Archive for the ‘Guest Post’ Category

Cooking oil in pan - Free use photo via morgueFile

Free use photo by cgiraldez via morgueFile

Last week I participated in a hands-on cooking class at a wonderful co-op in Seattle. While searing an oh-so-tasty chicken tarragon entrée in organic canola oil, the question arose, as it usually does at cooking classes: “What oil is best to cook with?”

Olive Oil – To Cook with, or Not to Cook with?

You may have heard that olive oil is not the wisest choice for cooking. “Why is that? But I’ve heard it’s healthy for you,” you might say. And you’re right. It is good for your health. It is rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3s, monounsaturated fats (a healthy dietary fat that may help lower total cholesterol) and is a staple of the Mediterranean Diet.

But olive oil has a lower smoke point, which means that olive oil will begin to smoke when cooking at temperatures between approximately 325°F to 460°F, depending on type. Heating olive oil or any oil to its smoke point degrades its healthy compounds, even increasing harmful, potentially carcinogenic compounds, and releasing free radicals which can ravage our cells.

Hello there olive oil and balsamic vinegar little fella. Photo Credit: Aden Davies (ad76) on Flickr

Photo credit:
Aden Davies (ad76) on Flickr
Used unmodified under
CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Olive oil has its place, though, as an ingredient in salad dressings and for sautéing vegetables over low to medium heat. Combine it with balsamic vinegar for a dipping for whole grain breads.

What Should I Use Instead?

The answer depends on personal preference as well as the type of cooking you are doing. Use oils with a high smoke point for searing, browning and all-purpose cooking. Use oils with a medium-high smoke point for baking, oven cooking, sautéing and stir-frying. Oils with a medium smoke point are best for lighter sautés, sauces and cooking over low heat.

If you’re seeking an oil with a higher smoke point for all-purpose cooking, consider canola oil, which has a neutral flavor and is loaded with those heart-healthy omega-3s. The chef at my cooking class opted for canola for the chicken tarragon, noting it is also a good source of monounsaturated fats and is versatile, good for high-heat cooking as well as baking and sautéing.

Peanut oil also has a high smoke point and is a smart choice for stir-fries and other high-heat cooking. Avocado, almond, safflower and sunflower oils are also good varieties for higher-heat cooking.

Is Rice Bran Oil in Your Pantry?

If not, you might want to seek out a bottle, but be forewarned this oil comes with a slightly higher price tag at approximately 12 cents per ounce versus 6 cents per ounce for canola oil, according to a recent comparison by Cooks Illustrated. Price aside, interestingly, the chef whipping up the divine chicken tarragon entrée recommended rice bran oil for high-heat and all-purpose cooking. Rice bran oil? I hadn’t heard of it. Apparently many others in the class hadn’t, either. “What…” we chimed, “…is that?”

Chef Pam Sawyer explained that rice bran oil is her go-to for its health benefits and variety in application. Rice bran oil contains nearly 50 percent monounsaturated fats and similar to olive oil and canola oil, is high in omega-3s. It is a good source of vitamin E, which serves as an antioxidant that rids the body of damaging free radicals that arise from normal metabolic processes and from environmental factors such as pollutants.

Rice bran oil’s versatility lends itself well for sautéing, baking and cooking at high heat given its high smoke point (approximately 495°F). Sawyer also uses less of it when cooking, in comparison to multiple dollops of other oils that she has had to use while cooking. The rice bran oil heats up nicely and evenly, is light and coats a pan with a thin sheen.

This shelf-stable oil can last approximately three years in your pantry; it is one of the most stable oil options. “You can have this oil near your stove and it won’t break down like other oils would,” Sawyer said. Canola oil, in comparison, can go rancid at room temperature in a hurry, Sawyer said; thus, she suggests refrigerating canola if that is your preferred oil.

Here’s to healthy cooking!

**Please share – what is your favorite cooking oil?**

This was a guest post by a local dietitian in Seattle. To be considered for a guest post please use the contact form.

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whole wheat bread

Bread made with wheat flour is one common source of gluten.
Photo by Stacy Spensley (notahipster on Flickr)
Used unmodified under the CC Attribution license

Is the gluten-free diet a food fad that will eventually flame out, or is it a path to better health? The answer depends on whether you need to avoid gluten…and the fact is that most people don’t need to.

What is gluten and where is it found? Who should avoid it?

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat and other members the Triticeae tribe of grasses: Rye, barley, triticale, kamut and spelt. Most people can eat these cereal grains without ill effects. However, an estimated 8 in 100 people can’t, due to a wheat allergy, celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

How common are wheat allergies?

Fewer than 1 in 100 children have a wheat allergy (1), and about half will outgrow it before adulthood. If you have a wheat allergy, your body’s immune system reacts inappropriately to one (or more) of the many proteins found in wheat. This may or may not include gluten. Symptoms appear within minutes or hours and can include skin rashes, intestinal discomfort, wheezing and anaphylaxis. Generally, people with wheat allergies don’t have problems eating rye and barley.

