Table of Contents
- How Frying Food Affects Your Health
- Understanding Deep Frying vs. Pan Frying
- What is Cooking Oil Stability?
- Oils to Avoid When Frying
- The Best Oils for Frying
- Healthy Oils That are Not Suitable for Frying
- What Makes a Quality Oil?
- Storing Your Cooking Oils
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We all love the occasional deep-fried treat, and having these foods in moderation is okay.
In many dishes, the oil used to fry your favorites is the unhealthy part, so opting for healthier oils can mean that your favorite fried food could be back on the menu.
Fried foods are a part of all cuisines around the world.
Having these culinary treats now and then does not have to mean a considerable risk to your health.
Our guide will help you select the healthiest oils for frying foods, and inform you about which oils you should definitely avoid.
Keep reading to learn how you can keep fried foods in your life without all the worry over your health.
How Frying Food Affects Your Health
Like all cooking methods, frying has its benefits that should not be overlooked.
While it is not healthy to eat fried foods regularly, frying some foods can actually enhance their nutritional value, in addition to making them taste better.
Let’s first understand what happens when you fry foods.
Before we condemn altogether frying as a method of cooking, let’s consider these advantages (1):
- Frying of some foods, like potatoes, actually increases their dietary fiber content.
- There is some nutritional value in cooking oils. For example, you can get Vitamin E from frying foods.
- Frying is a relatively quick cooking process, which means fewer nutrients are lost due to cooking compared to some other cooking methods.
While these are good reasons to enjoy fried foods occasionally, remember that these foods are higher in fat and calories than non-fried ones, so you should use this cooking method in moderation.
If you want to enjoy fried foods, it is essential to use an oil that is stable at high heats.
Understanding Deep Frying vs. Pan Frying
When food is deep fried, it is submerged in hot oil, ideally somewhere between 350–375°F (176–190°C).
As the food’s surface touches the hot oil, it cooks nearly instantly, forming a seal around the food that additional oil cannot penetrate.
The food continues to be heated, though, and steam is created inside the crust, which cooks the interior of the food.
This steam also assists in keeping oil out of the food.
When the oil temperature is too low and you try to deep fry food, oil will seep in and make the final product greasy and possibly undercooked.
Oil that is too high in temperature results in dried-out food, and can cause oxidation of the oil which imparts unhealthy free radicals to your food.
Pan frying does not submerge the food fully in oil.
Instead, oil is used to lubricate the pan, and one side of the food is cooked at a time.
While the mechanism for cooking is similar, pan frying relies on appropriate heat regulation to ensure the outside is not burned, while the inside is being cooked by the steam created.
While less oil is used than in deep frying, there is a greater chance of oil seeping into the food and making it greasy unless you are monitoring your temperature carefully.
What is Cooking Oil Stability?
When choosing to fry your foods, it is important that you use an oil that has high nutritional value and is stable at high heats.
When you fry foods, you must use high heat to create the necessary conditions.
Pan frying reaches temperatures of 248 °F (120 °C), while deep frying can reach temperatures as high as 356 °F (180 °C).
At those temperatures, some oils oxidize, releasing the harmful free radicals that can damage your health.
Oxidative damage from free radicals has been shown to cause cardiovascular disease, cancer, and can contribute to dementia and other chronic health problems (2).
It is therefore important if you want to fry foods, to know which oils resist oxidation and which are less likely to turn rancid at high heat.
Fats are classified as either saturated or unsaturated, and the fats with the fewest bonds between fatty acid molecules will be the least reactive.
While regular saturated fats have single bonds between fatty acid molecules, monounsaturated fats have double bonds, and polyunsaturated fats have at least two bonds and sometimes more.
The more bonds, the more reactive the oil becomes, making it oxidize more quickly and become rancid more easily.
Saturated and monounsaturated fats are the best for frying, and these oils also have higher smoke points, which means your frying will not create smoke in your kitchen.
A high smoke point also indicates that an oil is more stable for frying.
Oils to Avoid When Frying
Just as important as knowing which are the best oils for frying is knowing which oils to avoid entirely with this cooking method.
