As I typed “bacon fat” into one of my recipes once again, I was suddenly struck with the thought that I have not been telling you what kind of bacon fat to use – or not use. I just assumed you would know.
This led me to start thinking about fats in general, which ones we are supposed to be cooking with and which ones we should not. So for your reading pleasure, here’s a little primer on fat:
If you’ve been following my instructions and using reserved bacon fat to cook (good for you, thank you for listening), BUT the bacon that fat came from is the typical grocery store variety (not so good for you), then I’m very, very sorry.
Grocery store bacon is NOT the kind you should be eating on a regular basis and you most certainly don’t want to reserve that fat and cook with it. You see, whatever bad stuff is circulating in that sad pig is going to accumulate in it’s fat stores. If your piggy has been fed antibiotics, hormones and all sorts of other medicines to keep it healthy all while being fed a poor diet and housed in cramp quarters, then all those hormones, antibiotics and other medicines will show up in it’s fat. You don’t want to eat that stuff.
Bacon is one of those foods that gets a lot of attention in the paleo-sphere because paleo gives you permission to eat bacon to your heart’s content. We paleo-ers know that fat and animal protein are NOT bad for you, in fact, they’re good for you. The caveat is that you have to be consuming the right kinds. It’s never easy, is it?
Good bacon is naturally more expensive than poor quality bacon, so if your budget only allows one pound of the good stuff a week, then that’s all you should be eating.
As of this writing, at the beginning of 2016 in Raleigh, NC, a pound of local, pasture raised, no hormone, no antibiotic, no nitrates, no nitrites bacon is selling for $9.99/pound at Whole Foods in the fresh meat case. You can also buy it in those sealed packages at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s for $6 or $7, but those are 12 ounce packages (a pound is 16 ounces) so the price is essentially the same per pound. Whole Foods carries a brand called Pederson’s that is even labeled paleo, because it contains no sugar. I don’t believe Trader Joe’s has one without sugar. Though if you notice in the nutrition facts, even the varieties that contain sugar in the ingredient list somehow generally don’t contain sugar in the end product. There must be some sort of sugar extractor tool somewhere. I’d like to have one.
I have looked for “healthy bacon” at every mainstream grocery store around here and haven’t found a single one. There are even brands now that are labeled as healthier in some way or fashion, but if you read the fine print, there are still nitrates and/or nitrites, the animals are not pasture-raised, they are not hormone free, or they are disqualified from acceptableness in some other way. These grocers may get there eventually, but as of now, your best bet is a health food store or ordering online or a farmer’s market. There are several options if you want to order online, just google paleo bacon. It is more expensive though. But, as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. In this case, you’re paying for the convenience of having bacon delivered to your door. There are worse things.
Well, that’s a whole article right there, but we’ve only talked about one type of fat: bacon. Everything I said above goes for the other animal fats: beef tallow, pork lard and duck fat being the primary ones you would use for cooking. Check your source, check the fine print, check the ingredient label. And check your local farmer’s market as more and more of them are carrying things besides fruits and vegetables. If you happen to find meat products there, then you would be buying local as well as healthy and that’s a big score.
What do I do with these animal fats?
- Sautéing vegetables
- Oven baked sweet potato fries
- Scrambling or frying eggs
- You can whip it into an amazing mayonnaise. See the recipe in Practical Paleo.
Industrial Seed Oils
What about all the oils? You know that paleo says to avoid “industrial seed oils,” but what does that mean? Cottonseed, canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn, etc. etc. all fall into this category. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing the industrial moniker comes from the fact that they are very highly processed.
Why are they so bad? Each of these vegetable oils (sounds healthy, right?) are composed of mostly omega-6 fatty acids, the very ones that are associated with increased incidence of inflammatory diseases. I could regurgitate it for you here, but I think Chris Kresser has done an excellent job of explaining why these oils are so dangerous. In his article, he provides lots of evidence to that fact. Take a few moments and go to this article and skip down to where it says “Industrial Seed Oils: Unnatural and Unfit for Human Consumption.”
What I hope you’ll take away from that read is that:
1. if you’re not careful, you will consume an extremely unhealthy percentage of your calories from these oils and
2. they are directly related to increased risk of almost all diseases
That sounds scary, but it is avoidable. How? Eat real food. Food that doesn’t come in boxes or through a drive up window. I completely understand that if you are currently eating lots of packaged foods and convenience foods or if you eat out on a regular basis, then making a change to a whole foods diet can be overwhelming. But overwhelming is not the same as impossible. Small changes add up over time and equal big changes. After two years of paleo eating, my family eats almost nothing from a package. Yes, that means I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but it’s a trade-off. I see that investment of time and energy as an investment in our future.
People say to me all the time that they can’t make that big of a change. They could never give up take out pizza, or crackers and cheese or ice cream or you fill in the blank. But the truth is, you can! You just have to find the right motivation. And eventually, it will be second nature. At the beginning, it will feel like this will never seem normal, but it really will.
Pay attention to what you’re eating. Lots of folks have given up gluten as a first step toward healthier eating and that’s a great place to start. However, way too many people simply sub out gluten-filled foods with the new and engineered gluten free alternatives. Take a look at the ingredient list for all the fabulous gluten free products on the shelves you will see that almost all of them contain these industrial seed oils, plus tons of other additives. And LOTS of sugar. Even our USDA food pyramid/plate has recognized the need to reduce sugar intake, so there must be something to it!
