Check out this essential buying guide before getting your next bottle of cooking oil
Cooking oil is a basic and almost indispensable ingredient in every kitchen. But nowadays, there are so many different types of cooking oil that you can literally take an hour or more just to go through all the options in a well-stocked supermarket.
Which one should you use?
To answer this question, let us put these cooking oils side-by-side and look at their vital statistics. We’ll also discuss what are the things to look for in an edible oil and lastly, go through some oils that fit the bill.
[FOR TABLE THAT GOES HERE - SEE ORIGINAL ARTICLE]
SFA: Saturated fatty acids
MUFA: Monounsaturated fatty acids
PUFA: Polyunsaturated fatty acids
Ω-3: Omega-3 fatty acids
Ω-6: Omega-6 fatty acids
Ω-9: Omega-9 fatty acids
Ω-6:3 Ratio: Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio
Smoke Point: The temperature at which a cooking oil starts to burn and produce chemicals that are potentially harmful.
How to Choose Your Next Cooking OilSo what should you look out for in the table full of numbers? Here are some suggestions:
- Keep omega-6 and omega-3 intake in balance
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids contain essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are important for good health. Our body cannot produce some of these fats, and thus we need to consume them through foods every day.
… some omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, while omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation.However, the consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fats needs to be in balance as some omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, while omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation. Some researchers suggest maintaining an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1 to 4:1 in one’s diet for general health.To make things even more interesting, both omega fats compete for the same enzymes in the body. Having more of one type of omega fatty acids will rob the other of chances to carry out their functions. As a result, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in your diet may influence how much pro- and anti-inflammatory compounds are produced in your body.
Having more pro-inflammatory chemicals than you actually need for prolonged period of time can lead to silent inflammation, which in turn is a malignant seed for many chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, stroke, dementia and some cancers.
Our modern diet, unfortunately, tends to be loaded with too much omega-6 fats due to the prevalent use of PUFA-rich vegetable oils and inadequate consumption of omega-3, with an estimated ratio of 10:1 to 20:1.
Combine this a processed food culture and a sedentary lifestyle and you get a global epidemic of chronic disease that we’re seeing today.
So rather than stoking the flames of inflammation with more omega-6 fats from your cooking oil, go instead for oils with low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to cut down on your omega-6 intake.
- Look out for monounsaturated fats
Several studies (including this one) suggest that regular use of oil rich in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil may help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by raising HDL (high density lipoprotein), lowering triglycerides and reducing levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein).
Oleic acid is a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid believed to be responsible for the heart-protective effect of olive oil. It is also found in other vegetable and animal oils in varying proportions.
Further, the phytochemicals in olive oil, for example, hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein, are also believed to play a role in keeping the heart healthy.
It’s then not too far-fetched to reason that edible oils that have not been overly processed, and so retain more of their phytonutrients, would be a better choice over highly refined and high temperature-treated ones.
- Minimize use of oils with high polyunsaturated fats
Oils containing mostly polyunsaturated fatty acids (50% and above) tend to be unstable and turn rancid more readily than those with high saturated or monounsaturated fats. This is due to the inherent instability of this type of fat molecules.
The oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) begins the moment the oil is extracted and exposed to heat, air and light, breaking down the integrity of the oil and forming free radicals in the process.
The degradation gets worse when the oil is heated. The higher the temperature, the more inflammatory oxidation products are formed. Hence, you should never heat unrefined, extra virgin PUFA.
Having said these, it doesn’t mean that you should avoid PUFA-rich oils entirely. Some of these oils, such as flaxseed oil, are excellent sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.
But, since they break down rather easily, it’s advisable to get such oils as fresh as possible and then to finish them as quickly as you can. They should also always be kept in dark bottles and in the refrigerator to slow down their rate of oxidation.
- Choose the right oil for your cooking
Every oil, no matter how good it may be, will burn when you heat it up long enough. And when oil burns, it rapidly denatures and produces new and potentially carcinogenic compounds.
… match the right oil with the cooking method you intend to use.Therefore, it’s important to match the right oil with the cooking method you intend to use.For instance, if you plan to do stir frying, searing, high-heat baking or roasting, then it’s imperative to choose a cooking oil that can withstand the high heat without disintegrating too much.
That’s where the smoke point column in the table comes in useful.
As a general rule of thumb, cooking oils with low smoke point should not be used for high temperature cooking. You can use them for steaming, blanching, stewing in slow cooker, as well as in cold dishes.
Note that, generally, for the same type of oil, the more refined it is, the higher its smoke point. But bear in mind that that also means the oil would have gone through substantial processing which may have removed most of its beneficial components.
- Don’t be afraid of saturated fats
We’ve always been told not to go near saturated fat if we don’t want to die of a heart attack.
But in recent years, an increasing number of people are doing just the opposite. Not only are they eating more saturated fats, they are also encouraging others to do so.
Are they nuts?
Well, it turns out that there may be some basis to their seemingly suicidal choice.
Increasingly, more researchers and health practitioners are voicing against mainstream ‘wisdom’ that portrays saturate fat as a artery-clogging and heart-stopping villain.
