Cooking with Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil

cooking with olive oilMy latest On Nutrition column in The Seattle Times, “Coconut oil: It’s really not that good for you,” is my attempt to set the record straight on whether we should be eating coconut oil with abandon. (Hint: we shouldn’t.) If you keep an eye on nutrition news at all, you probably have seen the recent headlines practically suggesting that coconut oil will kill you. The reality isn’t that dire, but neither is coconut oil actually good for health, despite the unfounded reputation it’s cultivated over the past several years as an energy- and metabolism-booster. In some quarters, it’s even been touted as a cure for whatever ails you.

Anyway, read my Times column for more on that topic. My real reason for this blog post are the numerous questions I’ve received via email regarding my suggestion in that column to use olive oil as a primary cooking fat. (Apparently, there are also several comments on the online version of the article disputing the validity of that suggestion…or so I’ve heard, because I never read the comments.)

Nutrition science, not nutrition myths

I enjoy busting nutrition myths, but try as I might (and I tried mightily with an article in the Times last November, “5 myths—and facts—about olive oil“), the myth that you shouldn’t cook with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)  just will not die! I’ll be tackling this myth (along with a handful of others) in a KING5 New Day Northwest segment in a few weeks, but in the meantime, here goes:

YOU CAN COOK WITH OLIVE OIL!!!!!!

Whew, that felt good. I admit that I used to believe that it wasn’t safe to cook with EVOO above moderate heat. It’s a valid concern, since damaged fats, whether they’ve gone rancid in storage or have been damaged from excessive heat from cooking, are not your friend. But I have it on excellent authority that those concerns are based on myths, not scientific fact. And I #StandForScience. I’ve talked to olive oil experts at UC Davis and Mediterranean diet experts, and their unequivocal answer is that home cooks can use olive oil for any normal cooking application.

Here’s why: When you cook with good-quality EVOO, the polyphenols in the oil protect the healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the oil from becoming oxidized, or damaged. Polyphenols are a family of phytonutrients  that behave like antioxidants. In other words, they fight oxidation. Phytonutrients are beneficial compounds found in plants that have a variety of beneficial functions when we humans eat them.

Assessing quality EVOO

So how can you tell if your extra virgin olive oil is good quality and still has it’s polyphenols? The easiest way I know of is to take a sip or spoonful of your olive oil. If you feel a burn at the back of your throat, that’s from the polyphenols! (Odd, I know.) No burn? Then that probably means that your oil is starting to go rancid from oxidation, and the polyphenols have been used up in an attempt to protect the oil. Oxidation happens with exposure to heat, light and air, which is why it’s important to store your oils properly. Olive oil that’s going rancid will usually start to taste bland (no throat burn) before it actually tastes “off,” for lack of a more precise term.