The worst oils for frying include:
- Grapeseed oil
- Sesame oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Rice bran oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
These oils are problematic because they:
- Contain high levels of polyunsaturated fats.
- Are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are unhealthy for your heart.
- Are low in omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart.
- May contain trans fats, which are a significant contributor to heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.
If at all possible, do not use these oils for frying or for any other purpose, as a diet high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fatty acids contributes to cardiovascular disease, elevated cholesterol, and other health problems (3).
A diet high in omega-6 fatty acids, as found in foods fried in the above oils, increases your risk for heart attack, stroke, and other cardiac problems (4).
Oils on this list are not only bad for your heart, but they can also contain carcinogens and other unhealthy compounds.
Grapeseed oil, for example, is made using polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are known carcinogens (5).
Soybean and canola oils are also sources of trans fats, which can significantly raise your risk for cardiovascular disease and other problems (6).
Knowing this information can help you select the best oils to use for frying at home, and avoiding the above oils altogether will have a positive impact on your overall health.
Enjoying fried foods occasionally using healthier oils allows you to have the occasional indulgence without the health risks associated with these types of oils.
The Best Oils for Frying
Now that you are ready to enjoy the occasional fried food delight at home, let’s talk about which oils are the best for your home-frying purposes.
Remember, eating fried foods should always be done in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
Knowing which oils are the healthiest choices will make your indulgence slightly healthier.
Here are our favorite oils for frying foods at home.
Coconut oil frequently tops the list of healthiest oils for many reasons.
With a smoke point of 400°F (204°C), coconut oil is extremely stable.
This oil maintains its quality at high temperatures for prolonged periods, so it is not likely to cause oxidative stress like other types of fats (7).
Coconut oil is comprised of 90 percent saturated fat, making it the best choice for resisting oxidation.
While medical professionals used to warn against the use of saturated fats in the diet, new evidence suggests that saturated fats themselves do not raise the risk for coronary heart disease or cardiovascular problems (8).
Coconut oil not only is a great choice because of its saturated fat makeup; it also has other health benefits that cause it to top our list.
- Coconut Oil’s Health Benefits
Coconut oil enhances your metabolism, which can help you burn calories faster.
If you are looking to shed some extra pounds, the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil can increase your metabolism (9).
The fats in coconut oil are effective at improving satiety, which will keep you feeling full longer, reducing your urge to eat (10).
Coconut oil is also a good option if you are trying to raise your HDL or good cholesterol.
Having higher levels of HDL is good for your heart, as this can help balance out high levels of LDL, also known as bad cholesterol (11).
When trying to lose weight, perhaps the hardest obstacle to overcome is visceral fat, also known as belly fat.
This fatty tissue in your midsection significantly raises your risk of Type 2 diabetes, as well as cardiovascular diseases (12).
The healthy fats found in coconut oil are also helpful in treating Alzheimer’s disease, using a ketogenic diet (15).
In addition, the anti-inflammatory properties of coconut oil make it ideal for lowering the inflammation inside the body due to a number of chronic and acute disorders (16).
- What Type of Coconut Oil is Best?
Now that you understand the health benefits of coconut oil over other oils commonly used in frying, it is next essential to select the optimal type of coconut oil to benefit your health.
Unrefined or virgin coconut oil is nutritionally the best.
Virgin coconut oil has a slight aroma and taste of coconut, which can impact your food, so if you do not like this taste, you can choose a more refined variety but in doing so will lose some of these health benefits.
- Coconut Oil By the Numbers
Coconut oil is 91.9% saturated fat, 6.2% monounsaturated fat, and 1.9% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Coconut oil is your best choice for frying.
With high concentrations of saturated fats and many health benefits, it is hard to go wrong with this nutrient-rich option.
Olive oil has also topped the list of healthy oils for a number of years, and there are many good reasons to choose this oil for your fried food needs.
With a smoke point of 410°F (210°C), extra virgin olive oil is not only low in polyunsaturated fats, but it also has high levels of Vitamins E and K, and other health benefits that make it a great choice for cooking.
