The Problem with Refined Oils

The other day I saw a “real food” blogger giving away a tub of “organic ghee” to one lucky reader. I said to my husband, “What in the heck is ghee and why would anyone want it?” I thought that blogger sounded a lot more “hard core” than me about eating naturally…admittedly because I didn’t understand the reasoning behind the giveaway.

I’ve openly shared for months that oils are a weakness of mine and one of the last areas where our family could use a “real food” makeover. Trust me, the reader comments that call me out on my use of canola oil and cooking spray have not gone unnoticed!

So I am pleased to share that my period of “ignorance is bliss” is over, and to help me make this transition I’ve turned to Deliciously Organic blogger and cookbook author, Carrie Vitt. And I must share that after a brief conversation with Carrie about this post I went out and actually bought some organic ghee. I haven’t opened it yet, but I will hopefully find the perfect opportunity to start using it!

Before we dive into this post I want to say that if you tried to avoid refined oils 100% of the time it would be incredibly challenging to leave the house. So it’s important to remember to strike a balance between your real food mission and reality.

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Here is a detailed explanation of oils from Carrie Vitt in the first-ever “100 Days of Real Food” guest post:

Healthy fats in your diet are essential to healthy living. Healthy unrefined fats enhance our immune and endocrine systems, are needed for energy, and help play an important role in the health of our bones.

Olive oil, for example, that is unrefined, uses olives that have been pressed to extract the oil, but the oil itself hasn’t been filtered, heated, treated with chemicals, and so on. In other words, without getting too technical, it’s in its pure state.

In a world where our attention is brought to the latest studies it is important to understand which oils are beneficial for the body and which ones to avoid. Overall, it is best to consume unrefined oils. Unfortunately, these are sometimes difficult to find, but I’ve tried to remove most of the legwork.

Oils to Avoid

Many of the oils used in the modern American diet are hazardous to our health. They are processed, cleaned with chemicals, and most come from genetically modified corn, canola or soy. Most oils found on the grocery store aisles are heated to very high temperatures during processing; this heat oxidizes the oils. Oxidation also creates free radicals that can damage the cells of our bodies so it is best to avoid them.

The processing increases the shelf-life of the oils and removes most of the natural flavoring, making them more attractive for the industrial food industry, but less attractive to the consumer. Vegetable oils, like canola and corn oil, are usually made with genetically modified corn, canola, and soy. So, I suggest you limit the use of such oils and stick with unrefined oils.

Here’s an easy checklist of oils to avoid:

Coconut oil has gotten a bad rap over the last twenty years because many studies published about coconut oil were done on hydrogenated coconut oil. We should as a matter, of course, avoid hydrogenated oils of any kind so be sure to read the labels. Virgin coconut oil, processed without chemicals or high heat, is rich in medium-chain fatty acids that are quickly absorbed into the body for energy.

This naturally saturated, but not hydrogenated, fat is getting renewed attention among researchers as it becomes clear that saturated fats have many vital roles to play in our bodies.

When buying coconut oil, make sure you buy organic, unrefined, centrifuged oil. To receive the maximum benefits you really want to find the best oil possible. Coconut oil is extremely stable so it is great to use when higher heat is necessary.

In a typical recipe, coconut oil can be used as a replacement for other oils 1:1. If you are sautéing, however, I have found that you need less coconut oil than you may initially think (due to low water content), so use it very sparingly.

Recipes Using Coconut Oil (pictured)

The best butter is from organic, pastured cows, unpasteurized, and preferably cultured. Bright yellow organic butter is a good indicator of butter made with milk from grass-fed cows. If you can’ t find raw butter, which is made from raw milk, then try to use an organic, cultured product.

Olive oil is a wonderfully nourishing oil and is most beneficial when used in its raw form or processed at medium to low heat. Olive oil has a medium smoke point (visually starts to smoke) and so it’ s best to cook with it at a medium heat or lower to prevent oxidation, which breaks down the nutrients.

