Butter vs. Oil: Which Is Better?

Butter vs. oil: who wins? I know that seems like an obvious choice, but I often wonder if it’s okay to cook with butter sometimes – it is natural, after all, isn’t it? And when it comes to choosing an oil to cook in, which is better — canola, sunflower, vegetable, olive oil, etc etc etc?

Dr. Doug’s Answer

The “obvious” choice in the butter versus oil argument may not be what you think it is. When it comes to whether to use butter or oil, butter comes out on top in most cases. Now this is going to depend on the situation, as different recipes are going to call for different oils (you wouldn’t put butter on a salad, for instance). But when it comes to cooking with organic butter or organic canola oil, I’d take butter any day.

I covered a lot of this ground in a piece I did a while ago on butter versus margarine which helped to vindicate our fatty yellow friend. The post points out that saturated fat isn’t the enemy it’s been unfairly labelled as and ditto for dietary cholesterol (no research seems to show any correlation between cholesterol consumption and cholesterol levels in the blood). As well, butter contains vitamins and other essential nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin D, lecithin, vitamin E, selenium, iodine and fatty acids. Have a look at the piece if you haven’t before. I’m sure it will be quite eye-opening.

But this does still leave the question as to which oil is better to use. Again, this is going to depend on the situation, but I’ll tell you here what I like to use and what I never use.

For cooking, you want a saturated fat, no question, especially if you’re reaching fairly high temperatures. The reason for this is that saturated fats are the most stable fats. They can withstand higher temperatures without sustaining damage, and damaged oils are exactly what you don’t want. When oils become “oxidized,” from high heat, air and light exposure or chemical processes, they become deadly free radical-inducing nightmares you wouldn’t want near your dinner.

So for cooking, I generally use ghee (cooked butter that’s had all the milk proteins separated), coconut oil or even once in awhile lard or tallow. If this shocks you, have a look at the butter versus margarine article I liked to above — I told you it would be eye opening. These are good healthy fats that our ancestors used copious amounts of and never suffered a single clogged artery.

For some light heat stuff I’ll use olive oil. I don’t do this often; usually adding it to cooked pasta or sauteing something with a Mediterranean feel. Mostly olive oil goes on my salads, though.

Which brings us to cold applications. Here’s the place, and the only place, you want to be using what are known as “polyunsaturated oils”. These are the oils that remain liquid even when you stick them in the fridge (unlike olive oil, which becomes sludgy and coconut oil, which becomes hard as a rock). Think flax oil, sunflower or grapeseed oil. These oils are very delicate and should never be heated. This means they should always be bought “cold pressed” or “expeller pressed” from a reputable company as even heat in the extraction process can damage them. They should also come in dark glass containers to protect them from the light — they’re that delicate.

So what about all the cooking oils you see in plastic bottles lining grocery store shelves? Leave them alone. I wouldn’t use them for oiling my bike chain. These are the delicate polyunsaturated oils that are very delicate and shouldn’t be used for cooking. And even if you were going to use them on your salad, they generally go through a heating process when they’re extracted, so they’re already damaged by the time you get them (not to mention that they’re stored in a clear bottle, allowing light to damage them more).

So what about some of the health food store versions of those polyunsaturated oils? The ones like sunflower, safflower oil that come in dark bottles, are cold-pressed and cost and arm and a leg? I still wouldn’t go for them. The reason for this is that they’re pretty darn high in omega-6 fats. Omega-6s and omega-3s are the essential fatty acids — the ones we need to get in our diets because our bodies aren’t able to make them. But, here in the west we eat far too many omega-6 fats and far too few omega-3 fats. While the ideal ratio is about 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3, the average westerner eats more like 20:1. There’s no real reason to be adding excess omega-6s to your diet. Stick with the high omega-3 oils like flaxseed or chia seed.

It almost goes without saying the margarines and other tub spreads are out; even if they’re organic or otherwise “healthy looking”. They’re more processed than natural fats and don’t confer any advantages over them. Quite frankly, their existence is pointless.

I also avoid like the plague soy oil, cottonseed oil, “vegetable oil” (and what kind of vegetable would that be?), corn oil and canola. I know some readers are going to question me on some of these, but they’re all generally cheap filler oils used in processed foods that we sometimes get suckered into buying in the bottle. Even organic cold-pressed canola should be avoided (this is a version of rapeseed oil, a highly toxic oil, that has been modified through plant breeding in order to make it consumable. With so many natural oils out there, why bother with this questionable one?).

So that’s it. In my kitchen you’ll find ghee, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil; all organic. As I said, I’ll occasionally get lard or tallow just to change things up. I would also consider using palm oil, another saturated fat, if I could find a good clean source (much of it is hydrogenated), again, just to change things up. I also will sometimes take flaxseed oil as a supplement, although more often I supplement fish oil for all the healthy anti-inflammatory DHA and EPA.

I hope this answers your question Sadie. Choosing the right oil is vitally important in achieving our best possible health. Getting the fats issue straight is one of the first steps one can take toward healthier living.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

Editor’s Review:

Ugh another “its natural so it must be better” argument.

In reference to the “butter vs. margarine” article; to say butter is better because it is more natural has many flaws.

1. MANY natural things are harmful to us. Ephedra was used widely years ago for weight loss (and is still often used in China!) because it was more “natural”…. but then we found it it killed people. The tobacco plant is natural.. are we going to argue this is healthy? Opium which makes heroin is natural and the list goes on..

2. The sources in another article “butter vs. margarine” are mostly known to be quacks in the healthcare world. Meaning they aren’t thought of or known to be credible. They either use junk science or are just out to make a buck. check out quackwatch.com to see who’s credible and who isn’t.

3. Saturated fat IS proven to raise cholesterol, and replacing it with non-hydrogenated sources of poly or monounsaturated fats is proven to lower cholesterol AND is proven to protect against heart disease/heart attacks;

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9180239

and how about another one;

http://www.adaevidencelibrary.com/worksheet.cfm?worksheet_id=250387

Yes these fats may not be as “natural” but that does not mean they cause problems or are dangerous. Anecdotally speaking (i know, bad science but something to think about); when I worked in a hospital on a floor treating post bypass/post heart attack patients the diet most commonly seen in those groups was very high saturated fats (lots of butter, red meat, high fat dairy etc.) it was way to consistent to be a coincidence. Made me change my own diet away from high saturated fat foods.

I’m sorry but how can butter, and lard be good for us? Lets use our common sense before taking this advice!!! By your logic Bacon, as long as it is also organic should be good for us as well- just as long as its natural right?