What exactly are “healthy” fats and oils and just how much fat should be consumed for optimal health? What I believe to be true now is pretty much upside down of what I learned through “conventional wisdom.” If you’re new to a low carb or paleo/primal way of eating, you may be experiencing the disorienting sensation similar to Alice when she passed through the looking glass into a strange, new world. I know that I did.
When I first started eating low carb, I was still operating under the conventional wisdom (CW) that fat makes you fat. It clogs your arteries and causes heart disease. I mean, everyone knows that…right? For example:
- Reduce fat intake as much as possible, especially saturated fats like butter, lard, and coconut oil;
- Polyunsaturated oils, like canola, grapeseed, and soybean, are healthier choices than saturated fats; and
- Margarine is healthier than butter.
For me, giving up most carbs, especially the purportedly “heart healthy whole grains,” was a move outside the mainstream. Increasing my consumption of “dangerous” (according to CW) fats felt risky…at first. However, after more than two years of low carb high fat (LCHF) eating, my health is better than ever.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with the new fat paradigm, but find yourself trying to reassure a concerned friend or family member who is worried that you’re engaging in risky behavior. It can sometimes be challenging to offer a cogent explanation. Primal expert Mark Sisson tells us “…that there are ways to do it, explanations and answers that don’t make you seem like a crazy person who hates his heart.” So whether you’re sharing your reasoning with another, or simply trying to reassure yourself, check out this concise and entertaining article by Mark on why a high-fat diet is healthy and safe.
I’m not an expert in nutrition. As to which fats and how much are best for you, I suspect that depends to some degree on your individual health needs and goals. I’ve included some resources at the bottom of this post for you to consider.
So, here’s the scoop on the healthy fats and oils that have become essential to our low carb/primal way of eating, how we use them, and where you can get them.
Butter is back! Butter, particularly from grass-fed cows, is full of beneficial vitamins and essential fatty acids. It is an emulsion of about 80% animal fat — primarily saturated fatty acids (SFAs) — with 15% water and minor traces of dairy proteins and sugars remaining. The dairy/whey proteins are what give butter much of it’s lovely flavor.
In general, unsalted butter (also know as sweet butter), is usually considered fresher because it doesn’t contain salt as a preservative. It is often preferred by bakers for that reason, and because it’s easier to control the salt content in recipes.
My go-to brand of butter is grass-fed Kerrygold, which is available unsalted (silver package) and salted (gold package). Although I would generally purchase it unsalted, Costco has by far the best price on Kerrygold, but it’s available there in only the salted version. As a result, salted Kerrygold has become my default, and I reduce the salt in my recipes to compensate. Occasionally, I will pick up the unsalted Kerrygold at Trader Joe’s, which is priced well, though not as well as the salted version at Costco. If you’ve never had grass-fed butter, you’re really missing out. Not only does it have more health benefits, you can really taste the difference.
Clarified butter is simply butter that has been melted and had most of the whey proteins and water removed. Unfortunately, some of the flavor is removed with whey proteins. It’s easier to do this in larger quantities, as in a restaurant setting. At home, it’s simpler (and reduces waste) to make ghee instead, as in this recipe from Serious Eats.
Ghee is Indian clarified butter which is made by boiling off the water, allowing the whey proteins to brown (which adds a slightly nutty flavor), and straining out the proteins at the end. Even though the proteins are removed, because they are toasted first, the resulting ghee has more flavor than traditionally clarified butter. Also, because the proteins are completely strained out, ghee is generally considered dairy-free and suitable for paleo diets.
Without the whey proteins, clarified butter and ghee have a higher smoke point (450F-485F) and are more useful for sauteeing and pan-frying without fear of burning, as with regular butter. Using fats and oils beyond their smoke point not only creates unpleasant smoke and flavors, it causes unhealthy oxidation of the fat.
Clarified butter/ghee are also more stable than regular butter, and can be kept in the refrigerator (tightly covered) for at least 6 months without developing any off flavors.
Both clarified butter/ghee can be purchased, but it is so simple (and much more affordable) to make it at home. As a result, I don’t have much experience with store-bought products. I know that Trader Joe’s sells clarified butter/ghee, although it is not grass-fed, but I have not tried it. There are brands of grass-fed ghee available, but they are even more expensive. Try making it at home –you’ll be surprised how easy it is. And because it keeps well, you can make a big batch to last you for a long time!