What is celiac disease? How common is it?

As many as 1 in 100 people have celiac disease (1), a genetically inherited autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine after gluten is ingested. Celiac disease isn’t a food allergy in the traditional sense, because it involves different antibodies than involved in most food allergies, including wheat allergy. Celiac disease is sometimes called gluten intolerance, but this term is imprecise and falling out of favor.

With celiac disease, the reaction to gluten can be pinpointed to specific parts of the complex gluten protein: alpha-gliadins (wheat), hordeins (barley) and secalins (rye). When gluten reaches the small intestine, these so-called “celiac molecules” are freed and modified by the tissue transglutaminase (tTG) enzyme. It’s during this process that the immune system goes on the defensive in people with celiac disease, and the cells that line the small intestine get caught in the crossfire.

What happens when individuals with celiac disease eat gluten?

Intestinal Villi by Shelly Najjar for Nutrition Nuts and Bolts

Villi are fingerlike projections from the small intestine that increase your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If a person with Celiac disease eats gluten, the villi get flattened and nutrients aren’t absorbed as easily.
(Yes, this is a Microsoft Paint drawing, but you get the point, right?)

The immune system’s defensive attack causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine. Over time, the small finger-like projections (villi) of the intestinal lining become flattened, or atrophied. This is significant, because the villi greatly increase the surface area of the intestinal wall, allowing for adequate absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. When the villi become atrophied, the body has trouble absorbing certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin D and folate. Down the road, this can lead to health problems like anemia and osteoporosis.

Potential symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, vomiting and poor appetite, as well as weight changes, chronic fatigue and neurological problems. Infants and young children may be short for their age or fail to gain weight. However, many people (adults in particular) with celiac disease have no obvious symptoms, which means the intestinal damage and poor nutrient absorption can continue unchecked unless they are tested for the disease.

Can I inherit celiac disease?

Celiac disease is associated with two human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8. About 95 percent of people with celiac disease test positive for the HLA-DQ2 gene. The remaining 5 percent usually have the HLA-DQ8 gene, and there are a number of other genes that collectively contribute in small ways to celiac disease risk (2). However, only a fraction of people who are carriers of the HLA-DQ2 gene, will go on to develop celiac disease, suggesting that being genetically predisposed is necessary but not sufficient.

How is gluten sensitivity different from celiac disease?

An estimated 6 in 100 people suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) (3), which has similar symptoms but does not cause damage to the intestines.

What is the treatment for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?

The only known treatment for celiac disease is total, lifelong avoidance of gluten. This means avoiding not just the gluten-containing grains themselves, but foods that contain the isolated gluten. There is no known safe level of gluten consumption for people with celiac disease, and even tiny amounts have the potential to cause intestinal damage and long-term health problems. Oats cause problems for some people with celiac, but it’s unclear whether this is due to cross-contamination or to an actual protein component of the oat. People with gluten sensitivity can often be less strict about avoiding gluten, letting their symptoms be their guide.

How are celiac disease and gluten sensitivity diagnosed?

Because celiac disease is a lifelong condition that requires total avoidance of gluten, while gluten sensitivity is less severe, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. Testing for celiac disease starts with blood tests for specific antibodies. If the test results are positive, the final step to confirm diagnosis is to take biopsies from four to six areas of the small intestine to look for flattening of the villi.

For accurate diagnosis it is important to undergo testing before giving up gluten. The symptoms, intestinal damage and antibody levels associated with celiac disease resolve quickly when gluten is removed from the diet.

There is no standard method of diagnosing gluten sensitivity. The first step is to rule out wheat allergy and celiac disease, as well as other conditions that can cause intestinal inflammation and distress, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Then, if symptoms improve on a gluten-free diet and return after adding gluten back to the diet, gluten sensitivity is the likely culprit.

Can a gluten-free diet improve my health or help me lose weight?

There are many healthful, naturally gluten-free foods that have benefits for everyone. For example: fruits and vegetables, beans, fish, nuts, eggs, yogurt, poultry, lean meat and gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice. However, gluten-free cookies, cakes, crackers and other processed foods may be just as processed and filled with artificial ingredients as their gluten-containing counterparts. Even worse, most gluten-free flours and grain products are not vitamin-enriched. The bottom line for all eaters is this: Consider what you are eating as well as what you aren’t eating.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Seattle registered dietitian nutritionist and a graduate of the Nutritional Sciences Program and the Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Washington. She writes a nutrition column, “On Nutrition,” for the Sunday Seattle Times. She also blogs at Nutrition By Carrie.

