Cooking Oil Choices for Best Health Benefits
All oils, by definition, are pure fat, but not all oils are created equal. Though many of us are accustomed to choosing easy to find vegetable and olive oils, intriguing options are showing up on grocery shelves across the country. Oils of grape seed, sesame, coconut, peanut, walnut, safflower, pumpkin and sunflower now greet us. With so many unfamiliar choices, we need to be aware that some oils are more useful than others, in terms of light, healthy and flavorful cooking.
“Fats and oils can be among the healthiest substances in your diet,” advises nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., “but only if they’re organic.” She notes that oils in conventionally grown seeds and nuts can be “a storehouse of fattening pesticides.” Like other nationally certified foods, organic oils produced without toxic and persistent pesticides are clearly preferable.
Liquid at room temperature, most oils are a blend of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, with the exception of coconut oil, a plant oil comprised mostly of saturated fatty acids, which is solid at room temperature. Its composition makes coconut oil safe for high-heat cooking and searing, without risking oxidation of the oil and the introduction of free radicals into the food, a risk when oils high in polyunsaturated fats, such as walnut and sunflower oils, are exposed to high heat.
Canola oil rates high among nutritionists and physicians because it, too, can help lower the risk of heart disease. Extracted from rapeseed, a plant in the cabbage family, its generous helping of omega-3s helps qualify it as the best fatty acid composition (good versus bad fat) among oils. Its mild taste also makes it a preferred selection for cooking and baking.
Look for organic, expeller-pressed brands of canola oil, advises Dr. Andrew Weil. “When extracted with chemical solvents or high-speed presses that generate heat, canola oil’s fatty acid chemistry is altered in undesirable ways,” he says.
Olive oil, a top-seller around the world, is renowned as the Mediterranean secret to good health and long life. Its distinct flavor complements multiple heart-healthy ingredients. Research attributes olive oil’s particular benefits to its monounsaturated fat content, which can lower the risk of heart disease by reducing cholesterol levels. It’s also a good source of vitamins E, A and K, and abundant in polyphenols, a powerful class of antioxidants.
Oils pack plenty of flavor punch, so small amounts can go a long way. Few are as multitasking as olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, the least processed and most flavorful type, works best in unheated dips or sauces, salad dressings and marinades. Virgin olive oil, slightly more acidic, is useful for general cooking.
Russell Scott, certified master chef and executive chef at Isleworth Country Club, in Windermere, Florida, and a former associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, lauds olive oil’s versatility. “There are lots of varieties,” he advises, “and it has a great flavor that holds up during cooking.”
Nut oils like walnut and almond are also favorites of Scott. Though many have strong flavors, most have low smoke points, so Scott suggests adding them at the end of cooking. “Just a drizzle can wake up a dish,” he notes.
Seed oils burst with distinctive tastes, too. Pumpkin seed oil, a recent addition to American cuisine, is a polyunsaturated powerhouse of antioxidants. Try it as a memorable, last-minute seasoning for fish or a delectable enhancement to steamed vegetables. Grapeseed oil, high in heart-healthy vitamin E, has a high smoke point, so it’s good for stir-frying and sautéing. Its light, nutty and slightly fruity taste is the perfect foil for fruit salads or baby greens that might be overpowered by olive oil’s more robust flavor.
Untoasted sesame seed oil is another culinary multitasker with a high smoke point, although toasted sesame oil is usually used as a flavoring agent only, rather than in cooking. European or cold-pressed sesame oil is light in color and nutty in flavor; the Asian variety is made from toasted seeds, giving it a darker color and more pronounced taste.
A final tip: For the optimum culinary adventure, choose oils in glass bottles to avoid the risk of the oils interacting with chemicals found in plastic containers and to ensure the freshness and genuine flavors of the product.
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