One of the richest sources of saturated fat known to man, coconut oil had a unwarranted bad reputation (along with butter) for awhile. In fact, coc0nut oil appears to have numerous health benefits. In particular, it contains a special kind of SFA known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which help boost your metabolism.
Coconut oils are usually refined unless they are labeled otherwise. Refined coconut oil has a more neutral taste and odor (less coconutty) and a higher smoke point than unrefined (400F vs 350F). Although refined oils don’t contain as many health benefits, sometimes you want that more neutral taste.
Unfortunately, many refined oils are chemically distilled and highly processed. Worse, they are sometimes even hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated; those versions should be avoided altogether. Happily, there are some quality, non-hydrogenated refined coconut oils available that are refined using a natural, chemical-free cleaning process (usually involving steam and/or diatomaceous earth). Nutiva (Organic) and Spectrum (Organic) are two brands that I have used and like.
Unrefined coconut oils are usually labeled “virgin” or “extra virgin,” those definitions vary across brands. Both virgin and extra virgin oils are made from the first pressing of fresh, raw coconut without added chemicals from refining. The coconut flavor can be mild or intense depending upon the extraction method. I often use Kirkland’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil (cold-pressed), available at Costco or online.
Expeller-pressed, cold-pressed, or centrifuged extraction methods are found in both refined and unrefined coconut oils. Both expeller- and cold-pressed oils can be heated to rather high temperatures. While the heat doesn’t affect the quality of the oil, it can contribute to a more pronounced toasty/coconutty flavor. Centrifuged oils are generally exposed to less heat and, as a result, taste more mild and delicate. If you’re looking for an unrefined oil with a mild taste, a centrifuged product may be your best bet. I haven’t tried centrifuged oil because I usually don’t mind a coconut flavor in applications like baking. When I want a more a neutral taste and/or to use it for frying, I use a quality refined oil.
If you’re trying a new type/brand of coconut oil, start with a small container to make sure that the flavor is a good fit for you before investing in a larger container (which is usually a better value).
Coconut oil has a very high stability and doesn’t break down as easily as some other oils, so it does not need to be refrigerated. Coconut has a melting point of 76F, so it can be solid or liquid depending upon the temperature in your kitchen. Regardless of how many times it transitions between solid and liquid states, coconut oil stays fresh and effective for an average shelf life of two years.
Avocado oil is pressed from the pulp of the fruit rather than the seed. With nearly 70% healthy oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), 16% SFA and 12% Omega-6 PUFA, its nutritional profile is similar to that of olive oil. Avocado oil also contains high levels of multiple antioxidants (e.g. polyphenols, proanthocyanidins, tocopherols, and carotenoids) that contribute to substantial health benefits.
Avocado oil has become one of Deb’s and my favorite oils in the kitchen. In addition to its nutritional profile and health benefits, it has high smoke point(400F-500F), that makes it great for cooking, unlike EVOO. Avocado oil has a mild scent and buttery flavor, again unlike EVOO, which can be a little pungent and bitter. As a result, avocado oil is tremendously versatile in the kitchen. I use it for cooking, baking, vinaigrettes, and mayonnaise.
Avocado oil comes in both extra virgin (unrefined) and refined. The unrefined has a smoke point of 400F and refined is 500F. Quality refined avocado oils that are cold-pressed/expeller-pressed are a healthy, all-purpose choice. I use the Chosen Foods brand, which is also available at my local Costco at a great price.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Despite the ongoing kerfuffle over which fats are healthy and which are not, nearly everyone seems to agree that extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has numerous health benefits, many of which come from antioxidants, as well as vitamins E and K. Monounsaturates make up the bulk (73%) of the fatty acids in EVOO, with nearly 14% in SFAs and less than 10% of PUFAs. Because of it’s superior health benefits and flavor, I use only cold-pressed EVOO.
EVOO is fragile, so the age is of the oil you purchase is important. EVOO from local or closer-to-home sources is likely to be the freshest. To find an oil that has been harvested as recently as possible, check the bottle for the date of harvest. Not all oils will have the harvest date, but they should at least have the date of bottling — avoid if it’s more than a year or two away.
You’ll want to use up your EVOO in less than 90 days of opening, so don’t purchase more than you can use in that time. Keep it stored in a cool, dark place (light and heat will hasten oxidation), and replace the cap quickly each time you use it. Unless it’s very hot in your kitchen, don’t refrigerate it, as that can actually interfere with EVOO’s delicate flavors.
