The healthiest fats and oils

Coconut oil? Olive oil? Avocado oil? Butter? What’s the healthiest?

Here’s the skinny on healthy fats. With such a range of oils and fats in the stores and conflicting advice – often from biased sources – choosing the healthiest is not easy.

Various fats and oils

The 3 main criteria for healthy oil or fat choice are:

  1. The ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids
  2. The level of saturated fat
  3. A high flash or smoking point, if the oil is for cooking

Most of us understand that unsaturated fat is good, saturated fat is bad and trans-fats are ugly. But it’s more complicated than that.

The Omega 3:Omega 6 ratio of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)

The amount of Omega 3 in your diet compared with the amount of Omega 6 is important because Omega 3 oil is a powerful anti-inflammatory. This therefore decreases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, arthritis and even dementia, because inflammation in the brain has a role in Alzheimer’s.

The most important Omega 3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), with DHA playing a key role in maintaining good cognitive focus and memory.

In addition, the body uses fats in the diet to build cell membranes and a diet with a comparatively high Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio builds cell walls that are more flexible and therefore healthier.

In contrast, excess Omega 6 in the diet is pro-inflammatory. The emphasis here is on excess, because Omega 6 oils are still needed for skin, bone and hair growth and reproductive health.

The problem arises when the ratio of Omega 6 to 3 becomes excessive.

Omega 6 intakes have become excessive as most of the Omega 6 oils are cheap and used extensively in fast foods and ready meals. They include sunflower, soya, corn and peanut oils.

A report in the US National Library of Medicine confirmed that:

“Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio (typically 15:1 or higher), as is found in today’s Western diets, promotes … many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

In contrast, the report continues:

“A ratio of 4:1 (omega-6 to omega-3) was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.

“A ratio of 2.5:1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer and a decreased risk of breast cancer in women.

“A ratio of between 2:1 and 3:1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.”

So your ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 should be no more than 4:1 – ideally even lower.

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)

Monounsaturated fats – Omega 9 and Omega 7 – are also healthy.

Olive oil and avocado oil are the principal Omega 9 oils – these help lower cholesterol levels, boost the immune system and lower insulin resistance, which in turn lowers the risk of diabetes.

Saturated fats (SFAs)

Saturated fat in the diet does raise LDL cholesterol levels (the bad form of cholesterol) – and high LDL cholesterol raises heart and stroke risk. So it is wise to limit your intake of saturated fats.

Saturated fat from animal sources, such as butter and lard, mainly raises LDL cholesterol; some plant oils such as coconut oil contain a “healthier” saturated fat (lauric acid), which raises BOTH the bad LDL and the good HDL cholesterol.

And also more important – as always – is the big picture. 50% of people who die of a heart attack are found to have normal cholesterol levels.

Many of them, however, do have high levels of a special amino acid called homocysteine. The way to lower homocysteine levels is through a B vitamin rich diet including folic acid and betaine.

The importance of a high smoke or flash point for oils you fry with at high temperatures

If fat/oil is heated to the point that it begins to smoke, it starts to create toxins and harmful free radicals, which damage tissues in arteries and DNA – a potential trigger for cancer. So for high temperature cooking the best choices are oils that have a high flash point.

The healthiest fats/oils

Bearing in mind these three criteria: the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3, the level of saturated fat and the flash point, which are the healthiest oils?

The table below gives the answers.

Healthiest for salads

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
ratio
% PUFAs
poly-
unsat
% MUFAs
mono-
unsat
% SFAs
satur-
ated
Smoke or Flash Point
Flaxseed
=Linseed
=Flax
1:4 68% 18% 9% 107 C 225 F
Excellent for salads etc, but don’t cook with it
Extra virgin
olive
13:1 11% 73% 14% 207 C 405 F
Macadamia 3:1 2% 80% 16% 200 C 390 F
Not cheap but versatile
Hempseed 3:1 75% 13% 10% 165 C 330 F
Walnut 5:1 63% 23% 9% 160 C 320 F

Healthiest for cooking

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
ratio
% PUFAs
poly-
unsat
% MUFAs
mono-
unsat
% SFAs
satur-
ated
Smoke or Flash Point
Extra virgin
olive
13:1 11% 73% 14% 207 C 405 F
Choose best quality oil for higher flash point
Rapeseed
or unrefined Canola
2:1 28% 63% 7% 177 C 350 F
Canola was developed from rapeseed in Canada in 1970.
Avocado 13:1 13% 71% 12% 271 C 520 F
Ideal for all cooking including to highest temperatures.
Rice bran 20:1 35% 39% 20% 254 C 490 F
Preferred for highest temperatures if no avocado.

Use in moderation

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
ratio
% PUFAs
poly-
unsat
% MUFAs
mono-
unsat
% SFAs
satur-
ated
Smoke or Flash Point
Coconut NO omega 3 2% 6% 82%
medium-chain triglycerides
177 C 350 F
May be less heart-risky than other saturated fats.
Butter NO omega 3 4% 26% 63% 177 C 350 F
Limit consumption.
Sunflower
(high oleic acid)
19:1 4% 84% 10% 160 C 320 F
But avoid standard sunflower oil (see below)
Peanut
=Groundnut
NO omega 3 32% 46% 17% 232 C 450 F
Sesame NO omega 3 42% 40% 14% 210 C 410 F

AVOID!

