You’ve probably heard the term ‘good fats’ recently. As we move forward from decades of demonizing fat, there’s a lot of confusion around which fats we should be eating, and especially which are healthy cooking oils.
I covered fats that I recommend avoiding in Why We Avoid Vegetable Oil. So now, let’s talk about something more fun – healthy fats to use in your kitchen instead of vegetable oils!
The Importance of Healthy Fats
Before we get to my list of healthy fats, let’s step back and talk about fat for a second. Why is it so important that I’m writing a series about it? Well, besides the fact that fat seems to be the most misunderstood macronutrient, it plays many, many roles in the human body. Several of which are foundational to optimal health.
Fat is crucial for optimal health for everyone, but it’s especially true for those who are trying to conceive, pregnant, nursing mamas, and growing and developing babies and children. But also, important for everyone!
I touched on this when I talked about vegetable oil, but it’s worth repeating. The quality and amount of fat we eat can inhibit the body’s ability to function as designed.
Let’s revisit the cell membrane example in more detail:
Fats are the building blocks of every cell membrane in the human body. All 30+ trillion of them. When the body is fueled with an adequate amount of healthy fat, it’s able to build cell walls that support the transport of nutrients into each cell. When the body is not receiving adequate amounts of healthy fat, the integrity of cells walls is undermined.
With the overconsumption of poor quality PUFAs in the American diet, mostly due to high vegetable oil consumption, cell walls become too fluid and allow material other than nutrients to enter the cells. But, too few can also be a problem, resulting in rigged walls that are difficult for nutrients to pass in and for waste to pass out.
This is just one example of how poor quality fats can alter our body at the cellular level. Imagine the effects on the rest of the body, the organs and the systems, if our most basic cells are not getting the nutrients they need to support their health.Poor quality fat can inhibit the body's ability to function well. Here are my 7 favorite #healthyfats Click To Tweet
Here are a few more roles that fat plays in the body. Like with the cell membranes, inadequate amounts of fat, and poor fats, result in the body not being able to build, absorb, manage, support, etc. normal functioning.
- Fats are also the building blocks of hormones.
- They are required to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- They are critical for managing inflammation in the body.
- And, they are necessary for healthy liver function and building bile to support the removal of toxins.
My List of Healthy Fats
There are many good fats and healthy cooking oils out there. I’m sharing my seven favorite here, selected for the reasons listed below. You don’t need to own all seven to have a well stocked kitchen. You can start with one or two and, if you’d like, add more when budget allows.
- I use these fats. Every product in the photos in this post I pulled directly from my refrigerator or panty. I’m not recommending anything crazy that uber health nuts or gourmet chefs use. When combined with additional simple ingredients, you can use these fats to create delicious, healthy meals for your family.
- Each of these fats and oils can be easily purchased at the grocery store, Whole Foods, Costco, or on Amazon. I’ve linked to my favorites for each as a starting point.
- High quality versions of each of these fats are relatively affordable. They will never be as cheap as vegetable oil, and that’s just how it is. Pay now or pay later, as they say.
- These fats are versatile and each can be used for multiple purposes.
1. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a great fat for cooking. It’s 86% saturated fat, meaning that chemically it is very stable and less likely to oxidize due to heat, air, or light. The taste ranges from mild to fairly coconut-y depending on the type. Unrefined has more of a coconut taste, and refined has more of a neutral flavor, good for those who don’t care for the taste of coconut oil. Both have essentially the same fat profile.
You can read a previous post for more about the dangers of oxidation, and, if you’re worried about saturated fats, I’ll be addressing that in a future post.
What to Look For: Organic is great, and choose unrefined or expeller-pressed refined (to avoid chemicals used in the refining process). There is no standard difference for coconut oils between ‘virgin’ and ‘extra virgin’.
What to Avoid: Chemically refined coconut oil. If it doesn’t say expeller-pressed, mechanically refined, or physically refined, it’s probably chemically refined.
What You Need to Know: Coconut is marketed as ‘oil’, but outside of the tropics it is quite often solid (making it a ‘fat’). It is liquid at temperatures over 76 degrees. To use solid coconut oil for cooking, drop a little in a pan to warm it up to liquid, or use the microwave like I do most of the time. Here’s why I don’t worry about using the microwave.
