best natural foods

Monounsaturated fats - good but not canola

Monounsaturated fats have always been used traditionally for cooking. The Europeans used olive oil; Asians used sesame oil (known as gingerly oil in India) and peanut oil.

These are all rich in monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs. Other less common oils in the aame category include rice bran oil and camellia or tea seed oil.

These are healthy cooking oils. Many studies have shown that monosaturated fats:

BUT... it does not mean that just because a fat is monounsatured, it must be healthy. The one exception is canola oil. It is an artificially created oil, derived from a genetically modified plant. It is harmful.

Dr Mary Enig, a leading authority on fats and oils, has written an article titled "The Great CON-ola", suggesting that the entire campaign to produce and promote Canola was a great con job.

Another important BUT is this... monounsaturated fats should neither be taken excessively nor exclusively. If you only take such fats and nothing else, you may be headed for trouble too.

A 1998 study, by L L Rudel and others, found that mice fed a diet containing monounsaturateds were more likely to develop atherosclerosis than mice fed a diet containing saturated fat. To avoid health problems, these fats need to be taken together with saturated fats. That's what people in traditional societies did.

An 'in-between' fat

In Chemistry, fats are classified according to how many double bonds they have in their molecular structure.

Saturated fats have no double bonds. They are "saturated" with hydrogen atoms and they do not form further chemical reactions where they take on more hydrogen atoms. This makes them highly stable. They can be used in high temperature cooking; they also store well and do not spoil and turn rancid easily.

Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds, making them highly unstable. As the name implies, MONO-unsaturated fatty acids have only one double bond. They are thus "in-between" saturated and polyunsaturated fats.

One indication of stability is the smoke point, which is the temperature at which a cooking fat or oil begins to break down. For various monounsaturated fats, the smoke points are shown in the table below:

Type of monounsaturated fat Smoke point
High oleic canola oil 475ºF
Extra virgin olive oil 375ºF
Peanut oil (unrefined) 320ºF
Peanut oil (refined) 450ºF
Rice bran oil 490ºF
Sesame oil (unrefined) 350ºF
Sesame oil (semi-refined) 450ºF
Tea seed / Camellia oil 485ºF
Type of saturated fat Smoke point
Butter 350ºF
Lard 375ºF
Coconut oil 450ºF

The smoke points for various monounsaturated fats are comparable with - in fact, often higher than - those of saturated fats. In comparison, most polyunsaturated fats have a smoke point of only slighly above 200ºF, although the smoke point increases when the oils have been refined and otherwise processed.

Quality standards

Being stable, however, does not mean that monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs do not turn rancid. They do, just that they do not spoil as easily as highly unstable polyunsaturated fats.

In the case of olive oils, the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) specifies that olive oils can be labelled "extra virgin" only if they DO NOT EXCEED 0.8 percent acidity, meaning they do not contain more than 0.8 percent rancid oils. Some of the truly best olive oils have even lower acidity levels, at 0.2 percent or even close to 0.0 percentExtra virgin olive oils meet the highest standards of the IOOC. Apart from being naturally extracted and unprocessed / unrefined, extra virgin olive oils must not exceed 0.8 percent acidity. It is worth noting, however, that .
. But... not all olive oil producers adhere to standards set by the IOOC and there are many "fake" extra virgin olive oils that do not meet the standards.

The fact that olive oil comes in different quality standards tell us something important - that quality matters. Not all olive oils are equally healthy. Just because olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats does not make it healthy. Other factors, such as the way the oil is produced, are also important.

The 'best oils'?

We are often told that olive and canola oils are "the best" cooking oils. Are they?

Such statements arise only because most of the scientific literature (in the Englsih language) come from Western cultures - particularly the United States, Canada and Britain - and these are the two oils most commonly used in Western cultures.

Olive oil has been extensively research and scientists have found many good things about it. The more research they ccnduct (on natural foods), chances are the more benefits they will find.

Canola oil, however, is a different story. Much of the claimed advantages of canola oil is propaganda by US and Canadian oil producers. Those scientists who have done their studies have found several problems with canola oil, even though it is one of the monounsaturated fats.

