When it comes to choosing between oils, you're probably like me - not exactly gushing confidence. Let's face it: the distinction between good fats and bad is a slippery one. It changes every few years, and nutritionists often disagree.
Still, there are a few unwavering rules when it comes to healthful lubricants. Avoiding trans fatty acids is one, even if you can't remember exactly why. This artery-clogging stuff is formed when vegetable oils are hardened into margarine or shortening. Not too much of a challenge to avoid, really, since TFAs only appear in processed food.
Some manufacturers, responding to the uproar over these industrially created ingredients, are starting to voluntarily post their presence on labels. By December 2005, they won't be doing it as a goodwill gesture; Health Canada will force them to do it by law.
Then there's the delicate high-wire act that balancing your essential fatty acids requires. No, omega 3 and omega 6 are not fraternities. They're polyunsaturates - and to make them work for you, they need to be taken in tandem.
As a nation, we are way too heavy on omega 6 sources (nuts, eggs, whole grains, corn oil) and should be increasing our omega 3 (fish, hemp oil, flax, green algae products) intake. An imbalance between the two may be associated with inflammatory diseases including arthritis.
An omega 3 deficiency could also affect your cognitive function and behavioural and emotional equilibrium. To put the relationship between the two EFAs in kilter, ingest them in a ratio of 1:1.
Omega 9 is another goody - think olive oil, cold pressed and extra virgin, please. This isn't an EFA, but an oleic acid and is associated with improved immune function. You should be aware that there's a debate over whether cooking with such unrefinedoil at high heat creates carcinogenic smoke. Some believe the danger is minimal, others advise frying only at low temps.
Actually, high heat can damage many oils, though grapeseed oil, as well as harder-to-find rice bran oil, are being touted as the best choices for high-heat cooking. California-based Spectrum is offering hybrid safflower oils and others - available in T.O. - that, according to the company, stand up to high-temperature cooking.
At the other end of the spectrum are saturated fats. These are generally found in meat, poultry, dairy products, palm oils and processed and fast foods. No surprise - keep these to the bare minimum.
But now, wouldn't you know it, some health types are touting a previously shunned saturate, coconut oil. As I say, when it comes to fats, certainties shift with the research findings and the fads.
What the experts say
"We're getting an overdose of omega 6 in general. In the long run, it contributes to problems with the immune system, cardiovascular system and cancer risk. If omega 3s are not present in an infant's diet, later in life this seems - and I strongly underline the word "seems" - to be linked to depression and other forms of psychiatric illness later in life. The risk of encountering long-term problems with the brain as you get older increases with less omega 3 in the diet. That has been statistically demonstrated by quite a number of research groups. The question is, can we improve the situation by taking fish oil supplements ? That's not at all clear yet. It's a disease process that takes 25 years to get established, and you can't change it in a two-week study.'
STEPHEN CUNNANE , professor, faculty of medicine, University of Sherbrooke, holder of the Canada research chair on metabolism and brain aging, Sherbrooke, Quebec
"Essential fatty acid deficiency is probably the most under-diagnosed condition there is. In my practice, I would say it's the number-one diet deficiency. I recommend hemp-seed oil (especially for vegetarians, who don't eat fish), because it's very well balanced and has the highest concentrations of all the essential fatty acids [omega 3, 6 and 9]. It can be used therapeutically for all kinds of chronic inflammatory conditions - eczema, psoriasis, arthritis. (Take five capsules or 2 tablespoons twice a day).'
ZOLTAN RONA , MD, MSc, Toronto
"You can't cook with the omega 3s [flax oil]. They are damaged by heat, and so are the [omega 6 oils high in] polyunsaturated fats - corn, soybean and safflower oils. When they're damaged, they damage us. The only fats that aren't damaged by heat are saturated fats. Lightly sauté foods in butter (you could add a bit of olive oil). And don't set the heat too high. Or you can steam food with a little bit of water and then add oil , which tastes just as good as frying. Natural saturated fats have gotten a bad rap, but as we unravel all the information and wrong assumptions about saturated fats and heart disease, they will be rehabilitated. Coconut oil is making a comeback. One of things about it is that it has a thyroid-stimulating effect. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, also found in breast milk, which has powerful anti-viral, anti-infective properties. Research shows it can be very healthy.'
AILEEN BURFORD MASON , PhD in immunology, nutritionist, Toronto
"I don't think saturated fats have gotten a bad rap. We know that trans fats are worse than saturated fats, but saturated fats are certainly not a good thing. The recommendation is that we should get 10 per cent or less of our calories from saturated fat. It's all relative to how you fit it into your total diet. Eat fattier fish to increase your omega 3s - mackerel , herring , swordfish , trout , salmon , cod and bluefish . '
CAROL DOMBROW , registered dietician with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Toronto