While olive oil does have a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, it is low in polyunsaturated fat.
Due to its high antioxidant content, olive oil also resists oxidation for long periods at high heat, making it an excellent choice when frying foods (17).
- Olive Oil’s Health Benefits
One healthy compound found in olive oil is oleocanthal, which is a potent antioxidant known to lower inflammation in the body (18).
Lowering inflammation prevents oxidation, and also controls your levels of LDL cholesterol which helps your heart stay healthy.
This lowered inflammation can even reduce pain, providing comparable relief to NSAID pain relievers such as ibuprofen (19).
Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, which can regulate the expression of specific genes related to cardiovascular health and disease.
Olive oil’s anti-inflammatory effect on your heart means that even if you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease, eating a healthy diet that includes the olive oil can help mitigate that risk (20).
Olive oil’s benefits to your heart do not stop there, though.
The Mediterranean diet has become popular in the past several years, and one of the many components of this way of eating that contributes to improved health is the use of olive oil as the main source of fat.
- What Type of Olive Oil is Best?
Select olive oil that comes from a single source, as this will yield the highest quality and purity.
While extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point than more refined versions of this oil, you will reap the benefits listed above when you opt for extra virgin varieties.
- Olive Oil By the Numbers
Olive oil is 14.2% saturated fat, 75% monounsaturated fat, and 10.8% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Olive oil is consistently rated highly as a source of healthy fats.
You will enjoy many health benefits from olive oil, and it is a good option for frying.
Avocado oil is an excellent alternative to olive oil, and even shares a similar composition.
Avocado has a high smoke point of nearly 520°F (270°C), making it a perfect frying oil; plus, it has a mild flavor that imparts little or no aftertaste to fried foods.
Avocado oil, like the fruit from which it’s derived, is high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated and polyunsaturated fats.
This makes it a good choice for frying foods of all types. In addition, the health benefits of avocado oil cannot be overlooked.
- Avocado Oil’s Health Benefits
Avocado is rich in oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid that is also found in olive oil.
This compound helps reduce high blood pressure, which benefits your cardiovascular health (23).
Avocado oil also raises HDL while lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides; this is also beneficial for your heart health (24).
Avocado oil is not just good for your heart but is also rich in compounds that promote eye health.
Because your body cannot produce lutein on its own, you must get this essential nutrient through dietary sources, like avocado oil.
If you suffer with arthritis, avocado oil can have additional benefits for you.
Avocado oil extract has been used to treat osteoarthritis and the accompanying pain and stiffness (27).
Eating avocado oil can also help you absorb nutrients from other plants.
The fats found in avocados are necessary for the absorption of many nutrients, including carotenoid antioxidants, so eating small amounts of these fats with your vegetables can significantly improve your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in these foods (28).
- Avocado Oil By the Numbers
Avocado oil is 12.1% saturated fat, 73.8% monounsaturated fat, and 14.1% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Avocado oil contains healthy omega-9 fatty acids that can promote better health.
Using avocado oil to fry your foods, as well as in other recipes, is a healthy choice that provides your heart, eyes, and other body systems with excellent health benefits.
Butter and Ghee
If you are deep-frying food, butter is not your best choice, but if you are preparing food by pan frying, then clarified butter is a great option.
At high temperatures, like the kind needed for deep frying, butter burns and turns rancid.
Clarified butter, which is essentially butter fat without any water or milk solids, has a higher smoke point and makes an excellent frying option in your kitchen.
Butter has a relatively low smoke point of 350°F (175°C), while clarified butter’s smoke point is much higher, at 485°F (252°C).
While you do not want to choose butter for all your frying or cooking needs, used in moderation, butter, and clarified butter, which is also called ghee, have many health benefits.
- Butter and Ghee’s Health Benefits
In addition to being high in Vitamins A, E, and K2, butter also contains two crucial fatty acids, known as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and butyrate.
These two compounds provide numerous health benefits that make butter an excellent choice for cooking.
CLA has been shown to help fight cancer, as well as lower body fat (29).