When buying olive oil, look for oil that is extra virgin, cold-pressed, and unfiltered. This can be difficult because there are no regulations on labeling olive oil in the United States.

So, for instance, an oil labeled cold pressed or unrefined may not actually be so. The first thing to do when searching for a good olive oil is to find out where it comes from. Call the company, visit their website, and find out exactly how they make their oil. When you buy it, the olive oil should have a golden color and be cloudy (because it’ s unfiltered), and come in a dark green bottle to slow oxidation. The oxidation process creates free-radicals which can damage the body’ s cells.

Red palm oil is a beautifully rich red oil that contains oleic and linoleic acid. It’s a highly stable oil that adds a rich flavor to recipes and is my favorite for popping popcorn.

Sesame oil is a stable oil that is great for cooking at high heats. I also love to add flavor by drizzling it over stir-fry before serving.

Flaxseed oil is rich in omega-3s and should be kept refrigerated until consumed. Since heat will oxidize this oil, it should not be used to cook with, but rather only added to salads, smoothies, and other cold foods. It is best to use this oil in small quantities because the body absorbs it slowly.

Some additional healthy oils and fats to use:

  • Lard – preferably from organic, pastured animals
  • Ghee (clarified butter) – good to use at high temperatures
  • Tallow – preferably from organic, pastured animals
  • Avocado oil – good to use at high temperatures

Keep in mind that even though you’re not going to use certain processed vegetable oils in your cooking, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid them if you are using processed foods, as they are found in thousands of packaged products. Therefore, make sure to read the labels on packaged foods to know what kinds of oils were used and choose products that use the most healthy ingredients.

I understand this new information can be overwhelming. There is a simple and practical way to make the change. My motto is “Make one change a week.” For example, this week you could buy some coconut oil and use it in your cooking and baking instead of canola oil. Or maybe you identify the foods in your pantry and fridge with processed oils and begin using healthier foods and ingredients. It’s your choice. You can do this!

If you find yourself asking, “Isn’t fat bad? Doesn’t fat cause heart disease? Doesn’t fat make me fat? Go to this post where I answer these questions and provide further resources.

About Carrie Vitt

Carrie Vitt began cooking as soon as she could peer over the countertops and by sixteen was working in the kitchens of her mother’s award-winning Dallas catering company, The Festive Kitchen.

When, as a young mother, Carrie found herself challenged by health problems that meant popping multiple medications each day, she decided to take matters into her own hands — or rather, into her own kitchen. She switched her diet to whole, unprocessed, pure organic ingredients and noticed an improvement in a matter of days.

When her friends and family wanted to know how she did it, she began sharing recipes on her blog,, and followed up in 2011 with a cookbook, Deliciously Organic. Husband, kid, and party friendly, Deliciously Organic is brimming with the recipes and flavors families love, all created using wholesome, unrefined, and organic ingredients.

Carrie lives with her husband, an Air Force test pilot, and their two daughters in Southern California.

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456 thoughts on “The Problem with Refined Oils”

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  1. What’s your take on cold-pressed canola oil from canola grown locally (the oil is made locally as well)? It has a beautiful colour, looks like maple syrup, and such a strong and distinctive taste. Such a thing might not be available in the us but here in Sweden it is generally considered a healthy oil.

  2. I’ve been using a refined organic coconut oil for cooking for 4+ years now, because I do high heat cooking more often and refined was the only option for me, smell and budget wise. Is it alright to use refined but organic coconut oil for stove top cooking?

  3. You did not actually explain why refined oils are bad… Actually, refining of oils is done to remove certain properties of the oil and extend its shelf life. Of course it removes some nutrients, but it’s not rancid, it actually prevents it from becoming rancid to a higher extent than a non-refined oil.

  4. Your article used the word canola with the words corn and soy like canola is actually a food. Canola is not a food. The word ”canola” combines the word ”Canada” (can) with ”ola” to denote a chemical process used in Canada to refine rapeseed into oil.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Sorry, I’m a little confused by the question. If you are making peanut butter, there will be oil that naturally separates.

