Most of the time, Paleo recipes tend to prioritize animal fats – lard, tallow, butter, or other carnivorous alternatives – over vegetable fat choices. Nut and seed oils are generally a bad choice, because they’re very high in unstable and inflammatory Omega-6 PUFA. Add the fact that they tend to sit on supermarket shelves for months before they’re eaten, and then get thrown into a frying pan where the fats can degrade even further, and those big bottles of “heart-healthy” canola oil start to look like nothing but a tubs of inflammation waiting to happen.
There are exceptions to the animal-fat rule, of course. The obvious special case is coconut oil, which is almost entirely saturated fat with very little PUFA. Another good plant fat is olive oil, everyone’s favorite “healthy oil” for its monounsaturated fat, high antioxidant content, gentle processing methods, and delicious flavor.
Olive and coconut oil are delicious, but there are also a few other plant oils to add to the “safe list:” they don’t set off the Omega-6 alarm bells, and they have some unique properties that make them not only healthy to eat, but also interesting additions to your cooking repertoire. Check out four other interesting options below for adding a new twist to stir-fries, salad dressings, and Paleo baking.
Macadamias are often praised for having a better fatty acid composition than any other nut, and that benefit extends to the oil made from them as well. Unlike most other nut oils, macadamia nut oil is mostly monounsaturated – in fact, it has more monounsaturated fat than olive oil. Most of the rest is saturated, and it only delivers about as much PUFA as that favorite Paleo staple fat, butter.
Because of its excellent fatty acid breakdown, macadamia nut oil is an exception to the nut-oil rule. The high proportion of monounsaturated fat makes it much more stable, and less prone to oxidation during storage and cooking. This is a double benefit, because unfortunately it’s also quite expensive. The durability of the macadamia oil means that you can buy a small bottle, use some once in a while as a treat, and make it last without worrying that the oil is going bad.
Macadamia oil is often drizzled over salads, where its slight macadamia-nut taste adds an interesting flavor to the finished product. Try it in a vinaigrette instead of olive oil for a change of pace. For Paleo recipes, though, it has an even more useful application as an ingredient in homemade mayonnaise. If you’re not wild about the taste of olive, coconut, or animal fat in your mayo, macadamia oil is the way to go.
Red Palm Oil
Red palm oil is a highly saturated plant fat (roughly 50% saturated, 37% monounsaturated, and 9% PUFA). The fatty acid profile is attractive, but palm oil’s main claim to fame is its high nutrient content, an unusual benefit for oil. It’s famously rich in Vitamin E, and also contains several different antioxidants, including the beta-carotenes that give it a distinctive red color. The unrefined red palm oil also has a strong, earthy flavor that some people love and others can’t stand. You can buy refined palm oil with a less intense color and flavor, but this also diminishes the other nutrients, leaving it as just another decent choice of cooking oil.
Palm oil figures prominently in African, Southeast Asian, and South American cuisine. Because it has such a strong flavor, it’s important to use it cautiously – try it first in a small side dish, and see how you like it before you make an entire dinner with palm oil and then realize you’re gagging on the taste.
The big downside to palm oil is the environmental cost of producing it. Palm oil has become more and more popular in recent years, primarily because it’s useful in the food industry as a cheap replacement for hydrogenated and trans fats, or as a substitute for GMO soybean oil in Europe. It’s also used in cosmetics, and as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, but a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that food industry use was the major driver of the increase in demand.
This high demand for palm oil and its derivatives has led to an ecologically unsustainable level of rapid growth in the palm oil industry. Destruction of tropical rainforest areas to plant palm trees threatens several critically endangered species, most notably the orangutan. Orangutans are native to the jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia, where most of the world’s palm oil is harvested, and their numbers have declined precipitously as their natural habitat is destroyed to make room for palm plantations.
It is possible to get sustainably sourced red palm oil, especially if you find a brand produced in West Africa (where farming methods tend to be more environmentally friendly) rather than Malaysia or Indonesia. Your best bet here is to read the label carefully, and call the manufacturer if you aren’t sure.
Pressed from the flesh of the avocado, avocado oil is primarily monounsaturated fat: approximately 12% saturated, 70% monounsaturated, and 12% polyunsaturated. Like its parent fruit, cold-pressed avocado oil is high in antioxidants, which give it a bright green color and a noticeable avocado flavor; you can also get refined avocado oil which has a less noticeable color and flavor.
Avocado oil’s main claim to fame in the cooking world is its extremely high smoke point. If you’re going to cook with monounsaturated fat, this is the fat to use. Other cooks love refined avocado oil for making mayonnaise (just like the macadamia oil profiled above, it’s a less strong-tasting alternative to other fats), and gourmet oil aficionados drizzle it on their salads for an interesting change of pace from olive.
Interestingly, avocado oil is also famous as an all-natural beauty product, because it’s very easily absorbed so it penetrates much further into the skin than other oils. So if your Paleo lifestyle has left you as suspicious of chemical cosmetics as you are of chemical “food,” avocado oil is a tried-and-true natural moisturizer to experiment with.
Best-known as an ingredient in moisturizing lotion and skin cream, cocoa butter is also the fat that gives chocolate its addictively rich and delicious texture – buy it on its own, and you can get that delicious addition to your healthier, homemade Paleo treats. It adds a creamy chocolate flavor to everything you cook with it; if you want to get really fancy, you could even mix it with cocoa powder to get homemade chocolate that you can flavor and alter exactly to your tastes.
Cocoa butter is highly saturated (about 60% saturated, 33% monounsaturated, and 3% PUFA). It also has some Vitamin E and K, although you’d have to eat an enormous amount of it to get much of them. The downside of cooking with it is that it’s hard to get and fairly pricey, so cocoa butter is definitely a fat to use as a treat instead of an everyday staple.
Why Experiment with Fats?
An article all about uncommon and unusual fats does raise the question of why you would want to experiment with them. After all, if you already have plenty of fats to do the job, why spend time and energy branching out?
For one thing, it helps you discover new, healthy foods so you don’t get stuck in a recipe rut. Different fats all have different properties, and playing around with them can lead you to new recipes, or an enjoyable twist on an old favorite. If red palm oil helps you branch out into a whole new world of African cuisine, it’s well worth the time to learn about it.
Other fats are uniquely good for solving specific cooking dilemmas, like avocado or macadamia nut oil for making mayonnaise. Having the tools to make your homemade mayonnaise as delicious as possible can help stave off the temptation to give into the less healthy store-bought kind.
Finally, experimenting with new oils also helps you appreciate all the fats in your diet, and really embrace the experience of Paleo food. Healthy cooking isn’t about sucking all the joy out of the kitchen! Treat yourself to a fat you haven’t tried before, and get to know the Paleo world’s favorite source of energy a little better.