For those with diabetes or who are insulin resistant, butter is a good cooking option for improving your sensitivity to insulin, due to its CLA content.
But you should always opt for butter over margarine, as margarine contains trans fats and other unhealthy compounds that can raise your risk for cardiovascular disease (30).
If you are trying to lose fat, butyrate can increase your metabolism, helping you burn fat more quickly.
If you are worried about the lower smoke point of butter, you can opt for clarified butter, or ghee, instead.
You can find ghee in most grocery stores today, or you can make clarified butter at home yourself.
Clarified butter no longer contains the milk solids that are prone to burning at higher temperatures, which means you can fry with it easily.
- Make Your Own Clarified Butter
The following method will yield the three-fourths cup of ghee.
The key to exceptional ghee is to start with high-quality butter.
Choose an unsalted variety, preferably one that comes from grass-fed cows.
Place one cup of butter into a saucepan.
Melt this over low heat, when you will notice the solids beginning to separate from the clear fat and other liquids.
Continue at a low simmer, heating your butter just until it starts to bubble.
Soon, the foam will form across the liquid’s surface, and you should see clumping around the edges, as well as browning of the milk solids.
Continue heating until the milk solids reach a golden brown and no longer float.
Remove the pan from the heat.
Strain the entire pan’s contents through a cheesecloth, discarding all the solids that are strained out.
The golden liquid that remains is your ghee or clarified butter.
While it is unnecessary to refrigerate ghee, you can, if you prefer.
- Butter Fat By the Numbers
Butterfat is 68.2% saturated fat, 27.8% monounsaturated fat, and 4% polyunsaturated fat.
There is no difference in fat content between butter and ghee.
Final Tip: Used in moderation, butter and especially ghee are good for pan-frying foods.
They impart delicious flavor and essential nutrients to the food you cook.
Macadamia Nut Oil
While most nut oils are high in polyunsaturated fats, making them unstable at high temperatures, macadamia nut oil is a pleasant exception.
Macadamia nut oil’s smoke point is 390°F (199°C), making it a good option for frying foods, and its mild and pleasant flavor will impart a buttery taste to whatever you fry.
Macadamia nut oil’s fat profile is very similar to that of olive oil, which is why it is an excellent choice for frying.
High in monounsaturated fats and low in omega-6 fatty acids, macadamia nut oil’s antioxidants can protect your health, while also providing you with tasty fried foods.
- Macadamia Nut Oil’s Health Benefits
Macadamia nut oil is naturally high in oleic acid, which helps balance your cholesterol and lower unhealthy triglycerides in your blood.
Triglycerides and other fatty acids clog arteries and increase your risk for stroke, heart attack, and atherosclerosis (33).
Because it has a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, macadamia nut oil’s benefits to your heart should not be overlooked.
The antioxidants found in macadamia nut oil, including tocotrienols, help to neutralize free radicals that can cause chronic diseases, including cancer.
The antioxidants in macadamia nut oil boost your immune system and help you fight infection, as well as keep all your systems running smoothly (34).
Like avocado oil, macadamia nut oil promotes healthy vision.
By neutralizing free radicals, macadamia nut oil is able to slow the growth of cataracts and prevent eye diseases like macular degeneration (35).
The general advice is to avoid nut oils when cooking, as nut oils tend to burn easily, but macadamia nut oil is the exception and is a great option in your kitchen.
- Macadamia Nut Oil By the Numbers
Macadamia nut oil is 14.3% saturated fat, 78.6% monounsaturated fat, and 7.1% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Macadamia nut oil is different from other nut oils, making it a good choice for frying.
It has a light, pleasant flavor and provides you with essential omega-3 fatty acids.
While not all animal fats are healthy to cook with, those that come from grass-fed animals tend to have better compositions for use in frying.
While animals raised on grain often yield products high in polyunsaturated fats, grass-fed animal products tend to have higher monounsaturated and saturated fat levels.
Lard, bacon drippings, and beef fat, or tallow, can be used for frying if you are confident in the quality of the animal from which they came.
