oil, the sine qua non of every Mediterranean-diet-makes-you-live-forever article in existence.
- Blanco, M. (2013). The complete idiot’s guide to the coconut oil diet. New York, NY: Alpha Books / Penguin Group. p 95.
- Smoke point. (2014, January 21). Wikipedia. Retrieved February 9, 2014, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoke_point
- Garner, D. (2008, December 28). Cooking Oil 101. gofrolic.org. Original linked from http://www.gofrolic.org/gofrolic/food_blog/Entries/2008/12/28_Cooking_Oil_101.html archive of post from http://www.stripersonline.com/t/695839/cooking-oil-101
- David Schleifer (2012). “The Perfect Solution: How Trans Fats Became the Healthy Replacement for Saturated Fats.” Columbia University. Retrieved September 10, 2012 from http://columbia.academia.edu/DavidSchleifer/Papers/1478327/The_Perfect_Solution_How_Trans_Fats_Became_the_Healthy_Replacement_for_Saturated_Fats.