Remember that chemistry post? This is one of the places that understanding the molecular structure of fats comes into play.
When unstable polyunsaturated oils (the ones with multiple, spring-like double bonds) are exposed to heat and oxygen (like when you use them to cook), they can create what we call “free radicals.”
This is SUPER CONFUSING because the supermarket aisle is FULL of polyunsaturated cooking oils and everyone and their brother tells you canola oil is the heart-healthy choice, but it is not healthy at all.
As we promised, we are going to tell you WHY and not just expect you to take our word for it.
Remember the weak double bond sites we learned about in unsaturated fats? That is the location where the problem occurs. These already unstable molecules will react with the oxygen when heated up, causing them to lose electrons (hydrogen) at the double bond sites. This reaction creates “free radicals” which are very bad for our bodies.
Merriam Webster defines free radicals this way:
an especially reactive atom or group of atoms that has one or more unpaired electrons; especially one that is produced in the body by natural biological processes or introduced from an outside source (such as tobacco smoke, toxins, or pollutants) and that can damage cells, proteins, and DNA by altering their chemical structure
That already doesn’t sound like a good fate for our healthy cells, but it gets even worse; polyunsaturated fat molecules can have up to 20 carbon atoms with 6 or more double bonds. That means there are at least 6 sites where a free radical can form.
Doing some math, a tablespoon of oil contains over 1,000 molecules, so if there are 6 free radical sites, that means that a single tablespoon of oil can contain over 6,000 free radicals. That means that 6,000 healthy cells in your body are about to be burglarized! What do we mean – burglarized?
The best way to describe it (as Dee McCaffrey says) is that free radicals are “like a little terrorist Pac-Men racing through our bodies.”
This is a big problem.
When free radicals enter our body, they are on a mission to become whole again. They will stop at nothing to gain the missing electrons and, once again, become complete. They will steal electrons from whole and healthy cells, and create a chain reaction of more free radicals! This is how mutations occur in tissue, blood vessels, and skin. When you think DNA damage and mutations, think cancer.
Free radicals also oxidize cholesterol and create “bad” cholesterol in our bloodstream.
Cooking with polyunsaturated vegetable oils and canola oils causes free radicals to form. These oils are unstable and contain fragile omega-3s that become free radicals from the heat.
Polyunsaturated oils are only healthy when eaten in their natural form – like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and fish. These processed oils should NEVER be heated or used for cooking.
So what is the cure for free radicals and the havoc they wreak?
The antidote to the free radical “poison” is “antioxidants” which are found naturally in plants. Antioxidants are like little helpers that come along with extra electrons and hand them over to the free radicals. This stops the thievery going on inside our bodies. This is why it is imperative to eat a healthy, whole food diet that includes lots of organic fruits and veggies to counteract the crazy little Pac-Man terrorists in our bodies!
So, then, if we shouldn’t use the bottle vegetable oils for cooking, then which oils are the healthiest to use? You can bet we will cover that in a post all its own – plus some tips on the cooking process and how to keep it as safe and healthy as possible.
Next up, we will explore the even-more-dangerous trans-fats.