While lard’s smoke point is 374°F (190°C), tallow’s is even higher, at 400°F (205°C).
Both of these products are generally available for purchase from a grocery store, but you may not know anything about the animals that were used to create these products.
- What Type of Animal Fat is Best?
You can render your own fat or collect your own bacon drippings at home, saving them in a jar or can that can be sealed.
While it is not necessary to refrigerate animal fat, some may prefer to do so.
Always be sure you know where your animal fat or other animal products are from and how those animals were treated, as this makes a big difference in the quality of the fat and its makeup.
- Lard Fat By the Numbers
Lard fat is 41% saturated fat, 47.2% monounsaturated fat, and 11.8% polyunsaturated fat.
- Tallow Fat By the Numbers
Tallow fat is 52.1% saturated fat, 43.7% monounsaturated fat, and 4.2% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Animal fats are healthier when they come from animals that are grass-fed or pasture-raised.
Because these fats are high in monounsaturated and saturated fats, they are good for frying foods.
Healthy Oils That are Not Suitable for Frying
Not all healthy oils are a good option when you are frying foods.
Some of the healthiest oils did not even make our list because they are not good options for this cooking method.
While fish, flax, peanut, palm, and canola oils are all beneficial for your health, none of these are good options for frying foods.
Below, we share why.
The Facts About Fish Oil
Fish oil is high on everyone’s list of healthy oils, and for a very good reason.
As an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil’s list of health benefits is long.
Fish oil supplements are recommended to help lower inflammation, promote cognitive function, reduce triglycerides, support healthy liver function, and treat mental health disorders like depression (36, 37, 38, 39, 40).
If fish oil is so healthy, why don’t we use it in cooking?
Because fish oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, it becomes unstable at high temperatures and can easily turn rancid, making it a poor choice for cooking.
To get plenty of fish oil in your diet, you should eat fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and cod that have all been wild-caught.
If you do not eat fish or can’t get enough from your diet, consider a fish oil supplement.
- Fish Oil By the Numbers
Fish oil is 22.3% saturated fat, 32.5% monounsaturated fat, and 45.2% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Fish oil does not have the right concentration of saturated or monounsaturated fats to be used in frying.
While it is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, it should not be used for cooking.
The Facts About Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed is also a healthy oil option, but because of its high content of polyunsaturated fats, it is not good for cooking.
Flaxseed is often recommended as a vegan alternative to fish oil because it is also high in omega-3 fatty acids.
While it does not contain the same configuration of DHA and EPA as fish oil, flaxseed is still a healthy oil that can be used for many dietary purposes.
Flaxseed will oxidize at high temperatures, so you should not cook with it at all.
- Flaxseed Oil By the Numbers
Flaxseed oil is 9.8% saturated fat, 21.1% monounsaturated fat, and 69.1% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Flaxseed, like fish oil, does not have the proper concentration of fats for frying.
While vegans use flaxseed as a substitute for fish oil, you should not cook with it at high temperatures.
The Facts About Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is currently one of the most popular frying oils used by restaurants and home cooks.
Because it has a neutral flavor that does not impact the taste of food, and because it can be reused many times without absorbing the flavors of fried foods, it is a popular and economical choice for many.
So why did it not make our list?
Peanut oil’s high content of polyunsaturated fats makes it vulnerable to oxidation at high temperatures, which will affect the overall healthfulness of your food.
While peanut oil’s high smoke point of 446°F (230°C) makes it good for frying, your food will not be very healthy when it comes out of that oil.
- Peanut Oil By the Numbers
Peanut oil is 17.8% saturated fat, 48.6% monounsaturated fat, and 33.6% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Because of peanut oil’s tendency to oxidize at high temperatures, you should not fry with this oil.
While many restaurants use this oil for frying, it can make your fried foods unhealthier than is necessary.
The Facts About Palm Oil
Palm oil may seem like the perfect choice for frying foods.
After all, it is low in polyunsaturated fats, it has a neutral flavor that does not affect the taste of foods, and it even has health benefits that are important.
So why is it not a good choice?