    2. pea nut oil can grow kidney stones when taken cosncistently.
      After few days using if you have lower back pain , avoid using this oil.

  5. What would ypu recommend as a baking oil to replace canola or grape seed? I have used coconut lots but sometimes I don’t want that flavour

  6. So I have done a lot of reading about oils recently. My family and I have switched almost completely to olive oil. We use extra virgin for putting on foods that are not cooked. Coconut is popular for cooking but it should not be used over 350 degrees! We just use extra light olive oil for cooking exclusively! It goes up to 468 degrees, which is one of the highest. We also love the Misto Oil sprayer for use on pans etc.

      1. Hello, what 3 oils would you recommend out of:

        avocado sesame

        Or if you have your own list, which ones would you recommend?

  7. The problem with unrefined coconut oil is that everything tastes like coconut. There are times when this is just gross. Also, there is the issue of palm oils ravaging the rain forests. This is a serious issue. Our demand of this oil is causing the rain forests to be harvested in slash and burn tactics that leave behind vast wastelands. Extra-virgin olive oil, as well as sesame, flax, pumpkin, nut oils, etc. can add strong flavors to food. Unrefined oils are not suitable for cooking with heat, all of which leaves us right back where we started. I use unrefined, non-GMO expeller-pressed oils whenever I can find them, but it’s not easy. There just isn’t any easy answer to this.

    1. In my area near Nashville, Kroger carries Spectrum Organic expelled pressed coconut oil and there is no taste or smell to it. Even if you take a spoonful straight. I love it!

    2. The depletion of the rainforests in particular the Amazon is highly do you animal agriculture.. Growing soybeans and Corn to produce fodder for cows… animal milk and milk products should not be consumed by humans.. Cows milk is for calf’s..

  8. I love your site and recipes, but as a certified extra virgin specialist, I have to mention that the info about extra virgin olive oil isn’t quite accurate! Unfiltered versus filtered does not determine an extra virgin’s quality (see the recent UC Davis Olive Center study on this for the results). Additionally, “cold-pressed” is more or less a marketing term, as extra virgins are by and large not pressed (but rather extracted). When it comes to looking for quality extra virgin, the important points include that it is stored in a dark bottle (and that you continue to store it in a dark place with little exposure to heat and oxygen), and that you check the harvest date (if, sadly, there is even one) – the more recent the better, among other factors. Even better, if the oil is derived from a specific olive variety. All of this is to say that there are loads of ways to determine an extra virgin olive oil’s quality, but filtered vs. unfiltered is definitely not one of them.

  9. I would look deeper into sesame and flax oil, and also consider not heating olive oil. Sesame and flax contain high amounts of pufas and are not heat stable. Olive oil has a much lower amount. Many paleo advocates limit pufa intake as much as possible. Others say they are fine if not eaten with fructose and/or sugars.

  10. Thank you for this, I’ve been trying to find a good source of info on oils and now I have the answers I need, thank you.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Anthony. Peanut oil is not one that is approved for the pledge. She would likely use coconut oil in its place.

  11. I have been slowly clearing out my house as my boyfriend and I begin our real food journey. We have both recently watched some documentaries and feel that we need to start the habit now before we begin raising a family. I have started by shopping at a local farm market near me in FL and one of the things they sell is Non-GMO, Expeller Pressed Pure Canola Oil that is pressed right on their farm. Would this still be considered an unhealthy option? I use olive oil for most other things, but was curious about this option. Thank you for all of the wonderful information on your website!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Jessica. Canola oil is not an oil Lisa uses. If you are going to use it, the cold/expeller pressed version is the better choice.

  12. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

    Hi Deborah. Many of those who are sensitive to lactose, like myself, can use ghee (clarified butter) without issue. Not sure as to your daughter’s level of sensitivity but the trace amount of lactose and casein may not bother her.

  13. My daughter is allergic to coconut,tree nuts and sesame and is lactose intolerant (so no butter or straight milk allowed!). What oil would you recommend for baking, assuming I can find it without cross contamination?