Choosing Fats and Oils in Cooking

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Navigating the oil selection of a modern grocery store can seem daunting. There are so many types, brands and “health benefits” listed on different oils. Below, I outline the different types of oils, what’s important and where best to use them in cooking.

Why are fats important?

Despite a negative reputation for fats in general, research over the past 10 years has shown the importance of fats in our diet. We need them to help our body absorb nutrients (like fat-soluble vitamins), provide energy, and of course help food taste good! So how do we dissect what fats to use? The USDA recommends about 10% of calories in our diet come from saturated fats, and 20-35% calories from total fat. The recommendation for children is closer to 35%. This means we don’t need to skimp on the fat for children.

Let’s talk about the types of fats.

There are three main types of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. Most foods with fats contain some ratio of these types. We typically classify the fat in foods by the type of fat with the highest ratio (for example, olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats, so we think of it as a monounsaturated fat). Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids (and to break this down even further, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are types of omega-3 fatty acids). These are especially important in infant and toddler brain development.

All naturally-occurring fats have a place in our diet, whereas artificially manufactured trans fats, have been determined by the FDA to be unsafe for use as an additive in processed foods. We used to think saturated fats had no place in our diet as well, but research over the past 10 years continues to demonstrate this is no longer the case.

So what does this mean? What should we be eating?

It can feel confusing or overwhelming to think about everything that goes along with fats. So to make it easy, focus on variety. Foods that contain fat contain varying levels and compositions of fats within them, and these differences are important. Focus on a variety and balance of fats in your cooking. Many oils and fats have useful, but contrasting, properties in the kitchen and during the cooking process. For example, many olive oils have a low smoke point (the temperature where it essentially starts smoking), which is why olive oil is not the best choice for frying or sautéing.

CLICK HERE for my table which dissects common oils and fats, what type of fat they contain, how they are best used in the kitchen.

If you have questions or feedback, please feel free to reach out to me.