(1) Pietzak M. Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity: When gluten free is not a fad. J Parenter Enteral Nutr 2012 36: 68S

(2) Sapone A et al. Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: Consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC Medicine 2012, 10:13

(3) Volta U et al. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Questions still to be answered despite increasing awareness. Cellular & Molecular immunology 2013 10, 383-392

“Fried locust in Asia street market”
Caption and Photo by wiangya via

This is a guest post by Marina Mednik-Vaksman

I’d like to introduce you to a superfood that is rich in nutrients such as high-quality protein, fiber, calcium, zinc and iron, yet low in sugar and fat. The fat it does contain provides more of the essential omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA than beef from grass-fed cows (Sources: FAO 2013 and Raubenheimer & Rothman 2013). Not only is this food nutrient-dense, it’s also quite environmentally-friendly: it can be produced cheaply and quickly with a much lower carbon footprint than livestock. In fact, many expect that it will be a major part of the solution to the global food crisis that experts consider imminent given increasing populations and rising food consumption per capita.

You might start getting suspicious: am I talking about some substance engineered in a lab?

Just the opposite – this food might actually reduce the need for GMO crops if Westerners began to eat it on a mass scale. It was eaten by the earliest humans and most of the world continues to enjoy this food in all its various forms.

So what’s the catch? Why aren’t we seeing this sustainable food on store shelves right now?

Well, in a way, we actually are.

You may remember the big controversy about a year ago involving Starbucks’ use of cochineal insects to color some of its drinks. Turns out, this practice of using ground-up bugs is common in the food industry and has been going on for centuries. So, you guessed it: the amazing, potentially world-saving food that I am advocating is bugs. But maybe you don’t require an introduction. It seems to me that entomophagy – the practice of eating insects – has been worming its way (pardon the pun) into the Western mainstream lately. Once undertaken mainly by food adventurers, today chefs and entrepreneurs are increasingly bringing entomophagy to foodies and the health-conscious.

I’m seeing more and more articles and news stories about eating insects at restaurants or as a protein bar. And BBC recently released a documentary about how people in Thailand and Cambodia get nutritional and economic benefits from enjoying bugs. The idea is picking up steam – I think we might be surprised by how quickly this crosses over into the mainstream in the US – just consider that most Americans would have been appalled by the notion of eating raw fish only a few decades ago.

And what about me? Do I regularly scarf down barbequed tarantulas for dinner or munch on fried locusts in lieu of popcorn? Alas, I have not yet had the opportunity to (knowingly) acquaint myself with the food source that I so passionately advocate. However, Shelly informs me that Poquitos right here in Seattle offers grasshoppers (order the chapulines), and I must try them soon, before I start feeling like too much of a hypocrite. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your insect-eating stories to help me build up my resolve!

Marina Mednik-Vaksman is a MPH student in the Nutritional Sciences Department and the Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Washington. Besides insects as food, she champions playgrounds as gyms and gardens as grocery stores. You can find her on twitter as @aMusingMarina.

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Guest post by Carrie Dennett

Deep fried pastry sticks. Photo Credit: vanillaechoes (via

Photo Credit: vanillaechoes (via
Fried foods, like these deep fried pastries, can be a source of trans fat.

A revolution is under way in the food industry, spurred by science, consumer demand and legal pressure. Trans fats, otherwise known as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, are surely and steadily being removed from our food. It’s a good thing.

Once hailed as a healthier alternative to saturated fats, trans fats are now being called “metabolic poison” by some health and nutrition experts. Unfortunately, these artificially derived fats made their way into all areas of our food supply, and stayed there for decades, before their true nature was revealed.

What is a “fat”? What is a “fatty acid”?

A fat, also known as a triglyceride, is composed of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol “backbone.” A triglyceride can have three matching fatty acids, or contain a mix (see image below). A fatty acid is made up of a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached. Each type of fatty acid is defined by the length of its carbon chain and how “saturated” it is with hydrogen atoms.

Why is some fat solid at room temperature while others are liquid?

A saturated fatty acid is filled up with hydrogen atoms, which makes the carbon chain straight. An unsaturated fatty acid is missing one (monounsaturated) or more (polyunsaturated) hydrogen atoms, causing the carbon chain to bend at each missing hydrogen.

A triglyceride with saturated fatty acids is compact because the straight fatty acid “tails” fit neatly together, and the resulting fat is solid at room temperature (i.e., butter or the fatty streaks in bacon). If the triglyceride contains unsaturated fatty acids, the bends in the carbon chains create space between the fatty acid tails, and that space makes the resulting fat fluid at room temperature (i.e., oils) (see image below).