Unlike other oils on our list, palm oil does not make the cut because it is currently not harvested sustainably.
The palm oil industry is responsible for significant environmental issues, including habitat degradation for endangered species, deforestation on a large scale, and abuses against indigenous people in countries where the trees flourish (41).
Every day, huge areas of forest are cleared to plant more trees for palm oil production, and this is threatening the lives of species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.
Saying no to palm oil is the right choice, environmentally.
- Palm Oil By the Numbers
Palm oil is 51.4% saturated fat, 38.8% monounsaturated fat, and 9.8% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: While palm oil may seem like a good choice for frying, it is not sustainably harvested, and palm oil plantations are endangering species and causing rapid deforestation in parts of the world.
The Facts About Canola Oil
Like peanut oil, canola is a popular choice for deep-frying foods.
It is inexpensive and readily available, and it even contains the right concentration of monounsaturated fats, making it stable at high temperatures.
Additionally, canola oil has a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, as well as a neutral taste that is helpful for frying foods.
So why isn’t this oil higher on our list?
Like palm oil, the problem with canola oil lies in how it is produced.
Modern-day canola is actually a genetically modified version of wild rapeseed, which has many health benefits.
Today’s version of canola is almost completely genetically modified and is highly processed to remove harmful compounds like uric acid using harsh chemicals and solvents.
Canola oil almost always undergoes intense processing that includes bleaching, degumming, and refining using materials like hexane.
Most of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids are removed to make the oil more stable and resistant to rancidity, and often, the resulting oil is high in trans fats.
Modern canola oil is a highly-processed product that has few of the health benefits of wild rapeseed but does contain harmful trans fats and other compounds that are not good for your health.
- Canola Oil By the Numbers
Canola oil is 8.1% saturated fat, 64.1% monounsaturated fat, and 27.8% polyunsaturated fat.
Final Tip: Canola oil is highly processed and genetically modified, making it a poor choice for many reasons.
What Makes a Quality Oil?
So, now that we know that the healthiest oil options for frying include coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, clarified butter, and macadamia nut oil, it is time to go shopping!
Also, though, be sure to pay attention to the brands you purchase.
Choosing the right oil does not have to be complicated.
Below are some general guidelines to consider when purchasing any of the healthier frying options listed above.
- Buy oils in small bottles, to keep them fresh throughout their use.
- Purchase oils sold in glass containers, never those sold in plastic.
- When possible, purchase organic oils.
- When possible, buy cold-pressed and/or unrefined oils.
Storing Your Cooking Oils
Once you have selected the right type and brand of oil, you want to be sure you store it correctly.
After all, even the highest-quality oils can go rancid if stored improperly.
The following are our recommendations for storing your oils to maintain their freshness for as long as possible.
- Always store oil away from any source of heat, which can lead to oxidation. Even with monounsaturated fats, which are more stable, avoid the heat.
- Because light can lead to oxidation, as well, try to store your oils inside a dark cabinet or pantry.
- Be sure the tops are always screwed on tightly, to prevent oxygen from penetrating the bottle and causing oxidation.
Because frying foods adds fat and calories to your dishes, be sure to use this cooking method in moderation.
Most fried foods are also breaded or battered, which adds calories, too.
As an example, a deep-fried chicken wing contains 11 grams of fat and 159 calories, while a roasted chicken wing has seven grams of fat and only 99 calories.
Enjoying fried foods occasionally and only in moderate amounts can help ensure you do not pack on extra pounds.
To avoid adding even more unwanted calories when you fry food, cook food at the correct temperature to prevent soggy, oily dishes, and never cook food longer than is necessary.
When you opt for healthier cooking oils and use the proper techniques, frying foods does not have to be something you eschew entirely.
Remember that proper frying involves less time in the heat, which means less nutrient degradation during cooking.
Frying allows you access to more nutrients in some foods, too.
If you want to take control of your fried foods and turn them into healthier options, do not forget to select one of our recommended healthy oils for your next fried dish.
Choose between olive oil, coconut oil, clarified butter, macadamia nut oil, and animal fat for a healthier, fried treat.