Today’s Dear Mark roundup is a trio of oil-related questions. Learn about my adventures with MCT oil and whether it fits into a good eating plan. Hear about camelina, the “better flax.” And finally, we’ll go over whether fancy, cold-pressed canola oil is worth including or whether it’s still just canola oil.
I’m thinking I’ll stick with this format for awhile. The response has been mostly positive, so why mess with what works? If ever a question arrives that merits a devoted full-length post, I’ll do that, but for now this seems like a hit.
What do you think of MCT oil?
MCTs, or medium chain triglycerides, are fatty acids that the body treats differently than longer chain fats. They are easily digested, head straight to the liver for oxidation or ketone generation without dealing with the lymphatic system, and can be utilized by cells for energy without the enzymatic processes needed to utilize longer chain fats. MCT oil is pure medium chain triglyceride. For this reason, it remains liquid at all temperatures despite being a highly saturated fat.
I’m not a huge fan of MCT oil, but not for any health reasons. I’ve just had weird experiences with it. I once used it to make mayo, since it’s flavorless, saturated, and stays liquid. It worked and the mayo tasted great, but it was just too big a bolus of MCTs at once. I used a couple tablespoons of MCT mayo with some hard boiled eggs and yellow mustard for egg salad, and a couple minutes after eating, I was infused with a weird, nervous energy. It felt similar to taking a quadruple shot of the strongest espresso on the planet sprinkled with a bit of Walter White’s special recipe, followed by a forced toilet trip. The fatty acids were being converted to pure energy – way more than my body needed at the time – and it wasn’t very pleasant. I tried it again as the base for a salad dressing, having run out of olive oil, and the effect was the same. It’s definitely not for me. I’ll stick to coconut oil for my MCT fix, since it never gives me any issues. While natural sources of MCTs, like coconut, contain the full range of MCTs (lauric acid, caproic acid, caprylic acid, and capric acid), most MCT oils are caprylic acid and capric acid. I suspect the isolation of the fatty acids is responsible for my problems with MCT oil.
That’s me, though. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with MCT oil, especially if you’re on a strict ketogenic diet or simply looking to get into ketosis (MCTs are the most ketogenic fatty acids), but I also think you could just eat coconut oil. I’ve heard of people who can’t handle coconut oil but for whom MCT oil works perfectly. Go figure. I’d suggest buying the smallest bottle of MCT oil you can find if you’re thinking of trying it. Here’s one not so small bottle.
Curious about Camelina oil – it is very high in Omega-3’s, has a high smoke point, tastes good on salads and in cooking. I just want to know if it’s going to cause the same problems as other vegetable oils (which it is considered to be).
Camelina has been grown in Europe for at least 3,000 years as a food crop for livestock and for people, so at least it’s not some genetically modified, formerly toxic plant. It’s a seed, similar in some respects to flax, but with some important differences. Well, let’s explore a couple of the main problems with vegetable oils and see how camelina stacks up:
1. High in omega-6 – Vegetable oils have introduced a massive, evolutionarily-novel dose of linoleic acid into our diets, throwing off our dietary and tissue omega-3:omega-6 ratios and resulting in lopsided levels of eicosanoids derived from omega-6. More omega-6 eicosanoids mean our inflammation and response to stress are exaggerated. This is bad.
Camelina oil is similar to flax in that it’s high in alpha-linolenic-acid, the omega-3 fatty acid present in plants, and lower in omega-6 linoleic acid. Flax has an omega-3:omega-6 ratio of about 4:1, while camelina has a ratio ranging from 2:1 to 3:1. Put another way, camelina oil is between 35% and 45% ALA and between 15% and 20% linoleic acid. So, it has more omega-6 than butter, olive oil, macadamias, or beef fat, but similar levels as poultry and pork fat. It’s not a huge amount, but it can add up pretty quickly – especially if you’re aiming to keep omega-6 below five or six grams per day. And remember that it’s not just the ratio that matters, but the absolute amount of omega-6 in your diet.
2. Heat unstable, prone to oxidation inside and outside of the body – Polyunsaturated fats are prone to oxidative damage when exposed to heat, air, and/or light. The PUFAs we eat are often incorporated into serum lipids, and LDL more easily oxidizes when it contains higher amounts of polyunsaturated fats (even omega-3s). This is bad.
By all accounts, camelina oil is considerably more heat-stable than flax oil. It contains high levels of antioxidants, including vitamin E (up to 110mg/100g, according to Wikipedia), which can protect against heat/light/air damage. However, antioxidants are only there because the fatty acids are so inherently unstable, so it’s not going to remain pure and untouched forever. Camelina oil must still be stored well (low temperature, secure lid, dark bottle) to prevent rancidity (PDF). And once it’s in your body, its ALA will be incorporated into your serum lipids in a disproportionate amount. While this study describes it as a positive thing, recall that LDL high in PUFAs has been shown to oxidize more easily. Perhaps camelina’s vitamin E will protect the LDL from oxidation, but I wouldn’t depend on it.
Overall, camelina oil seems a decent choice, at least compared to most vegetable oils. I wouldn’t cook with it, and I definitely wouldn’t use more than a couple teaspoons, but I think it’s one of the “better” seed oils – though that’s not saying much!
As I’ve mentioned in the past I work for a cookery school. They have recently started selling cold pressed rapeseed oil. I headed over to your blog where I remembered reading [about it], but that talked about the heat extracted stuff. I was wondering what your opinion on this would be? To me it does still seem kinda high in omega 6’s.
Your instincts are right. It’s still pretty high in omega-6. I mean, sure, it’s better than regular canola oil or sunflower oil, but so what? There’s butter, good olive oil, macadamia oil, pastured lard, extra virgin coconut oil, red palm oil… I could go on, but my point stands: why eat the substandard stuff just because it isn’t overtly toxic when you could use better tasting, more affordable fats like the aforementioned?
If it’s a choice between the Black and Gold canola and refined soybean oil, sure, choose the canola. But in my experience, such an ultimatum rarely pops up in everyday life.
As always, keep those questions flowing. I’m ready for (just about) anything you can throw at me. Grok on!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.