Olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, canola oil, coconut oil…we could go on and on. There are dozens of varieties of cooking oils that most homes use on a regular basis. But while most of these oils have roughly the same amount of calories and fat (120 calories and 14 fat grams per tablespoon), each offers drastically differing health benefits. If that isn’t confusing enough, some oils are described as “partially hydrogenated,” said to be from “saturated fats” or perhaps they’re a source of “trans fats”—but what do all these terms mean? Read on to find out.
When we talk about oil, we’re simply talking about fat in its liquid form. And while fats are one of the three main nutrients our bodies need, there are significant pros and cons to certain kinds of fats. Each type of oil contains a combination of natural chemicals called fatty acids, which help us store energy and absorb vitamins. We talk about these fatty acids in oils in terms of how “saturated” they are—the more saturated a fat, the more stable it is when exposed to the elements.
• Saturated fats are usually found in animal products used for cooking, such as lard, bacon fat or butter. The most highly saturated plant oils are coconut and palm kernel. These fats are usually solid at room temperature. Research supports a small role for certain saturated fats in our diet—like virgin coconut oil. It contains a type of fatty acid that boosts levels of the good cholesterol our bodies need. It’s best to limit other types of saturated fats.
• Monounsaturated fats are high in monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. Oils that belong to this family include olive, canola, avocado, macadamia nut and peanut oil. Research suggests that these kinds of oils are the healthiest—some studies are even being done to figure out whether they help reduce the risk of cancer!
• Polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs, are found in most vegetable and seed oils, like corn, soybean, safflower, flax seed, sunflower and more. While the existing research is inconclusive as to whether these oils help or hurt us, the science is sure about partially hydrogenated PUFAs, or…
• Trans fats, which are oils that have been stabilized by a boost of hydrogen. They’re found in stick margarine, fast foods and commercial baked goods. Studies show that trans fats lower our good cholesterol, raise the bad cholesterol, and have been linked to heart disease.