Why You May Want to Rethink Cooking with Olive Oil

by Lucas Rockwood

Pop health tells us that olive oil is the best, and that all other oils are bad for you. Sure, olive oil can be great, but there are dozens of other fats and oils that can be great too—many of which are essential for lipid balance in the body.

The “good” and “bad” oil debate tends to focus on saturated vs. monounsaturated vs. polyunsaturated, but it should be focused around good processing or bad processing, storage, and use.

First, cold-pressed olive oil is great when used on salads, but hexane-processed olive oil cut with canola oil and then used to fry potatoes is terrible for your health. Cold-pressed sesame seed oil in a dark bottle in the refrigerated section is a healthy delicacy. Toasted sesame oil that is three years old and stored at room temperature can lead to inflammation and health problems.

Here’s the skinny on oils.

Our bodies need all types of fats to be healthy. That includes saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats in their natural state. Truth be told, most fats are a combination of all the three anyway. People think of lard (pork fat) as a saturated fat, but 40% of lard is made of monounsaturated fats—the same type found in our beloved olive oil.

So which oils are the best to cook with? That’s simple. The most stable fats are best—saturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (this is a quick visual giveaway), and they handle heat much better. Coconut oil and butter are great examples of saturated fats you can cook with; and if you look back a hundred years, your grandparents cooked almost exclusively with saturated fats like lard, tallow, and butter.

And the skinny on olive oil.

Despite popular belief that olive oil is great for cooking, it actually has a very low flash point and must be handled with care. Can you cook with it? Yes, but at low temperatures, and if you can, use it mostly as a finishing oil.

Here’s what happens. When you expose olive oil to high heat, it gets denatured very easily. Olive oil is light and heat- and oxygen- sensitive, so it goes rancid quickly. In fact, most oils have a surprisingly short shelf life, and even though they might look and smell just fine, in many cases, their molecular structure has changed and these inflammatory fats are correlated with heart diseases, degenerative illnesses of all types, and premature aging.

Is olive oil healthy then?

It really depends where you’re getting it from. First, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils are always better options to go for. Your olive oil should taste like olives (can you believe it?), and the really good stuff even has sediment on the bottom. You want to use your olive oil predominantly as a finishing oil, which means steaming your vegetables first and adding the olive oil after. Cook olive oil as little as possible, and if you’re going to pan fry something in it, cook it over low heat. Remember, all fats are good fats as long as they are processed well, stored well, and used in a manner that keeps their molecular structure intact.