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Which Are the Best Cooking Oils to Use When Cooking Low-Fat?

The Oils You Select to Cook with Could Help Keep Your Cholesterol In Check

By Marc Lallanilla

Updated June 09, 2011

(LifeWire) - When preparing your favorite cholesterol lowering foods, you probably don't think much of cooking oils, however the substances used to prepare your foods is just as important as the final product that is on your plate.

You're making your own meals, sauces and dressings -- good for you, say many experts. Researchers have found that cooking for yourself, as opposed to eating commercially prepared foods, is one of the best ways to control the amount of cholesterol and fat in your diet.

"The biggest source [of dietary cholesterol and fat] is people buying foods and not cooking," says Anne Nedrow, MD, associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "Most Americans just need to eat less saturated fat.

But even for experienced cooks, the various sources of cholesterol and fats -- as well as the different types of fats -- can be bewildering. Not to mention, the marketing hype on the labels of cooking oils and other food products does little to alleviate the confusion.

The Four Basic Fats in Cooking Oils

The four major types of fats found in food products, such as cooking oils, are saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and trans-fatty acids, often referred to as "trans fats."

Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, such as butter or lard.

Trans fats result from adding hydrogen to vegetable oils; they are used in commercially prepared foods to preserve the flavor and increase the shelf life of these foods.

Saturated and trans fats are the primary sources of dietary cholesterol -- both of these fats have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other conditions.

Dr. Nedrow estimates that saturated fats constitute about 11to 12% of the calories in a typical American's diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends this figure should be less than 7%.

Sources of saturated fat in oils and other cooking ingredients are palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil (the so-called "tropical oils"), cocoa butter, lard, beef fat, butterfat, chicken fat and Pacific salmon fat. These ingredients contain at least 30% saturated fat, and the worst of them -- coconut oil -- comes in at a whopping 92% saturated fat.

Many common foods include high levels of saturated and trans fats. Crackers, cookies and commercially prepared baked goods, such as bread, pies and cakes are often loaded with high levels of these fats.

The 'Good' Fats in Cooking Oils

On the flip side, unsaturated fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can help to lower cholesterol levels, especially when used in place of saturated fats. These oils, such as corn and olive oils, are usually liquid at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats are found in foods and ingredients, such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados. Cooking oils made from these sources are useful in heart-healthy foods, such as olive oil-based salad dressing, and meats, such as chicken sautéed in peanut or canola oil.

Margarines and similar food spreads can vary significantly in the amounts and types of fats they contain -- and aren't necessarily healthier than butter. The AHA recommends using margarines that list liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient on the label, containing not more than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.

Dr. Nedrow notes that only about 3% of the typical American diet is made up of healthier monounsaturated fats, whereas the traditional Mediterranean and Asian diets are much higher in these fats.

Be aware, though, that using any cooking oils too generously -- even healthier oils and ingredients -- can result in weight gain. All fats typically contain more than double the calories of either carbohydrates or protein. Says Dr. Nedrow,"Fat is still very calorie-dense."


Anne Nedrow, MD, Oregon Health and Science University. Telephone interview, 17 Sep. 2008; 503-494-8311.

Anne Nedrow, MD, Oregon Health and Science University. PowerPoint presentation, accessed 18 Sep. 2008.

"How Can I Cook Healthfully?." AmericanHeart.org. Oct 2007. American Heart Association. 20 Sep. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/downloadable/heart/1196277317697CookHealthfully.pdf>.

"Fats and Oils." AmericanHeart.org. 2007. American Heart Association. 19 Sep. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4668>.

"Know Your Fats." AmericanHeart.org. 17 Jul. 2008. American Heart Association. 17 Sep. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=532>.

"Fat." AmericanHeart.org. 2007. American Heart Association. 18 Sep. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4582>.

"Eating for a Healthy Heart." FDA.gov. Food and Drug Administration. 18 Sep. 2008 <http://www.fda.gov/opacom/lowlit/hlyheart.html>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Marc Lallanilla is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. He has written extensively on health, science, the environment, design, architecture, business, lifestyle and travel.

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