The focus on olive and canola oils doies not mean that sesame, peanut and other monounsaturated oils used in Eastern cultures are less beneficial - just that less is known about them. In terms of stability and heat tolerance, they are equal or superior to olive and canola oils. In terms of other nutritional advantages, perhaps further research will reveal more about their goodness. Right now we don't know for sure.

Another oil that deserves mention is tea seed oil, or camellia oil. This is popularly used for cooking as well as salad dressings and marinades in parts of China (particularly in Hunan province) and Japan. This is not to be confused with Teatree oil, which is a medicinal oil that is used in tiny amounts, not for cooking.

As can be seen from the table above, camellia oil has the highest smoke point among cooking oils. I have seen it on sale and the literature on the packaging claims many health benefits as well. But I have yet to try camellia oil because it is somewhat costly - and the shop where I saw it previously no longer sells it.

Then there is rapeseed oil, which was genetically modified to become canola oil. It is also rich in monounsaturated fats but is believed to be toxic due to its content of erucic acid. Yet it has been traditionally used in Asia, including China, Japan and India. Clcik here to find out if rapeseed oil is really toxic or could it be even healthy?

Other monounsaturated fats

Another interesting oil is sunflower. Normally, sunflower oil is classified and sold as a polyunsaturated fat. But it comes in many forms. High linoleic sunflower oil typically has at least 69 percent linoleic acid, which is polyunsaturated. High oleic sunflower oil has at least 82 percent oleic acid, which is monounsaturated.

Avocado oil and various types of nut oils - almond, hazelnut, macademia, walnut, etc - are also rich in monounsaturated fats. You may not want to cook with these as they tend to be costly. But these oils have rich aromas and they make excellent salad dressings, on their own or just a dash for flavouring.

You can enjoy the benefits of nut oils by simply eating nuts as snacks. Or you can take them in the form of nut butters - peanut butter, almond butter, hazelnut butter, etc. They make excellent spreads on bread; they can also be used to make desserts. For a recipe using almond butter, see my page on agar-agar seaweed.

Just make sure you buy natural, minimally processed nut butters. Good quality peanut butter, for example, has just two ingredients - peanuts and a small amount of salt. In contrast, regular peanut butter may contain over 10 different ingredients, mostly chemical additives. Natural nut butters would have a layer of oil floating on top, which makes it troublesome to mix and stir. This is a slight inconvenience, which I partly solve by storing my bottles of nut butters upside down.

Finally, I'd like to end this article by talking about a form of monounsatured fatty acids that is widely used, yet not widely known...

Animal fats

Animal fats are commonly described as saturated fats. And most people, myself included, take for granted that such a description is both accurate and correct. When you look at the composition of animal fats, however, you will be surprised! Many types of animal fat actually contain more monounsaturated fatty acids than other forms of fat, as can be seen in the table below:

Type of fat Saturated Monounaturated Polyunaturated
Pork lard 40% 48% 12%
Duck / goose fat 35% 52% 13%
Chicken fat 31% 49% 20%
Butter 63% Most of the rest Small amounts
Beef / mutton tallow 50% to 55% Most of the rest Small amounts
Beef / mutton suet 70% to 80% Most of the rest Small amounts

So in fact, traditional societies have used predominantly monounsaturated fats for cooking - including animal fat, which also contains significant amounts of saturated fats.

This is another example of traditional wisdom. Traditional societies never cooked with polyunsaturated fats. This is a strange new practice introduced only in the last century.

Further reading

The subject of healthy cooking oils is a big and complex subject that cannot be covered in just one article like this. Please also read the following articles:

In addition, there are links the left of this page to discussions about some of the more common types of cooking oils, includingboth the unhealthy and healthy cooking oils.

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Healthy cooking oils
Monounsaturated fats
Polyunsaturated fats - the dangers
Saturated fats - why they are not harmful
Saturated fats - health benefits
Saturated fats and heart disease I
Saturated fats and heart disease II
What is canola oil
Canola oil dangers
Duck fat
How to render duck fat
Choosing olive oils - what to look for
Extra virgin oilve oil / olive oil fraud
Olive oil health benefits
Olive oil types and grades
Olive pomace oil
Premium olive oils
Rapeseed = canola
Rice bran oil
Cooking with raw / toasted sesame oil
Sesame oil health benefits