When it comes to holistic nutrition and all natural weight loss, choosing the healthiest cooking oil can be difficult. Rumors and opinions based on unsubstantiated facts circulate about which oil is best, which is toxic or which is most nutritious. Then there's the question of saturated fats vs. trans fats vs. polyunsaturated fats vs. essential omega fats and unless you majored in biochemistry in college it's easy to get confused. The truth is that various kinds of cooking oils have different natural health benefits and levels of nutritional value.
Olive Oil: One of Nature's Oldest Natural Cures
As a trained naturopathic physician I am not only an expert on natural medicine, but I also know the principles of holistic nutrition and all natural weight loss in order to assist patients with making the right decisions in the kitchen. In most cases each cooking oil has both pros and cons associated with it; olive oil is no exception. Olive oil is a foundation of the famous, health-promoting Mediterranean Diet and rich in health-promoting Omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids. Olive oil has been shown to help improve: cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, age-related dementia, blood clots, cancer, life expectancy and more.
Don't Lose the Holistic Health Benefits of Olive Oil When Cooking, Be Aware of the "Smoke Point"
Olive oil tastes great and can be used in cooking or as a substitute for butter on bread. It also serves as an excellent base for a healthy salad dressing or marinade. So, is this wonderful, healthy, tasty food also dangerous? The answer is: it can be. But it's not the fault of the oil; it's when we mistreat it, or use it for purposes it was never intended to fulfill, that it becomes more harmful than helpful. The key to solving this paradox is to understand the concept of Smoke Point. The Smoke Point is literally the point at which oil starts to smoke. Different oils smoke at different temperatures; olive oil is one that generally cooks best at low to medium heat, much hotter and it may smoke.
Smoke when cooking is not a good thing. The olive oil decomposes under the extreme heat causing free radicals and other dangerous molecules to replace the natural antioxidants. The smoke itself is also toxic and should not be inhaled. Finally, when there's smoke, it means the oil is dangerously close to its flash point, the point at which it may catch fire. The general rule is to only cook with olive oil on low to medium heat or use it cold. If you need hardier oil for baking or high heat cooking, consider oil with a higher Smoke Point such as Canola, Safflower, Coconut, or Grape-seed.
The True Holistic Health Benefits of Canola Oil
Canola Oil has great amounts of health-promoting Omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids, just like olive oil, as well as low saturated fat and relatively high Omega-3 levels. It, however, has a higher Smoke Point and can be used more reliably for higher-heat cooking. I have recently seen some emails about the dangers of canola oil that have been spread around the Internet. This oil has been accused of being genetically engineered, full of trans fat, an industrial chemical used as an insecticide or fuel, a toxic weed, a bio-pesticide, a form of mustard gas, a trigger for diseases like mad cow disease and lung cancer, and full of cyanide.
In truth, expeller-pressed, organic canola oil is healthy cooking oil that is not to be feared. Just like any other food, it should not be consumed all day, every day. Everything in moderation is the best rule for a balanced and healthy diet. It is a great oil to consider for medium to high heat baking and sauteing. Some caution should be used with lesser quality or less expensive forms of Canola Oil. The only way to guarantee the holistic health benefits of canola oil is to purchase organic and expeller-pressed.
Healthy Cooking and the Importance of Nutrition
Naturopathic medicine considers holistic nutrition one of the keys to achieving optimal health. In addition to homeopathic remedies, herbal medicine and other alternative health treatments, healthy, balanced eating habits are essential to total body wellness. To learn more about cooking oils contact your local naturopathic medical doctor.
Confessions of a Naturopathic Doctor:
I have a confession to make before we begin. I hate grocery shopping. I love to cook, and I love to eat, but I despise going to the grocery store. And I think I've determined why. When I go shopping, I want to get in and get out as efficiently as I can, with the ingredients I need and not having just spent my entire evening wandering the aisles.
But it seems every year there are more and more choices. If you want a loaf of bread, you have to walk the length of a football field to see all the options. Eggs--our local grocery store has 17 different brands. Every item on my list turns into a 20-minute label-reading, price-comparison game, to find the most healthy and most affordable option.
Even a naturopathic physician like myself, trained in principles of holistic nutrition, has trouble figuring out what are the best options.
