Given all the bad press trans fats received a few years ago, you might have thought they were as out-of-vogue as smoking lounges or lead paint. However, "they're definitely a big problem that people need to look out for," says Trevor Holly Cates, ND, a naturopathic physician with a practice in the Golden Door Spa at the Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah, and a board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She pegs the problem to our love of processed foods, which rely on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (the number one source of trans fats) because they're cheap and last so long. The problem of processed foods become exacerbated by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration legally allows manufacturers to say that a serving contains zero trans fats if the actual amount of trans fat doesn't exceed 0.5 grams. That's a quarter of what the American Heart Association recommends most Americans eat per day. So a lot of people are eating trans fats without realizing it, or while thinking that they're eating trans-fat-free foods.
"Stay away from processed foods," Cates says. "The more we process foods and alter them from what's found in nature, the more problems we create." Cates also argues that, when it comes to home cooking, we shouldn't be replacing margarine and partially hydrogenated oils with regular vegetable oils, either. "Vegetable oils are made quickly and cheaply, and with the processing, it does change them so they're not as beneficial," she says. For instance, the heat and harsh chemicals used to extract oil from vegetables can destroy some of the vitamins and antioxidants that should make vegetable oils healthy. Plus, research has shown that overheating vegetable oils releases lung-damaging and potentially cancer-causing particulates into your kitchen.
Instead, Cates recommends you use healthier, less-processed cooking oils that can withstand high heats and have long shelf lives naturally. "A lot of oils are delicate and they oxidize quickly," she says, either when heated to high temperatures or after they go rancid. "It's important for people to know when that happens, because when an oil goes rancid, it can be more harmful than good." The oxidation process creates alterations at the cellular level that can promote cancerous cell growth, she says.
"The foods you eat should be feeding you and providing nutrients," she says. So if you want to get the most benefits from your cooking oils, rather than replace your harmful trans-fat oils with other potentially harmful vegetable oils, try one of these good fats instead:
#1: Grapeseed oil. Cates' favorite cooking oil is grapeseed oil, an oil that probably isn't familiar to most people. It's popular in France and, Cates says, is great for sautéing, stir-frying, and other high-temperature cooking methods. "With other oils, high temperatures cause them to change molecular structure and oxidize," she says. In addition, she says, grapeseed oil has been found to improve heart health: Animal studies have shown that rats fed grapeseed oil have lower levels of cholesterol than rats fed lard or soybean oil. Also, it's high in protein and fiber. It has a light flavor, so it works well when you need a neutral-tasting oil to cook with.
#2: Coconut oil. Coconut oil has gotten a bad reputation because it's has so much saturated fat, as much as 92 percent. "But there are a lot of health benefits that go beyond just what kind of fat it is," Cates says. For instance, coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a nutrient our bodies need to help our immune systems. One of the only other major dietary sources for lauric acid is breast milk. "But I'd only use a teaspoon," she cautions. That way you get the health benefits without overdoing the fat. Coconut oil comes in a variety of forms, so you want to be sure you get the right kind. Extra-virgin centrifuged coconut oil has a light coconutty flavor, making it good for baking (if you want a little extra flavor in your cookies or cakes), whereas expeller-pressed coconut oil has no flavor at all and is a good substitute for butter or shortening. You can buy certified-organic coconut oil online from Wilderness Family Naturals.
#3: Ghee. "If people are trying to choose between a hydrogenated oil and butter, definitely go for butter," Cates says. "We would be better off if we got back to using butter and less of these refined oils." Ghee is essentially clarified butter, made by melting down butter until all the water evaporates and just the butter solids are left. The process concentrates the conjugated linoleic acid, a healthy cancer-fighter, found in butter. "When you clarify butter like that, it does seem to handle a higher temperature, as well," Cates says, i.e. it becomes more stable and won't oxidize when heated. The key to good ghee is making sure it's organic. "When you're talking about fats and dairy products, all the environmental toxins concentrate in the fat," she says. Ghee, however, like coconut oil, is high in saturated fat, so use just a teaspoon when cooking. You can find organic, grass-fed ghee through Pure Indian Foods.
#4: Olive oil. There's seemingly no end to the health benefits of olive oil. It's good for your heart, high in healthy monounsaturated fats, and it just tastes good. But the healthiest high-quality, extra-virgin olive oils don't handle heat well, so Cates recommends reserving them for salad dressings. Lower-quality refined olive oils that can withstand high heats (sometimes labeled "pure" or "extra light") have been heavily processed using heat and chemicals, and contain as much as three times less of the polyphenols and antioxidants that make extra-virgin olive oil so healthy.