Rating the Cooking Fats
Choose the healthiest (and tastiest) oils, spreads, and shortenings
There are so many types of cooking fats and spreads to choose from at the
grocery store, and so many questions to consider: Are the new margarines truly
better than butter? Which oil is best to cook with in high heat? Does olive oil
So what's a health-conscious consumer to do? Well, because there are so many
nutrient issues to consider, there is no simple answer.
Olive oil is highest in healthful monounsaturated fats, but it has few
healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can't use it for high-temperature frying, and
it may impart an olive flavor when you bake with it.
Then there's canola oil, which is lowest in saturated fat and has an
impressive amount of monounsaturated fat (though not as much as olive oil) as
well as more omega-3s than any other vegetable oil. You can use it for both
baking and high-temperature frying.
For certain bakery recipes in which you whip sugar
with fat to create the proper texture (cakes, cookies, frosting, etc.), you
can't substitute an oil. What's your best bet then? In these situations, I like
to use margarines that are fairly low in saturated fat and fairly high in
And where does that leave butter? Butter is very high in saturated fat
(though not as high as palm kernel and coconut oils), but contains zero trans
fats. It also has some monounsaturated fat (but not as much as some of the
vegetable oils). I've got to admit there are certain recipes that just don't
taste right without butter. So I use it in those recipes -- but the smallest
amount I can get away with. And when I can substitute canola oil, olive oil, or
a no-trans-fat margarine, you bet I do.
Let's start with a rundown of the different types of fatty acids, then we'll
rate the cooking and table fats to help you decide which ones to buy.
Types of Fatty Acids
Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature (like butter or
lard) while others are suspended in liquid, such as with whole milk or
- What they do in your body: Saturated fat can raise levels of
"bad" LDL cholesterol and total
cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. It may also
increase the risk of certain cancers.
- Bottom line: Minimize these fatty acids! The National Cholesterol
Education Program Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High
Blood Cholesterol in Adults recommends that less than 7% of our total calories
come from saturated fat. This means a person eating 2,000 calories daily should
have no more than 16 grams of saturated fat per day.
Trans fatty acids (or trans fats) occur naturally in small amounts in
meat and dairy products. But most of the trans fats in our diets come from
partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, found in baked goods and other processed
foods. This manufacturing process transforms some of the vegetable oil's
unsaturated fat into trans fatty acids, which makes them more solid and stable.
You'll find trans fats in any cooking or table fat that contains partially
hydrogenated fat or oils.
- What they do in your body: Their effects are like those of saturated
fats, except that they offer a double whammy. In addition to raising
"bad" cholesterol levels like
saturated fat, trans fats also decrease your "good" (HDL) cholesterol.
This is one reason many researchers consider trans fats a bigger bad boy than
saturated fat. Many suspect that that trans fats increase not only the risk of
heart disease, but also of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and, in women, breast
- Bottom line: Get as little of trans fats as possible. Some
margarines and shortenings contain 20% to 40% trans fatty acids. But there is a
new generation of margarines being produced that have little or no trans