The Oily Facts
The day is long past when most of us used quantities of lard, bacon drippings, recycled meat renderings, poultry fat or solid vegetable shortening in our cooking. Even margarine has come under fire for its hydrogenated and often saturated qualities (at home in our sneaky kitchen we use a non-hydrogenated margarine and some real butter-- sparingly!).
But what about oils? Which ones are the worst and which the healthiest?
One of the very worst choices is overheated or re-used cooking oil of any kind. It's not only more artery-clogging, it can be carcinogenic. See this scary report about the dangers of the smoke from overheated oil in Dr. Weil's article, "Could Cooking Oil Be Cancerous?" (the technical report can be found at CancerNet). Very technical information on the artery damaging qualities of used fat is reported by the National Library of Medicine, if you're so inclined.
I needed to work when I was pre-teen, to buy clothes and treats, for lunch money and bus fare. Part of the time I sold things independently door to door on the way home from school. Summers, however, I worked at drive-in fast food restaurants, the only jobs allowed by law to children under the age of 14 in Nebraska where we lived at the time. Why this was considered healthier or safer than working in a nice clean office or store, I have no idea.
One of the perks of this low-paying job was that we had all we wanted to eat; I was always hungry and made the most of it. As a side effect, I developed a serious (and unfortunately lasting) taste for french fries, onion rings, hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, pigs-in-a-blanket, pizza, shakes and other such fare. One became quite addicted to the smell of the hot fat in the fried foods and that heavy oily smell in the kitchen; it developed a life of its own after a while. Even now when I pass a restaurant that's frying with well-used oil, I tend to salivate, although I stopped indulging myself years ago.
I don't think most of the places ever changed the oil in the fryers. They just strained it on rare occasions and added more from the huge 5-gallon can of mystery oil. Health inspectors, on rare visits, looked for rats, roaches and dirt and made sure the coolers were working. The quality of the food wasn't a concern. I'm sure that down the line many more people died from heart attacks and strokes from eating this stuff than perished from food contamination.
And healthy food still isn't a concern for many people, apparently, since the fast food industry is still growing and cooking techniques haven't changed much. These reports on the serious dangers of re-used or overheated oil should make us all think twice about indulging!
The very safest way to fry is to use a very small amount of fat in good, non-stick pans on lower heat. Cooking spray is an excellent aid to lower-fat frying, as well. The usual charred, old-fat or hot-fat flavor can be made up for by using excellent food and well-selected seasonings. Having a range hood with an extractor not only keeps your kitchen cleaner and cooler, but greatly improves the air quality in your home, removing any harmful oily smoke and hydrocarbons produced by cooking.
There's tasty alternatives to frying, too. See these "Fast Crispy Oven Fries" for an example.
According to many experts, probably the worst oils you can use, healthwise, are cottonseed, palm, and processed coconut oils which have saturated fats. Corn, canola and other "vegetable oils" are better, but surely not the best for us. Unfortunately, if you read the labels on prepared foods, from crackers to tortillas to bread to salad dressings to toppings, you'll see just how much of these less desirable and/or saturated oils and hydrogenated fats are forced upon us in our everyday diet.
Olive oil is one of the best choices for everyday use. See "Are fat free salad dressings the healthiest choice?" for surprising health benefits of some oils and the need for some oil in our diet. More information with links comparing types of fats can be found at "The Fats of Life" and "More on Fats".
Dr. Weil also touts olive oil. See his article, where he compares canola and olive oil, "Choosing Canola Oil".
Another healthy alternative is grapeseed oil. From Saveur Magazine, May/June '95:
"Grapeseed oil has been around since biblical times, but only recently has it been mass marketed in the United States. The oil, which actually raises your "good" health cholesterol level while lowering your "bad" one, has a much higher smoke point than olive oil (so it's great for frying), and doesn't have an intrusive flavor...."
Lifestar has some technical information on this oil, stating:
"If you could choose only one oil for your kitchen, it would have to be grapeseed oil. This oil is delicious and nutritious, and superb for both hot and cold preparations. It is also ecologically sound, extracted from grape seeds after the wine pressing, requiring no new farmland, crops or water to produce. It has been enjoyed for its taste and healthful benefits in Europe for centuries. Today it has become the secret ingredient of some of the finest chefs in America."
Pathfinder's "Ask Tina" column reads:
"Grapeseed oil has been shown to raise the level of HDL, or good cholesterol, and lower LDL, or bad cholesterol. It is a good source of Vitamin E Alpha, an important anti-oxidant."
Meanwhile, start reading labels before you buy. Stock your kitchen with healthier oils and learn how to use them. Your family and you yourself will thank you for it on down the line.