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
ratio
% PUFAs
poly-
unsat
% MUFAs
mono-
unsat
% SFAs
satur-
ated
Smoke or Flash Point
Corn 46:1 55% 28% 13% 232 C 450 F
Soy
=Soybean
8:1 58% 23% 16%
and 0.5% trans
257 C 495 F
Safflower NO omega 3 75% 14% 6% 266 C 510 F
Sunflower
(standard)
NO omega 3 66% 19% 10% 225 C 437 F
Cottonseed NO omega 3 52% 18% 26% 216 C 420 F
Grapeseed NO omega 3 70% 16% 10% 216 C 420 F
Palm NO omega 3 9% 37% 49%
“bad” long-chain triglycerides
232 C 450 F
Also environmentally damaging farming
Lard NO omega 3 11% 45% 39% 190 C 374 F

Our conclusions

Extra virgin olive oil is the choice for salad oil and for all except really high-temperature cooking. Get the highest quality you can afford.

For example, cooking tomatoes in olive oil releases more of the lycopene, and lycopene is linked to both prostate health and lower breast cancer risk. It’s the foundation oil of the Mediterranean Diet.

Flaxseed and hempseed oils are excellent alternatives to olive oil for salads.

The ideal oil for high-temperature cooking is avocado oil – excellent for searing meats.

Rapeseed/canola oil is medium priced and a good general choice. But avoid canola which is high-temperature-modified.

What about coconut oil?

Coconut and coconut oilCoconut oil has got a lot of media attention lately, but it’s 90% saturated fat and, along with palm oil and butter fats, it does raise LDL cholesterol levels. Indeed gram for gram coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter, which is a reason that the American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended against coconut oil.

So how has coconut oil gained its healthy image? Initially it was pointed out that the Polynesian diet featured coconut oil and Polynesians have low heart disease rates.

True – but as always in nutrition you have to look at the big picture. Polynesians also eat a lot of fish – with heart healthy Omega 3; they eat fibre-rich and anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables at most meals and are physically active.

That said, some coconut oil – especially for high temperature cooking – is not going to have a negative impact on your health. Indeed, some 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid – a so-called medium-chain triglyceride, which has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties and which can counteract the yeast Candida albicans.

Inflammation is more worrying than cholesterol

Moreover, cholesterol is not the clear cut baddie that the press makes out.

Our bodies make cholesterol internally in the liver, because it is present and needed in every cell membrane. It’s essential for the integrity of cells and for normal body function. Indeed it makes up 25% of your brain cell membranes and nerve cells.

By far the most significant driver of heart disease is not so much cholesterol as long-term, ie. chronic inflammation and excess oxidation – free radical damage to arteries and tissues. It is these that are the key underlying risk factors in heart disease, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers.

The way to counteract these two key threats is via a Mediterranean type diet – a high proportion of fruits and vegetables, oily fish and olive oil.

Even so, as you get older and nutrient demands increase, I believe you should add  a comprehensive supplement featuring anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant nutrients.

Choose fats and oils carefully – and add supplements

Olive oilUse extra-virgin olive oil as your baseline go-to oil, switching to avocado if you’re doing really high-temperature cooking.

By eating oily fish at least twice a week, taking a daily Omega 3 supplement, not consuming high levels of Omega 6s through other fats and oils, and adding, for instance, flax seeds to cereals, you can push your Omega 3-6 balance over to the Omega 3 side.

And if you like the taste of butter or other nut oils, including coconut, try to choose organic and sustainably farmed brands, and continue to enjoy them in moderation.

 


If you enjoyed this article, please share it with family and friends. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter for daily headline health tweets.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Youtube

CTA Register NewsletterAnd register now for a free regular e-newsletter on the latest in nutrition and health research.


Dr Paul Clayton designed NutriShield as a comprehensive healthbutton-2 supplement with OPTIMUM levels of essential nutrients. See more detail elsewhere on this site or click on the button.


Dr Paul Clayton’s best-selling book Health Defence is available from bookstores. Or read a summary report here FREE simply by registering your email address.

 


See online here for delicious recipes from the Health Defence Cookbook incorporating healthy foods featuring in a Mediterranean Diet. Combined 3 courses strip


References

Coronary heart disease: seven dietary factors. DAT Southgate. The Lancet 1991

Effects of coconut oil, butter, and safflower oil on lipids and lipoproteins in persons with moderately elevated cholesterol levels. C Cox, J Mann, W Sutherland, A Chisholm and M Skeaff. Journal of Lipid Research 2017

Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials; Ronald P Mensink, Peter L Zock, Arnold DM Kester and Martijn B Katan; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 2003

The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Simopoulos AP. Biomed Pharmacother 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.