I got off on a little tangent there, so let’s get back to those seed oils. You know that if you ever eat in a restaurant, you will be consuming industrial seed oils. It’s just a fact. It’s all they use. Even our beloved Whole Foods does it. They are getting better, but if you go to the hot bar and read the ingredients on the little signs, you will find that almost all the prepared foods contain canola oil. So when you’re cooking at home, do your best and avoid these oils.
What do I do with Industrial Seed Oils?
- Throw them out!
So what are you supposed to cook with, besides the animal fats? Avocado oil is one great choice. It performs well under high heat and is very neutral in taste. You can even buy it at Costco for a great price. You can whip it into mayonnaise too and it’s absolutely delicious. I have read about avocado oil having a great, fruity flavor, but I haven’t found one that does. I like it because it’s neutral.
What do I do with Avocado Oil?
- Make Mayonnaise
- Salad Dressing
What about olive oil? If you search the internet, you will find a wide variety of stories regarding olive oil’s usefulness or acceptability for high heat cooking. Even some sources that I respect say that it is ok to fry in olive oil, so I asked my functional medicine doctor. His opinion is that no, it is not ok for cooking. Olive oil oxidizes easily, which is why it is almost always sold in dark bottles. Light, air and heat can all cause oxidation. Oxidation means free radicals are formed which means trouble for your body. Oils that are unsaturated (like olive oil) are more susceptible to oxidation. Fully saturated oils are not susceptible because they are saturated. Travel back to high school chemistry class and you will remember that if a compound is chemically saturated, that means that all of it’s bonds are full. There is no space for an invader to come in and bond to that compound and alter it into something undesirable.
Saturated fat = stable = not easily oxidized
Unsaturated fat (olive oil is an example) = less stable = easily oxidized
Good olive oil is fairly expensive so I prefer to save it for salad dressings. Once again, pay attention to the labels. There are “healthy” olive oils on the market that are mixed with industrial seed oils. Manufacturers are sneaky. You have to be alert.
What do I do with Olive Oil?
- Salad Dressing
- Drizzle over cooked fish and veggies for a fresh, fruity taste and added healthy fat
- Dip for gluten free bread
- Wash your face
- Moisturize your skin
Ghee is another good choice for cooking and some baking. You may have heard of clarified butter. Ghee is the same thing. It’s butter that has been cooked slowly to remove all of the milk proteins – it is essentially butter oil. As a result, even people who do not tolerate dairy for one reason or another, can usually tolerate ghee without any problems. Ghee also has a very high smoke point, meaning you can cook with it at very high temperatures. I say that it is good for some baking because I haven’t used it as a full replacement for butter or shortening in a baked good recipe. Primarily because it’s so expensive. I’ve used it in lots of recipes for adding a little butter flavor. I cook my eggs in ghee as well.
What do I do with Ghee?
- Any high heat application like sautéing, searing or frying
- cooking eggs
- slathering on fresh toast or banana bread (yum!)
Do you remember the big uprising a few years ago (maybe 10?) regarding movie theater popcorn? How it was so horrible for us because of all of the saturated fat? Do you remember that the popcorn was cooked in coconut oil? And now coconut oil is all the rage. Yes, the fat in coconut oil is mostly saturated, but it is composed primarily of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are more easily absorbed and utilized by your body. MCFAs have been associated with increased metabolism, improved glucose tolerance and reduced body fat. And remember, saturated fats aren’t all bad, especially when it comes to cooking. See the olive oil section above for that chemistry lesson again.
Coconut oil, once public enemy #1, is now being touted as having all sorts of miraculous medical benefits including everything from weight loss to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a new field of study and I think we are likely to see much more about coconut oil in the future. There are already many scientific articles published and available on Pub Med, which is the online resource for scientific articles put together by the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. All that to say, these are trusted resources. If you’d like to read more of the science, see this abstract regarding coconut oil’s potential benefits.
The flavor in coconut oil varies widely by brand. Some people do not like the taste of coconut and others love it. I’m somewhere in the middle. I have been using the one they sell at Costco and I’m very happy with that. It’s flavor is fairly neutral. However, I have read that coconut is one of those flavors that you get used to so the more you use it, the less you taste it. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it is true for me that I don’t taste it much anymore.
Just an aside, coconut oil is very moisturizing so I sometimes use it as a hand lotion or lip balm and I wash my face with it. If you’ve never heard of oil cleansing, I cannot recommend it enough. See this article from The Wellness Mama, which is the one I read to get started. She recommends olive oil and castor oil, which do work well, but I like coconut oil better.
What do I do with Coconut Oil?
- any type of cooking really, but will usually impart some coconut flavor
- washing your face
- skin moisturizer
Last, but not least, is palm shortening. Think of this as the healthy version of Crisco shortening. This is another coconut product, but does not have coconut flavor at all. It is a saturated fat, but there are no trans fats. There are a couple brands available in most grocery stores: usually Nutiva and Spectrum. Nutiva has a yellow color, Spectrum is white and both have a relatively firm texture at room temperature. My preferred brand is Tropical Traditions, which you can only buy directly from their website. They often have sales and when they do, I buy it in gallon tubs. It’s softer than Nutiva or Spectrum, but I find that it works better in baked goods, which is how I primarily use it. I also like it for frying my tortillas. I’m not sure what makes this fat superior to others for the tortillas, but I think the taste is lighter than if I fry them in coconut oil. Palm shortening has no discernible flavor.
What do I do with Palm Shortening?
- Any type of cooking, including high heat like frying
- Baking, as a substitute for butter or shortening
There you go! A long, but somehow brief overview of the primary fats in a paleo kitchen. I’m working on a resources page that will *hopefully* be a neat and tidy place for you to figure out what all these weird ingredients are, where to find them and what to do with them.