Tropical Traditions is the cream of the crop of coconut oil. I used to buy all my coconut oil from them. It’s delicious and I trust their processing 100%. But now that we’re a one income, three person family, I don’t buy it quite as frequently.
Nutiva is a quality coconut oil from a trusted brand, and my current coconut oil, used daily around our home. It’s available on Amazon and at Costco for a great price, as well as in grocery stores. But I find that pricing to be significantly more. They offer both an organic refined and an organic unrefined coconut oil.
Butter is one of my favorite fats because it is so versatile. It’s delicious for cooking eggs, melting on popcorn, making chicken liver pate, and adding to sautéed veggies. It’s 99% saturated and monounsaturated fat, so safe for cooking. Grass-fed butter is a super food of sorts, full of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, and K2 (very important for arterial health), and high in conjugated linoleic acid (more goodness for the heart) and butyric acid (anti-inflammatory).
What to Look For: Butter from pasture-raised (grass-fed) cows is the best option for the health benefits. Organic is also great, if you can find it.
What to Avoid: ANY butter substitute product.
What You Need to Know: Butter freezes! If you find a great deal on butter, buy it all and toss it in your freezer. I recently found Organic Valley grass-fed butter for $1.50 per brick at my local discount grocery store. I bought twenty.
Kerrygold is a grass-fed butter (ten months of the year) from Ireland. There is some concern in the whole food world that it’s not organic and it may contain up to 3% GMO feed. But it is AVAILABLE! Kerrygold has made it’s way into Trader Joe’s, Costco, and almost every grocery store in America. That’s grass-fed, real food butter that people are eating. I don’t worry about the non-organic and potential minimal GMO food given the super food benefits of grass-fed butter.
Ghee is butter that has been clarified to remove all milk proteins and sugars so that what you are left with is fat. Ghee is great for those who are sensitive to dairy. It also has less of a butter flavor, and more a nutty flavor, which is a preferred taste for some. When made from grass-fed butter, it has all the same beneficial fat soluble vitamins. I cook with ghee about 50% of the time, when I’m not cooking with coconut oil.
What to Look For: Ghee from pasture-raised (grass-fed) cows is the best option for the health benefits. Organic is also great, if you can find it. For those super sensitive to dairy, I would recommend purchasing ghee that is certified casein free.
What to Avoid: There’s not much to avoid with ghee!
What You Need to Know: You can make ghee! Ghee can be on the pricier end of the healthy fats I’ve listed here, but purchasing butter and clarifying your own is an option. Michelle Tam has a great ghee tutorial. You can also find ghee at Trader Joe’s, but I’m not sure that it’s sourced from pastured cows.
Pure Indian Foods is my favorite ghee. I’ve met the owner a few times at conferences and can’t say enough good things about this company. Their ghee is not always available, as they only make it from butter produced while the cows are on pasture, from spring through fall.
Tin Star Foods is an artisanal ghee that I use from time to time. I haven’t tried the brown butter ghee, but I’ve heard amazing things!
4. Palm Oil
Palm oil is another fat that is less than 1% PUFA and great for cooking. It comes from the red fruit of the palm tree. You can find both palm oil, which is very similar to coconut oil in consistency, or palm shortening. This shortening can be used just as you would use regular shortening for baking, but it’s without all the dangerous side effects of regular shortening (more on this in a future post in this series). Palm oil is known for being high in antioxidants, like carotenes (precursors to Vitamin A) and Vitamin E.
What to Look For: Sustainable, unrefined, or if refined, make sure it is done so without chemicals.
What to Avoid: Non-sustainable palm oil products. Palm oil, though not used much in America, is one of the most used oils throughout the world. Rainforest destruction in Southeast Asian to clear room for more palm tree crops disrupts wildlife and the ecosystem. Both the brands I list below buy from sustainable farms.
What You Need to Know: Unrefined red palm oil has a strong flavor that not everyone loves. Refined palm oil is more neutral in flavor.
Spectrum has sustainable, organic palm shortening, available on Amazon for a great price.
Nutiva has sustainable, organic, unrefined red palm oil, available on Amazon for a great price.