How to Choose Cooking Oil that Supports Your Body's Natural Health:
I used to spend too much time in front of the cooking oil section. Olive oil alone is produced by many different companies, and comes in different sizes, different flavors, and all sorts of qualifications such as "cold pressed" and "extra virgin" in various combinations; it's enough to make you crazy! How do you know what to choose? What makes that $4.00 economy-sized bottle from the warehouse club different from the $23.00 boutique bottle at the health food store? Here are the answers!
The Holistic Health Benefits of Organic Cooking Oil VS. Non-Organic Cooking Oil:
The quality of the original raw ingredients (olives, peanuts, and other nuts or seeds) is important in determining the quality of the oil. As a general rule, organic cooking oils are preferred to their non-organic counterparts. Oils are concentrated, so pesticides and other environmental toxins pack more of a punch in a small amount.
Healthy Extraction Methods for Cooking Oils: Expeller-Pressed, Cold-Pressed, or Solvent-Extracted:
This next choice refers to how the raw ingredient is changed into an oil. The method used in inexpensive mass-market oils is solvent extraction; if you don't see "expeller" or "cold" pressed on the label you can assume it's solvent extracted. This involves a harsh chemical solvent like hexane and heat up to 500 degrees. The result is a bland tasting oil with very few nutrients remaining.
Expeller pressing is a chemical-free process in which the nut or seed is compressed to force the oil out mechanically. During the process, friction is generated which can sometimes generate too much heat for some more delicate oils like olive oil. This is where the term "cold pressed" comes in. All cold pressed oils are expeller pressed oils, but the cold pressing is done under controlled, cooler temperatures.
The Role of Refined Cooking Oils VS. Unrefined Cooking Oils in Holistic Nutrition:
Refined oils have been processed to remove impurities, making them more stable, especially for higher-temperature cooking. However, the process of refining filters out flavor and nutrients. Sometimes this is desirable when you need an oil for higher-heat cooking or that doesn't have a strong flavor. If you choose a refined oil, buy a naturally refined oil, using lower temperature and natural agents like citric acid, instead of commercially refined oils using phosphoric acid solvents and temperatures over 500 degrees. Unrefined oils like peanut oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil are often expeller or cold pressed and then bottled, with no extra steps. These oils have strong flavors, more nutrients, but should not be used in high-heat cooking. They also have a much shorter shelf life.
Virgin Olive Oil? Extra-Virgin Olive Oil? Ways to Live a Healthier Lifestyle:
Now, let's get technical about olive oil. Virgin and Extra Virgin: these terms have very specific meanings in relation to olive oil as defined by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), based in Spain. The United States is the only major olive oil producing and consuming country that is not a member of IOOC and the USDA does not legally recognize its classification system (i.e. extra-virgin). The US uses a system created in 1948 that lists olive oil grades as "Fancy," "Choice," "Standard," "Substandard." Technically, until the US adopts the IOOC standard, the term "extra virgin" can be listed on any label of oil, and doesn't have to mean anything! There is talk of the USDA looking into this issue, but in the meantime, you can't trust what is on the label.
In other countries the term "extra-virgin" means the same thing as "first cold pressed" and is the best quality of olive oil. "Virgin" means it may have more acid, but is still pretty tasty and good quality. Currently in the US, only the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has enacted standards and labels olive oil appropriately. In fact, their standards are higher than those of the IOOC! Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation that confirms all olive oil from California as of January 2009 will conform to the international standards. Olive oil not produced in California must say "cold-pressed" on the label rather than "extra-virgin," since the term "cold pressed" is more reliable.
The Natural Health Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are a popular topic when it comes to natural health and nutrition. Essential fatty acids are necessary for human health, are not made by our bodies, and must be consumed from food or supplements. Together the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids play a critical role in brain function, hair growth, skin health, bone mass, metabolism, growth and development. In order for people to reap the numerous holistic health benefits of essential fatty acids first we must clear up some of the mystery of these very important nutrients.
Holistic Health and Nutrition Definitions
Real-World Uses for Essential Fatty Acids: Building Blocks of Natural Health
Essential fatty acids are necessary for human health but cannot be made by our bodies. A deficiency of Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids can result in chronic disease, slowed growth, skin rashes, infertility, trouble fighting infections and healing wounds and more.
OMEGA-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are probably the most talked about and most often deficient in American diets. They come in 3 forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA, but you may be more familiar with the 2 most popular sources: Fish oil and Flaxseed oil. Other dietary sources of these highly beneficial fatty acids include green leafy vegetables, nuts, and soy. Some of the natural health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids include:
The risks of supplementation with Omega-3 oils
These oils may have blood-thinning effects, which may be part of why they seem to help prevent heart disease. If you are currently taking a blood-thinning medication such as Coumadin, or are scheduled to have surgery, contact a doctor before starting to supplement with Omega-3 oils.