They cite ground-breaking studies that failed to find a convincing link associating dietary saturated fats with coronary heart disease (CHD) or cardiovascular disease (CVD) as the reasons.
Take for instance the literature review supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada in 2009.
In the systematic review of prospective cohort studies and randomized trials from 1950 through June 2007, the authors concluded that there was “insufficient evidence of association” between intake of saturated fatty acids and CHD.
Instead, they found strong evidence linking regular consumption of vegetables, nuts and a Mediterranean diet (which includes monounsaturated fatty acids) to lower CHD risk, while trans fats and foods with a high glycemic index/load were associated with a higher risk.
… “no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”Another meta-analysis of 21 studies published on the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 also found “no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”If you’ve always thought that a heart healthy diet is one that contains no animal fats, no butter, no cheese, no coconut milk and certainly no red meat, these brave ‘new’ ideas could come as a shock.
Have we been blaming the wrong guy all these years?
Although these studies could not give us a definitive answer, what we can derived from them is perhaps this:
Like other chronic degenerative illnesses that take years to form, the cause of heart disease is likely to be a combination of many factors, rather than the work of a singular component.
One’s genetic make-up, physical activity level, personality (which affects one’s susceptibility to stress and his ability to manage stress), family history, place of living, the types of microbe in your gut, and of course, other foods that you eat could affect the outcome of the delicate and complex health equation.
While the verdict is still out on saturated fat, there’s perhaps no need to avoid saturated fat like the way we used to if you’re generally healthy.
- Consider how the oil is extracted
Industrial refined vegetable oils like soybean and corn oils are usually extracted using toxic chemical solvents such as hexane to pull out more oil from the crops. But inevitably, trace amounts of chemical residue are left in the oil even though steps have been taken to remove them.
While short term ingestion of small amount of the chemical is unlikely to cause any problems in healthy individuals, long term ingestion is currently unknown. No human study has been carried out so far to assess the long term effects of chronic low-grade exposure to chemical solvent in cooking oil.
But considering the ubiquitous presence of cooking oil in almost every food we eat each day, do you want to take the chance?
If you don’t, then you may want to opt for food grade oils that have been extracted mechanically. Such oils are usually labeled as ‘cold-pressed’ or ‘expeller-pressed’. However, because mechanical extraction gives lower yields, oils that are extracted using this method usually cost more.
Recommended Cooking OilsConsidering the factors we have discussed earlier, here are some cooking oils from the list worth highlighting:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Mention monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and most people will think of olive oil. Indeed, more than 70% of fats in olive oil are MUFA, making it the de facto choice for healthful oil.
As there are many varieties of olive oil, look for reputable organic, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Not only will extra virgin olive oil contain more phytochemicals with potent antioxidant properties, the flavor will also be stronger and richer.
Vital Fat Composition:
Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: 12.8:1
Omega-3 fatty acids: 0.8%
Omega-6 fatty acids: 9.8%
Omega-9 fatty acids: 71.3%
Saturated fatty acids: 13.8%
Smoke point: 375°F (191°C) (extra virgin)
Pros: High levels of beneficial monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acids and an unique flavor.
Cons: Olive oil’s relatively low smoke point make it unsuitable for high temperature cooking. In fact, you should preferably not cook with extra virgin olive oil. Use it on cold dishes or add it only after you’ve turn off the fire. Further, its distinctive flavor may not be welcomed in dishes that do not call for a taste of Mediterranean.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter commonly used in India and other parts of South Asia. It shares a similar fat composition as anhydrous butter oil and has an outstanding omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. With a high saturated fat content, ghee does not oxidize easily and has a high smoke point. Although it’s derived from milk, it contains very low lactose and is suitable even for people who are lactose-intolerant.
Vital Fat Composition:
Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: 1.6:1
Omega-3 fatty acids: 1.5%
Omega-6 fatty acids: 2.3%
Omega-9 fatty acids: 25.2%
Saturated fatty acids: 62.3%
Smoke point: 485°F (252°C)
Pros: Rich buttery taste and aroma, excellent omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids ratio, low polyunsaturated fats, stable and does not oxidize easily, and high smoke point. Suitable for high-temperature cooking.
Cons: As the health impact of saturated fats is still open to debate, consumption of oils containing high saturated fats should be moderated.
Avocado oil is pressed from the pulp of the avocado fruit, not its seed. It has the highest smoke point among all the cooking oils featured here. Avocado oil is described to have “an aroma of globe artichokes and celery” and “a full rich, lingering flavor of avocado.” Its fat composition is comparable to that of olive oil, containing high monounsaturated fats and acceptable levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Vital Fat Composition:
Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: 13.1:1
Omega-3 fatty acids: 1%
Omega-6 fatty acids: 12.5%
Omega-9 fatty acids: 67.9%
Saturated fatty acids: 11.6%
Smoke point: 520°F (271°C)
Pros: High monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acids. Contains high phytosterols and polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols which are anti-inflammatory in nature. High smoke point also makes avocado oil suitable for high temperature cooking such as stir frying and high heat baking. It’s also reportedly high in vitamin E.