5. Olive Oil
Olive oil is possibly the most versatile of the fats and oils. Because it is liquid at room temperature, you can use it for salad dressing (like my taco salad dressing!) and sauces. However, studies have shown that it is also safe to cook with olive oil. Though it’s not a highly saturated fat (it’s 72% monounsaturated fat), the idea is that it so full of antioxidants, they protect the oil from oxidation even at moderately high heat. (Source)
What to Look For: Extra virgin is the key to olive oil, you do not want refined, in which the antioxidants that protect the oil are removed. Organic is also great. Look for a dark bottle to protect the fats from oxidation by light (just say no to clear, plastic bottles!), and a harvest date will tell you how long the oil has been sitting on the shelf.
What to Avoid: Olive oils that are not pure, and instead are mixed with other oils. Unfortunately, partially due to mob activity (seriously), more than 70% of the oils on the market are diluted with rancid vegetable oils. If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out this book. The brands I listed below are all from the ‘safe’ list presented in this article.
What You Need to Know: Oils should be stored in a cool, dark location, with a secure lid to prevent oxidation.
Kasandrinos is, hands down, the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. Not surprisingly, it’s also the most expensive! It’s very smooth, and I find it blends well in dressings, without altering the flavor much. I went in on an order with a bunch of friends of mine this year (yes, we know how to have fun!) to split the shipping cost. I will happily save money on other fats and oils to continue buying Kasandrinos olive oil in the future. Update: Kasandrinos is now on Amazon! It’s not Prime eligible, but the shipping is much more affordable.
California Olive Ranch is a bit more affordable and available on Amazon. I find that it has a more peppery taste and it throws off some of my dressings, and so I tend to use it for roasting or sautéing more than making a dip or sauce.
The Premium 100% Greek Kalamata from Trader Joe’s, the Whole Foods’ California 365, and the Kirkland Toscano from Costco have all been confirmed to be 100% olive oil.
6. Avocado Oil
I just recently started using avocado oil, and I’m really excited by it. Price was always the prohibitive factor for me, but I’ve found two sources of affordable, quality avocado oil: the discount grocer in my area (Grocery Outlet) and Costco. Avocado Oil is 70% MUFA. Though I’m not aware of any studies showing that antioxidants protect the fats from heat, I cook with it on occasion given it’s low PUFA percentage (10%).
However, I actually like it best for cold uses. It’s much more mild in taste than a high quality olive oil, so I find it to be a better option for creating condiments. It’s great to use in homemade mayo as it’s not as pungent as olive oil and not refined like ‘light tasting’ olive oil.
What to Look For: Cold-pressed or expeller-pressed avocado oil. I don’t worry much about organic, as avocados have thick skins and are not treated with many pesticides.
What to Avoid: I’m not aware of anything to avoid for avocado oil, but if you find refined avocado oil, it may have been processed with chemicals.
What You Need to Know: Oils should be stored in a cool, dark location, with a secure lid to prevent oxidation.
La Tournagelle makes a great expeller-pressed and non-GMO avocado oil, though I find it has a bit more a taste than the Chosen Foods brand. Perhaps that means less processing? It’s available on Amazon, and comes in a tin can, which is great for protecting the oil.
Costco has a 1 liter bottle of avocado oil (33oz) for $10. I believe it was Chosen Foods brand, but I could be wrong.
7. Sesame Oil
If you were only going to buy one oil, Sesame is definitely not the one to buy. You can’t cook with it, and given it’s high PUFA percentage (46%), you want to use it sparingly (like a teaspoon or so at a time). But, it’s a great oil to add flavor, especially if you like the flavors in Asian foods. I will add a few shakes of the bottle after I’ve roasted veggies, as well as include it in dips, sauces, and stir fries.
What to Look For: Because of the high PUFAs, you definitely want expeller-pressed. Organic is great.
What to Avoid: Any sesame oil that is refined. The PUFAs are too unstable to survive chemical processing undamaged.
What You Need to Know: Please do not cook with this oil. Store it in the darkest section of your fridge. It’s quite fragile, so take care of it.
La Tourangelle has an expeller-pressed, non-GMO toasted sesame. I like this better than what I’ve found in the grocery store as it is stored in a tin for protection from light.
That’s the list of healthy fats that I use regularly in our home. Have questions about a fat or oil that isn’t on the list? Leave me a note in the comments and I’ll answer you as best I can.