I grew up with butter on the table. My parents refused to believe the dogma that butter was bad. I, on the other hand, bought into it, hook, line and sinker. Yes, I admit it.

Eat the crispy skin on the turkey at Thanksgiving? EW! No, thank you. I would even gingerly cut every last bit of fat off the steak. Not an ounce of that stuff was entering MY body. No way.

Then one day I decided to get my cholesterol checked. Just to ‘see’. Guess who had high cholesterol?! Me. That karma! Gets me every time.

Unfortunately, it was still years before I changed my tune on fats. But when I finally did, the difference in my body was incredible. I had energy! Best food experiment – EVER.

Today, talking about fats is one of my favorite topics. Quite possibly because of the huge difference it made in my life when I finally embraced animal fats and cut out all the highly-processed vegetable oils.

But, maybe and understandably, you are be a bit confused on what is a good fat, what is a bad fat and for the love of all fats, what should you actually cook with?

Let’s start at the beginning:

All fats have a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in them, but are categorized by which type of fat they have the most of.

Saturated Fats: Highly stable; do not turn rancid easily. Forms a solid or semi-solid consistency at room temperature.

Examples: Lard, ghee, beef and lamb tallow, chicken, duck and goose fat, coconut oil and red palm oil.

The higher the level of saturated fats in a particular fat, the safer it is for your frying pan. These fats are highly stable and don’t turn rancid easily, therefore they can withstand higher temperatures. Using saturated fats, and largely animal fats from organic, grass-fed sources as your predominant cooking fat is a great rule of thumb. Chicken fat may have the least saturated fat content of all of these, and therefore may be best left to quick stir-frying and light sautéing, but the rest do well under a variety of cooking techniques.

When cooking with saturated fat, there are some great benefits to using animal fats, particularly beef tallow and duck fat. Beef tallow has a near perfect ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s, but even more importantly it has the coveted conjugated linolenic acid (CLA). CLA reduces inflammation and is anticarcinogenic (fights cancer), antiobese, antidiabetic and antihypertensive. It is also contains the fat-soluble vitamins, A, E & K. It is well worth investing in some tallow to add to your cooking routine.

There is one meal I still remember the taste of to this day. And I’ll be honest, it is rare that I remember meals. I was in Paris as a traveling college student and my meal one night there of Orange Duck was unbelievable. Duck fat will take your meal to the moon and back and if you are looking to impress your taste buds, I highly recommend trying this. Duck fat is closer to a monounsaturated fat and has the coveted conjugated linoleic acid.

Monounsaturated fats: Relatively stable; do not turn rancid easily. Liquid at room temperature.

Examples: Olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil

Olive, avocado and macadamia nut oil have between 75-80% of monounsaturated fatty acids and are ok for occasional cooking. However, if you are going to bake or roast with one of these oils, keep the temperature to less than 400 degrees. Peanut oil and sesame oil each have a more equal amount of monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids and are best used for a low-heat stir-fry or quick sauté on occasion.

However, I prefer these oils be used primarily as salad oils, or added post-cooking to dishes to get the benefits of the oil in its raw state.

Polyunsaturated fats: Unstable, easily damaged by heat, light, moisture and oxygen exposure, refrigeration required. Turn rancid quickly and easily.

Examples: Flax oil, hemp oil, pumpkin oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil.

These oils are comprised of nearly 50% of polyunsaturated fatty acids and therefore should be kept refrigerated and never used for cooking because of their unstable nature. Secondly, polyunsaturated fats should be used sparingly in the diet. With a high omega-6 content, polyunsaturated fats are more of an inflammatory fat and although we need some, we need to be sure we limit our exposure. Roughly a teaspoon of flax, hemp or pumpkin seed oil a day is a good rule of thumb when balanced with a diet higher in saturated and monounsaturated fats.

The vegetable, soybean and corn oils are all highly processed oils made from genetically modified crops. Similarly, avoid Canola Oil and cottonseed oil as these are not naturally occurring oils. The extraction process of each of these oils renders them rancid. In order to release the oils the nuts and seeds are crushed, exposed to heat and then pressed under high pressure to extract the oil. The pressure used to extract the oil generates more heat further damaging the oil. To get the final bits of oil out, hexane (a derivative of petroleum) is used. This is boiled off in the end stage but up to 100 parts per million can remain in. Also, hexane acts as a magnet for any pesticide residues from the original seeds and nuts, keeping the pesticide residue in the end product.

When reading labels, be sure you look for these words: cold-pressed, unrefined, expeller pressed, organic, pasture-raised and extra virgin.

My super-simple rule of thumb on fats looks like this:

  • Cook with saturated fats.
  • Add flavor with monounsaturated fats.
  • Treat the high-quality polyunsaturated fats as supplements that you take in small amounts.

By doing this, you will get each type of fat into your diet and reap all the benefits they offer.

Sources:

Enig, M.G. (2008) Know Your Fats, Silver Spring, MD: Bethesda Press

Dunseth, Colleen. The Big Fat Lie

Barringer, Caroline. Fats: Safer Choices for your Frying Pan and Your Health