Cons: Avocado oil is still not as common as other oils. Thus, its rarity may translate into higher cost.
Macadamia oil is extracted from the nut meat of macadamia tree, a native Australian nut. Unbeknown to many people, macadamia oil has even higher amounts (about 12% more) of monounsaturated fatty acids than olive oil. Its roughly one to one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats also made it attractive to people looking to cut down on their omega-6 intake.
Unlike olive oil which has a stronger flavor, macadamia oil is rather bland and does not carry any strong odor. Due to its relatively high smoke point, it’s also a versatile oil that can be used for different methods of cooking.
Vital Fat Composition:
Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: 1:1
Omega-3 fatty acids: 2%
Omega-6 fatty acids: 2%
Omega-9 fatty acids: 83%
Saturated fatty acids: 12.5%
Smoke point: 413°F (210°C)
Pros: High monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acids, excellent omega-6 to omega-3 fat profile, low polyunsaturated fats, taste that does not overpower other food, and relatively high smoke point. Suitable for stir-fries, baking and pan frying.
Cons: May not be a good choice for cold dishes, such as salad, that need added flavor from the oil.
About 50% of the fats in coconut oil are lauric acids, a type of saturated fatty acid that has antibacterial, antioxidant and antiviral properties.
According to a preliminary study, consumption of lauric acid may increase total cholesterol level with most of the increase being HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol.
So rather than increasing the risk of cardiovascular events, lauric acid-rich oils such as coconut oil may confer heart-protective effects instead.
The high saturated fat contents of coconut oil also made this aromatic oil very stable and resistant to rancidity. At 76°F (24°C) and above, coconut oil is a transparent liquid, while at lower temperature, it solidifies into a hard white mass. You can store coconut oil without refrigeration for up to two years, though I’d recommend that you consume any oil that you buy as quickly as possible while it’s still fresh.
Another interesting feature of coconut oil is that it contains high levels (about 66%) of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Unlike long-chain fatty acids, MCTs do not need bile salts for digestion and are easily absorbed and utilized by the body. That’s why MCTs are used clinically in the treatment of malnutrition or malabsorption syndromes.
Vital Fat Composition:
Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: Not a source of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids: 0%
Omega-6 fatty acids: 1.8%
Omega-9 fatty acids: 5.8%
Saturated fatty acids: 86.5%
Smoke point: 350°F (177°C) (extra virgin)
Pros: Virgin coconut oil imparts a fresh coconut flavor, is low in polyunsaturated fats, does not turn rancid easily, and a good source of lauric acids. Coconut oil’s antibacterial and antioxidant properties also make it an outstanding choice for luxurious massages.
Cons: Negligible omega-3 fats content. The distinctive taste and odor of coconut oil can also overwhelm foods that do not have a strong flavor. Virgin coconut oil does not have a high smoke point. Its high levels of MCTs may also make the oil unsuitable for people with liver problems.
As the health impact of saturated fats is still open to debate, consumption of oils containing high saturated fats should be moderated.
- Most figures in the table are computed using data available from the USDA database. Smoke point values are retrieved from Wikipedia, as well as the book, The Hamptons Diet.
- The values here are only meant as a guide. Fatty acids composition of oils differ from brand to brand as well as the country of production.
Some sharp-eyed readers have written to ask why canola oil is not in the list of recommended cooking oil. After all, its excellent omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, low saturated fats and high monounsaturated fat levels made it an attractive option. However, as it turns out, canola oil may be no better than industrial refined vegetable oils like soybean oil. Here are the reasons why:
Why Canola Oil is Not in the Recommended List?
- Genetically modified source. Canola oil comes from certain types of rapeseed that have been bred using traditional methods to lower its glucosinolate content. (Glucosinolate, by the way, is toxic in high quantity.) This is fine and well until genetically modified rapeseed was developed to make the crop more resistant to herbicide. Now, it’s estimated that some 80% of canola plants in the US and Canada are either genetically modified (GM) or have been contaminated by GM crop.
- Hexane extracted. Bulk industrial canola oil is usually extracted with hexane, a chemical derived from crude oil, like many soybean and corn oils. Hexane gas is classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the US Environmental Protection Agency because of its health-impairing properties. While the amount of hexane residue in canola oil is small and is unlikely to cause any ill effects when used for short period of time and in small quantity, chronic long-term exposure to hexane residue is unknown. There are canola oils that are expeller pressed, not hexane extracted, but they represent only a small percentage in the consumer market due to lower yield and higher cost of the extraction method.
- Unstable oil. Canola oil contains relatively high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids which makes it more prone to oxidation. Unless steps are taken to slow down the oxidation, freshly extracted canola oil degrades quickly, producing a foul smell in the process. To make the final product more appealing to consumers, the bad smell is removed by manufacturers during the oil refining process.
Having said all these, there is no reason why you shouldn’t use a good organic, non-GM, cold-pressed and nitrogen-sealed canola oil from a reputable source.
Final note: No matter how healthy a cooking oil may be, bear in mind that it’s still high in calorie. Over-zealous use of oil can cause unwanted weight gain and lead to obesity.