There are a growing number of shops that specialize in olive oils, along with vinegars. I’m also seeing oils and vinegars featured more often at wineries and farmer’s market stands. These places can be great resources because they usually have knowledgeable staff and free tastings. It’s actually quite fun to spend some time doing this. Here are some tips to help you choose a quality EVOO.
For cooking, it’s basically a waste to use EVOO. While it has a low-to-moderate smoke point (325F-375F), more than a gentle saute can cause the oil to lose it’s delicate flavors. There are more nutritious choices for high-heat cooking: clarified butter/ghee, quality refined avocado and coconut oils, as well as quality sources of beef tallow, lard, and even duck fat.
High-Oleic Sunflower Oil
While Deb and I generally avoid seed oils because of the omega 6/polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) content, high-oleic sunflower oil is at least 82% oleic acid, a beneficial MUFA. It is also extremely low in PUFAs and resistant to oxidation. High-stearic sunflower oil is high in both oleic and stearic acids and is even more resistant to oxidation than high-oleic, though it can be hard to find.
I like cold-pressed, high-oleic sunflower oil for times I want a flavorless oil, such as when making mayonnaise. I don’t use it for high-heat cooking, because it has a lower smoke point of 320F and, as with EVOO, there are better choices.
Lard, Tallow, and Poultry Fat
Animal fats can be used in cooking for sauteeing, frying, and braising (as in confit), sometimes in baking (leaf lard), or added to leaner cuts of meat/poultry for moisture and flavor. The best quality animal fat will come from pastured or partially-pastured animals and, as a result, will be higher in healthy omega-3 fats than those that are conventionally-raised. If that’s outside of the budget, look for fats that are sourced from animals that are raised antibiotic- and hormone-free. with minimal additives.
For premium quality fats, Fatworks is a great source. They sell grass-fed/pastured fats: beef tallow, buffalo tallow, lamb tallow, pure pork lard, pork leaf lard, chicken fat, and duck fat. Their products are shelf-stable and can be purchased online and in some specialty grocery stores. I’ve also found quality animal fats in the freezer section of some of my local upscale grocers. If you’re interested in trading some time to save money, consider rendering fat yourself. It’s easier than you think!
Lard is pork fat in both its rendered and unrendered form. Leaf lard has little to no pork flavor, making it suitable for baking as well as cooking. Pure lard is more flavorful and good for everyday cooking. Bacon grease is a type of lard, just with a smoky, bacon flavor that can also be wonderful depending on what you’re cooking. Most of us think of lard as a saturated fat, and it is 41% SFA. However, it actually has a greater proportion of MUFA at 47% and 11% PUFA. Lard has a smoke point of 370F.
Probably the closest many people get to rendering their own lard is when they cook bacon. If you haven’t done so before, it’s easy to save bacon fat for future use. Just pour it into a glass jar and let it cool completely before covering tightly. It can be stored in the refrigerator for 6 months or so, as can lard, before going rancid. For longer storage, it can be frozen.
Tallow can come from beef, buffalo, or lamb. Beef tallow is mostly SFA and extremely stable. It is solid at room temperature and can be stored there (tightly wrapped, of course) for up to a year, even longer in the refrigerator. It has a mild flavor and is suitable for cooking many things. With a smoke point of 400F, it is especially good for deep-frying. In fact, McDonald’s used to cook their french fries in beef tallow, until the great saturated fat scare caused them to switch over to trans-fats and other highly-processed industrial oils.
Poultry Fats — chicken, duck, and goose. These are rich, savory fats ideal for sauteeing, pan-frying, and adding flavor. I used purchased duck fat to confit turkey legs and wings last Thanksgiving and the result was amazingly succulent. I strained the duck fat and froze it for future use.
Like lard, most people think of poultry fat as saturated, but they contain a greater proportion of MUFA than SFA: Duck fat is 52% to 35%; goose fat is 59% to 29%; chicken fat is 47% to 21%. Interestingly, chicken fat has the most PUFA at 32% and and the least SFA, and as a result is the least stable poultry fat. Duck and goose fat can be refrigerated for up to 3 months. Use chicken fat within 2 months or freeze. The smoke point of poultry fats is 375F.
That wraps up my basic primer on healthy fats and oils. For more information on the demonization of fat, especially saturated fats, that began in the mid-20th century, I highly recommend the book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by Nina Teicholz.
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