Saturated and monounsaturated cis and trans triglycerides. Image created using

–Triglycerides have 3 fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. –The fatty acids can all be the same (A) or can be different (B and C). –Saturated fatty acids “stack” nicely with each other and with other saturated triglycerides (A). –Unsaturated fatty acids can be trans or cis. The cis form has bends in it that affect how the fatty acids “stack” together (B), but the trans form (C) “stacks” like the saturated fatty acids. Image created using

A trans fat is an unsaturated fat (usually polyunsaturated) that has been hydrogenated. The hydrogenation process forces extra hydrogen atoms  into the empty slots on the carbon chain, creating an unsaturated fatty acid that looks like a saturated fatty acid. Because saturated fats were linked to heart disease and unsaturated fats were known to be heart-healthy, it was believed that trans fats, would offer the best of both worlds: Heart-healthy unsaturated fats with the culinary properties of saturated fats. As anyone who likes to bake knows, there are some recipes that require a solid fat like butter or shortening.

As it turns out, once unsaturated fats are hydrogenated, they are no longer heart-healthy. In fact, they are even worse for heart health than saturated fats. One reason may be that hydrogenated trans fats are artificial—they don’t occur in nature (very small amounts of natural trans fats are present in meat and dairy products).

Why did it take so long to do something about trans fats?

Although some experts expressed concern about trans fats in their early days, it took decades before their voices (together with mounting scientific evidence) grew loud enough that the mistake could no longer be ignored. In the meantime, trans fats had seeped into all areas of food preparation. Restaurants were frying in hydrogenated oils (trans fats) instead of beef tallow (saturated fat). Home cooks got the message that margarine (trans fats) was heart-healthy and that butter (saturated fat) was not. You would be hard pressed to pick up a box of crackers or cupcakes without seeing hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list.

Finally, we’ve arrived at the point where restaurants and food manufacturers are turning away from trans fats. Trouble is, when you remove a major ingredient, you need to replace it with something.

What exactly is taking the place of trans fats?

Trans fats, and saturated fats before them, were valued for their stability at high heat. Any replacements for trans fats need to have similar qualities.

For commercial frying, partially hydrogenated oils are being replaced by vegetable oils that are naturally stable at high heat (corn, cottonseed, palm, peanut and rice bran) as well as sunflower, soybean and canola oils that have been modified to make them less likely to break down and become rancid at high heat.

The situation becomes trickier when looking for a replacement for solid hydrogenated fats, such as those used for baking. Any candidate must have the right texture and creaming ability, and it can’t turn to liquid too soon. It’s also important that the fat doesn’t go rancid quickly, so the product will be shelf-stable. The trend so far is to produce trans fat-free shortenings using either palm oil or interesterified vegetable oil.

What is palm oil? What are the pros and cons?

Palm oil is a tropical oil that comes from the fruit portion of the palm fruit (as opposed to palm kernel oil, which comes from the kernel of the palm fruit). Palm oil is rich in palmitic acid, a saturated fat, but there is disagreement among scientists and health experts about the effect palmitic acid may have on blood cholesterol and heart disease. Additionally, there are environmental concerns about the harvesting of palm oil.

What is interesterified oil? What are the pros and cons?

Interesterified oils have been used since the 1930s, but interest in them increased as trans fats began to be taken out of foods. Interesterified oils take a small amount of unsaturated triglycerides (usually soybean or cottonseed), fully hydrogenate them, then mix them with a lot of the non-hydrogenated oil. The triglycerides in the mixture are broken apart and their fatty acids rearranged, producing oil that is solid at room temperature. If you buy trans fat-free shortening or chocolate bars that have had their cocoa butter removed, you’re using interesterified oil.

The concern is that whether interesterified oil is harmful to our health or simply neutral may depend on exactly how the fatty acids in the triglyceride get rearranged. Scientists are finding that it’s not just the type of fatty acid that matters, it’s also the position it occupies on the triglyceride. The interesterification process is not precisely controlled, and some of the random arrangements produce triglycerides that are not found in nature.

What are health experts saying about these trans fat “alternatives”?

Most health and nutrition experts agree that palm oil is a lesser evil than trans fats, even if they don’t agree on whether palm oil is good, bad or neutral for health. Many experts also agree that research needs to continue on the possible effects of interesterified oil on health, especially if our consumption of it goes up due to increased use in commercial food preparation.

What can I do now until we know more about these fats?

  • First, don’t assume that the words “trans fat free” on a food package means that food is healthy. It’s wise to also consider what else is in the food. Is it high in…
    • Sugar?
    • Refined flour?
    • Artificial ingredients?
  • Second, if you eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods, you’ll naturally be eating less of whatever type of fat is used in place of trans fats. This means you will be less affected if years from now it turns out that these trans fat alternatives aren’t any better for us.

If you’d like to read more, Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source website has a nice page on trans fats.

Carrie Dennett is a MPH student in the Nutritional Sciences Department and the Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Washington. She writes a nutrition column for The Seattle Times; “On Nutrition” runs on the health page every third Sunday. She also blogs at Nutrition by Carrie.

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