My wife, Lynn, was recently extolling the virtues of coconut oil, which seems to be one of the latest oil favorites.
I questioned why she thought it was so good, and her response was she had been reading a lot about its many benefits for cooking and eating, as well as helping hair and skin.
As a skeptic on many things that appear on the internet, I decided to do a little exploring myself.
I first went to the popular organic Sprouts grocery store in Surprise, AZ., where we were spending some time this winter.
I was frankly blown away by all the various choices offered in the category of oils for cooking and adding to foods. On their shelves I found 15 different unique oils including coconut oil, avocado oil, canola oil, safflower oil, olive oil, hemp oil, macadamia nut oil, flaxseed oil, sesame oil, almond oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, grape seed oil, palm oil and red palm oil.
When I research subjects like this, I rely on articles from respected medical schools, scientifically backed research and websites like the American Heart Association or American College of Cardiology.
I try to avoid much of the hype internet sites often put out. I do not believe in “alternative facts.”
Some sites such as the Whole Foods site, profit from the sales of various products like coconut oil and tout it as being great for your health. But, I wondered, is this really true?
Our bodies do need fat as it is a major source of energy. It helps us absorb some vitamins and minerals, is needed to build our cell membranes, and plays a role in our blood clotting, muscle movement and inflammation.
The oils we use in cooking, baking and salad dressings are fat made from chains of carbon atoms combined with hydrogen atoms.
Not all oils are the same. There are monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats, saturated fat and trans fat. The first two fats are good for us and the last two are harmful for our heart health.
Trans fats are known to be particularly unhealthy. They are an industrial creation in which the carbon chain is supersaturated with hydrogen in an attempt to have it last longer and be less likely to become rancid.
Trans fats raise the bad LDL cholesterol to dangerous levels, decrease the good HDL cholesterol, and create inflammation linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Fortunately trans fats have essentially been banned and removed from most food products. You still have to be a bit wary if you see a product saying it contains “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” fat, a process similar to making trans fat.
I know this might seem complicated which isn’t my intent.
My take home message is when buying oils for cooking or added to salads, try to get primarily mono or polyunsaturated oils that are either not harmful but are in fact healthy for you.
In the 1960s it became apparent residents of Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean had a very low rate of heart disease. This was attributed to their nearly exclusive use of olive oil rather than saturated fats.
Olive oil contains 78 percent monounsaturated fat and 8 percent polyunsaturated fat. There is plenty of evidence the Mediterranean diet emphasizing olive oil is very good for your heart health.
Both mono and polyunsaturated oils raise good HDL and lower LDL and include fats from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. Good sources of monos are olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, nut oil, safflower oil and sunflower oils. Olive oil has 78 percent monounsaturated oil, rapeseed 63 percent, corn oil 54 percent and sunflower oil 65 percent.
Coconut oil, on the other hand, has 86 percent saturated fat compared to butter, which has 51 percent.
The American Heart Association recommends we limit our saturated fat intake to no more than 13 grams per day.
That is the amount in one tablespoon of coconut oil.
The claim coconut oil might be helpful in Alzheimer’s disease has no scientific or research backing.
The excellent WebMD internet site recommends the following three oils would cover your cooking and baking needs as well as being relatively healthy.
Number one is extra virgin olive oils, which are also high in antioxidants linked to heart health. If it isn’t “virgin,” it doesn’t contain these antioxidants. Olive oil can be used in sautéing vegetables, drizzled on vegetables and used to make excellent salad dressing.
Canola oil is good in baking, sautéing, roasting and in salad dressing. It can also be mixed 1:1 with olive oil for use in salad dressing.
The third recommended oil is walnut oil with its rich nutty flavor and 91 percent unsaturated fat ratio.
Three other oils good for cooking include grape seed oil, peanut oil and sesame oil. The first two contain high mono and polyunsaturated fats and very low saturated fat.
There is some controversy about grape seed oil and health, and for that reason I personally will avoid it in my cooking.
Sesame oil is essential in Asian cooking used best when added to the oil used in stir frying and drizzling small amounts on the finished dish.
Fat is an important necessary component to our diets. Saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and trans fats are harmful and not good for our heart health.
I can find no evidence supporting claims coconut oil or palm oil are beneficial health-wise and I think they should be avoided.
Hopefully my wife will agree with me on this.
Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.