Olive oil is sooooo five minutes ago. People who are into healthy cooking oils and fats have moved on to duck fat, real lard, goose renderings, and coconut oil, according to a new report published by the market research firm Packaged Facts and the food trendspotters at the Center for Culinary Development.
Interest in these long-forgotten, more traditional fats is all part of the back-to-the-land movement that has triggered the growth of farmer's markets and reconnected people to whole fruits and vegetables, grass-fed dairy products, and pasture-raised meats, the report's authors note. It's no longer enough for top-line chefs and adventurous home cooks to eat grass-fed steaks; those steaks need to be finished with duck fat or real butter.
And it's not just the fact that these fats are traditional or come with a sense of nostalgia. Nutrition science is beginning to turn the idea that all fat is bad for you on its head, with high-profile nutritionists like Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, working to debunk the idea that low-fat diets are healthier. Many of the recommendations that we all follow regarding fat, he's found, are based on rather weak science that has been repeatedly questioned over the decades. That type of diet is also depriving people of a variety of nutrients found only in the animal fats and other cooking oils that have been demonized under the assumption that saturated fat is bad for you.
As a general rule, whatever kinds of fat you buy, keep your chemical exposures to a minimum by buying certified-organic plant oils and pastured or grass-fed animal fats.
Olive oil remains one of the healthiest oils you can drizzle over a plate of veggies, but if you're interested in branching out, here are 6 other healthy varieties of cooking oil now gaining traction in the culinary world:
• Ghee. Also known as "Indian clarified butter" or "drawn butter," ghee is butter that has been melted over a low temperature so that all the water content has boiled away and the milk fats have been skimmed off (check out our instructions on how to make your own ghee). What remains is a nutty, intensely flavored fat that withstands higher cooking temperatures than butter and can even be stored in your cabinets, rather than in the fridge (it won't go rancid). Indians believe it has healing qualities. And it's even more nutritious than butter: The process of creating ghee concentrates the conjugated linoleic acid—a healthy cancer-fighter that also prevents atherosclerosis (hardening of the heart's arteries)—found in the butter.
• Rice bran oil. Rice bran oil is quickly becoming the "go-to oil for fried food," the report found, particularly in high-end, independent, and ethnic restaurants. It tolerates a much higher cooking heat than canola or peanut oil, and like both of those, it's trans fat free. Health-wise, animal studies have shown that rice bran oil (which is made from the inner husks and germ of rice) can lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, but it contains high levels of polyunsaturated fat, which go rancid quickly and need to be refrigerated to maintain shelf life.
• Lard & schmaltz. The prime example of fats we all thought were bad for us, lard and schmaltz (rendered chicken, pork, or goose fat) may have been wrongly demonized for years. The main fat in lard—oleic acid—is a monounsaturated fat linked to decreased risk of depression, says Drew Ramsey, MD, coauthor of The Happiness Diet (Rodale, 2010). Those same monounsaturated fats, which make up 45 percent of the fat in lard, are responsible for lowering LDL levels while leaving HDL ("good") cholesterol levels alone. Lard and schmaltz also tolerate high cooking temperatures—they're often recommended for frying—and have long shelf lives.
• Duck fat. Like lard, duck fat is high in monounsaturated fats, which make up 50 percent of its total fat content, with saturated fat making up just 14 percent (less than butter). Most of that fat is healthy linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that keeps cells healthy, boosts calcium absorption, and aids in kidney function. Though it's still used mostly in high-end restaurants, it's showing up on specialty food store shelves and even some bigger retailers, such as Williams Sonoma. It can tolerate high cooking temperatures and has a long shelf life, but, like ghee, it has an intense flavor, so it's not a great all-purpose fat (and, considering the prices it goes for, you wouldn't want to use it every day, anyway!).
• Coconut oil. As with the other fats here, coconut oil's high saturated fat content (92 percent) has earned it an—undeserved—bad reputation over the years. "But there are a lot of health benefits that go beyond just what kind of fat it is," says Trevor Holly Cates, ND, a naturopathic physician with a practice in the Golden Door Spa at the Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah, and a board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. For instance, coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a nutrient our bodies need to help our immune systems. One of the only other major dietary sources for lauric acid is breast milk. Coconut oils are very common now in regular and specialty grocery stores, so keep an eye out for them.
• Nut & seed oils. Rounding out the report's trendy fats are nut and seed oils, such as walnut, avocado, pecan, and pumpkin seed oils, which are showing up not just in regular grocery stores, but in chain and fast-food restaurants, as well. Each different nut or seed oil has its own unique chemical makeup, but most of them, with the exception of avocado oil, have high levels of polyunsaturated fats compared to the healthier monounsaturated fats. They're good for salad dressings, but they do go rancid quickly and shouldn't be used for cooking.