Like to eat healthy? Always on the lookout for great recipes with a healthy twist? If so, you are probably a coconut oil keener. Am I right? Coconut oil is great. For some things. But did you know coconut oil is actually an unhealthy choice for some recipes? Let me explain.
Most non-chefs select oils for cooking based solely on the type of fat. Not long ago, that meant vegetable oils for everything. This was during the saturated fats are evil period. Fast forward a few years to the Mediterranean era where olive oil was all things to all recipes. We now live in the time of the coconut oil, which makes that the perfect oil for all uses. Or so suggest the healthy recipes that make their way around the interweb.
It’s amazing how quickly truth changes in the era of the internet.
I’m just going to put this out here: When it comes to oil for cooking, unless you were taught by a cook, everything you know is wrong. Let me explain that.
There are three important criterion for selecting an appropriate cooking oil for a recipe, but most people make their selection based on only one. The three criterion are:
- Smoke point
Most healthy recipes shared on the internet take only #1 into account. If you’re a chef, you undoubtedly take numbers 2 and 3 into account.
I just finished making a healthy recipe for (pretty tasty) banana oatmeal squares that said to use butter or olive oil to grease the baking dish. Olive oil for banana oatmeal squares? Really? Think of it this way: would you put olives in a banana oatmeal square? I love olives, but not with bananas and oatmeal. Many oils have a taste, so if you’re going to use it in a recipe, make sure you’re picking an oil for which the taste works. Before using an oil for a recipe – even just for greasing a pan – ask yourself the question above: “how would this recipe taste with olives in it?” In this case, the butter would have been a good choice, but I opted for coconut oil which I think also complements the flavour of the ingredients nicely. Coconut is not a slam dunk though. Have you ever had eggs cooked in coconut oil? That’s not a good combination. There’s a reason nobody adds coconut oil to their eggs – it doesn’t go. If it doesn’t go as an ingredient, it doesn’t go as a cooking oil.
This is one of the reasons vegetable oils remain popular among cooks as a cooking oil. Unlike many oils, vegetable oil is essentially flavourless. That means from a taste perspective, it goes with everything. Which means it is versatile.
The other reason vegetable oil remains a popular choice is that it has a fairly high smoke point. Every oil has a smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil starts to burn. When cooking, it is important to use an oil whose smoke point is higher than the cooking temperature you’ll use. For many recipes, this is another knock against coconut oil as it has a relatively low smoke points, or at least unrefined coconut oil does. The coconut oil in my cupboard (unrefined) has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s quite low. Thankfully this brand notes on the label that it is for medium heat cooking. Unfortunately not all brands list smoke point on the label, leaving people to inadvertently use inappropriate oils for their cooking needs. If you’re someone who loves to use coconut oil for all your cooking please reconsider, or make sure you use a refined coconut oil for the high heat cooking to avoid adding vile-tasting free radicals to your meal.
Interested in reading more about smoking point of cooking oils, including a table of oils and their smoke points? There’s a great article about it on seriouseats.com. Note SeriousEats.com is also a great source for delicious recipes.
What about health in oils? As noted above, once vegetable oils were considered the pinnacle of health while saturated fat was the work of the devil. The current trend is the opposite. So what’s the truth? This will unfortunately be different depending on what you read. That’s sad state of modern nutrition information: many “experts” have taken to cherry-picking scientific findings that support one concept while ignoring evidence that brings it into question. It is true that the evidence that once vilified saturated fat has been brought into question, but this does not mean that saturated fat is perfectly healthy. Similarly, the modern vilification of vegetable oils is that they are bad because we ate so much of it that our diets became overly high in omega-6 fatty acid, which put our bodies out of balance with the omega-3s. I think that argument has a lot of merit – or at least the part about the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid balance. What doesn’t make sense is that we should stop using it entirely. If the problem was that we ate too much of it relative to other fats, then the solution is not to get rid of it entirely: it’s to eat less of it relative to other fats.
If you aim to make all of your cooking oil choices based on smoke point and taste, you will end up using a balance of oils. I would argue that the present body of knowledge suggests that a balance of different oils is the healthiest option.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who gets frustrated by the myriad of bad recipes mislabelled by fitness and nutrition professionals as “healthy and delicious”.