Cooking oils are a kitchen staple. But there’s a lot of conflicting information regarding how healthy each of them are. With so many on the shelves – from coconut to olive, vegetable to canola, avocado to rapeseed oil – how do we know which ones to use, and if we should be avoiding any altogether?
Oils used for cooking tend to get their name from the nut, seeds, fruits, plants or cereals they’re extracted from, either by methods of crushing, pressing, or processing. They’re characterised by their high fat content, including saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
In recent years, coconut oil, which is around 90% saturated fat, has become the latest trendy “superfood”. It’s been hailed as a superfood (including that it’s less likely to be stored in the body as fat and more likely to be expended as energy) – but one Harvard University epidemiologist calls it “pure poison”.
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Consuming too much saturated fat – more than 20g for women and 30g for men per day, according to UK guidelines – makes the body produce cholesterol in our bodies that increases the risk of heart disease.
All fat molecules are made of chains of fatty acids, which are either held together with single bonds (saturated) or double bonds (unsaturated). There are three types of fatty acids: short, medium and long chain. Short and medium chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the bloodstream and used for energy, but long chain fatty acids are transported to the liver, which raises blood cholesterol levels.
“Coconut oil enjoyed popularity three or four years ago, when there were claims it had a special effect,” says Alice Lichtenstein, Gershoff professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, US.