Cooking Oils 101
One of the most common questions I get from customers during a grocery store tour is “what is the best oil to use”? My answer is always multifaceted because there are so many choices and it really depends on what you are looking for. Are you thinking in terms of health benefits or the use in preparation or both?
In terms of nutrition, there are 2 types of vegetable oils. Those that are highest in polyunsaturated fats (sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn, grapeseed, hemp, flaxseed, and walnut) and those that are highest in monounsaturated fats (olive, canola, peanut, avocado and almond oils). Olive oil is the richest source of monounsaturated fat at 77%. Monounsaturated fats increase HDL cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Polyunsaturated fats reduce both HDL and LDL cholesterol. Those high in an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid or ALA rather than Linoleic acid are good choices. ALA is an essential fatty acid that can help reduce the risk of heart disease, especially if you don’t eat enough omega-3 from fish. Good sources include walnut, flax, hemp and canola.
In terms of cooking generally refined oils such as grapeseed, peanut, almond, avocado, safflower, sunflower, corn and canola oils have a higher smoke point and can be used at higher temperatures. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and burn. Unrefined oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, have a lower smoke point and should be used at lower temperatures. Flax, walnut and hemp oils are high in essential fatty acids and should not be heated.
In terms of flavour, the refined oils such as safflower, sunflower, canola, avocado, corn and soybean have the most neutral flavour. Olive oil has a strong flavour which makes it best for dressings, marinades and sauces. Peanut and sesame oils have distinct flavours and are used in Asian cooking. Walnut and flaxseed oils are delicious in salad dressing.
Coconut oil is 86% saturated fat. The type of saturated fat is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT). MCT oils are easily absorbed and sent directly to the liver for energy rather than being broken down in the gut. MCT oils increase HDL and LDL but do not seem to increase the LDL cholesterol as much as other saturated fats. Coconut oil has a high smoke point and can be used in both cooking and baking. Coconut oil is not an unhealthy oil as it was once thought to be but it is still not as good for your health as a polyunsaturated and monounsaturated vegetable oil high in omega 3. Its’ phytochemical content is still being studied.
My oil of choice?
So what’s the mainstay in my pantry? Olive oil is my go oil for most salad dressings, marinades, sautés, and pasta sauces. It’s high in monounsaturated fats and phytochemicals. I have been using avocado oil, also high in the mono’s for higher temperature stir fries and salad dressings where I don’t want the strong flavour of olive oil. I also love sesame oil for Asian dishes. Canola oil, high in omega 3’s, is always in my fridge and I use it for baking muffins mostly.