Many inexpensive, poor-quality fish oils that you find at stores or over the Internet may have toxic levels of mercury and PCBs in them. When it comes to concentrated fish oil, it is VERY important that you only consume high quality, third party tested, purity-guaranteed fish oil. Be sure to purchase a trustworthy brand.
OMEGA-6 Fatty Acids
Not all Omega-6 fatty acids are created equal, like cholesterol, there are good and bad Omega-6's. Americans get plenty of the "bad" type of Omega-6 fatty acids in our everyday diet, through animal products and the vegetable oils in processed foods and restaurant fare. Too much of one type of Omega-6 fatty acids can lead to the creation of arachadonic acid, a pro-inflammatory substance associated with long-term inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and depression.
There are some "good" Omega-6 fatty acids, however, that can help reduce inflammation and have similar health-promoting effects as the Omega-3 fatty acids listed above. They are found in foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, and in supplements including Evening Primrose Oil, Borage Oil, and Black Currant Oil. In general, most people do not need to supplement with Omega-6 oils as part of a holistic nutrition program unless there is specific condition that would benefit from extra support.
Tools to Support Holistic Health and Nutrition: Fish Oil, Flax Oil, and Flaxseeds
As a naturopathic doctor I often hear the question: What is the difference between Fish oil and Flaxseed oil? And, patients also want to know the difference between Flaxseed oil, Ground Flaxseeds and Whole flaxseeds? In Holistic Nutrition for the Kitchen: Confused About Oils Part III I discussed Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Fish and flax are both excellent sources of these, in particular Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Omega 3's are important in heart health, skin health, depression, inflammation, and a myriad of other health benefits. These fatty acids are "essential" meaning our body requires them for survival. It is because of these many health benefits that your doctor might tell you to eat more cold-water fish, or that your cereal now advertises "with flax!"
How Fish Oil and Flaxseed Oil Support Natural Health
Fish oil and Flaxseed oil are both excellent sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. They both come in liquid or capsules, and are easy to take. The difference between fish oil and eating a piece of fish is that the oil is highly-concentrated, allowing you to get your daily dose of Omega-3s in a few capsules or a teaspoon of oil versus eating a lot of fish.
Which one is best? We often recommend Fish oil above Flaxseed oil as a daily supplement for a biochemical reason. Both fish and flaxseed oils are converted in the body to the same end product, an anti-inflammatory molecule that is thought to explain all the health benefits. However, to get to the final molecule and be used by the body, flaxseed oil has to go through several more steps than fish oil. Fish oil is very close to the end goal, and works beautifully in most people.
Holistic Nutrition for Vegetarians and Vegans
Vegetarians or vegans who prefer to avoid animal products should elect for flaxseed oil, a perfectly fine option for getting those Omegas. If you have an allergy to fish, obviously stay away from the highly concentrated fish oil. In the real world, I often recommend taking Fish oil for a daily supplement and using flaxseed oil with your salad dressings or as a condiment. Supplementing with Flaxseed oil is an acceptable alternative.
Recommended Products from Naturopathic Doctors
Fish and Flaxseed oils are concentrated so it is very important to take high quality products. Many inexpensive, poor-quality fish oils that you find at stores or over the Internet may have toxic levels of mercury and PCBs in them. When it comes to concentrated fish oil, it is VERY important that you only consume high quality, third-party tested, purity guaranteed fish oil.
Choosing between flaxseeds and flaxseed oil is similar to the difference between eating an orange versus drinking orange juice. The whole fruit has some juice as well as a lot of the fibrous pulp. The juice is just liquid made from the juice of quite a number of whole oranges. When you take flaxseeds you have the whole orange. When you use the flaxseed oil, you are taking the squeezed out juice (i.e. omega-rich oil) of a bunch of flaxseeds. Both are beneficial, both are important, but you take the different forms for different reasons and to get different natural health benefits.
Source of high-potency Omega-3 fatty acid source.
Reference: Dr. Kristina Lewis specializes in holistic women's health, classical homeopathic medicine, herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, all natural weight loss and healthy lifestyle coaching. She is a graduate of the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona and works as a naturopathic physician in Asheville, North Carolina at Lewis Family Natural Health. For more information visit www.LewisNaturalHealth.com
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