You may have noticed an ever-expanding choice of oils at your local grocery store over the past few years. While once your options were limited to corn, canola, safflower and maybe olive oil, now your choices include walnut, almond, grapeseed and other types of oil as well. You may have even splurged on a bottle of fragrant truffle oil.
Each of these oils has its place in the kitchen and serves a specific function. Understanding which oil is suited for which use will help you to make the best choices for you and your family. Also, understanding the difference between the so-called “good” and “bad” fats will allow you to cook and eat more healthfully.
“For years, Americans were told to consume as little fat as possible. Now, experts recognize that while too much fat is bad for you, some fat is a necessary part of our diet; fats are a source of essential nutrition and flavor,” says Neil Blomquist CEO of Spectrum Naturals, a Petaluma, Calif.- based manufacturer of organic vegetable oils and healthy condiments.
The trick is to consume the right kind of fat in the appropriate amount. When it comes to calories, all oils are the same. They each contain 9 calories per gram — this includes oils labeled “light,” a term which refers only to the oil’s taste, not its nutritional makeup. But some oils are better for you than others.
Fats and oils are either saturated or unsaturated; unsaturated fats can be either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. “No oil is completely made of one fat; they all are a combination of the three fats in different percentages, based on the nut, seed or fruit from which the oil is derived,” explains Blomquist.
Saturated fats, which come mainly from animal sources, increase cholesterol levels. Tropical oils such as coconut and palm are two non-animal examples of saturated fat. Hydrogenated oils such as margarine and vegetable shortening are saturated fats that have been chemically transformed from their normal liquid state into solids. During the hydrogenation procedure, extra hydrogen atoms are pumped into unsaturated fat. This creates trans fatty acids, the most unhealthy type of fat found to be the number one cause of heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats are known to help reduce the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol without lowering the good HDL cholesterol. The most widely used oils that are high in monounsaturates are olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. Polyunsaturated fats, made up of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids are also considered relatively healthy and include corn, soybean, safflower, and grapeseed oil. Oils high in omega-3 rich polyunsaturate fat such as walnut oil, flaxseed oil and canola oil are a good addition to the diet since our body require omega-3s for good health but cannot manufacturer them. New studies show incorporating omega-3s into your diet reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease.
“The way the oil is extracted also plays a role in how healthy it is,” notes Blomquist. Oil is extracted using one of two methods — mechanical or chemical. Chemical extraction, often called solvent extraction, is the most common and cost efficient method. It employs high heat and a series of chemical processes, primarily exposure to hexane gas, to remove and refine the oil.
In mechanical extraction, called cold pressed or expeller pressed, oil is squeezed from the source, usually with hydraulic presses. This minimal exposure to heat preserves the natural flavor of the oil but limits the yield, making mechanically extracted oils more expensive than chemically extracted oils. “We use only mechanical extraction, to maintain the nutrients and health benefits of our oils,” says Blomquist.
Just as each oil has a unique nutritional makeup, they also have distinct flavor components and smoke points, making some oils more appropriate for certain uses than others.
Heating oil past its smoke point can cause it to have an off flavor, lose its nutritional value and turn the once healthy oil into a trans fat laden heart disease machine. Oils that can take high temperatures make good all purpose cooking oils. Choose from canola, sunflower and peanut for high-heat uses such as searing and frying. Medium-high heat oils are good for baking, sautéing and stir-frying; try grapeseed, safflower or sunflower oil. For sauces, lower- heat baking and pressure cooking, medium-high heat oils are best. Good choices are olive oil, corn oil, pumpkinseed oil and walnut oil.
“There are some oils that should never be heated,” Blomquist points out. These oils, found on the supermarket shelves in the nutritional supplement category in the refrigerator, can also be used as condiments. Use them in dips and dressings, or add to a dish after it has been removed from heat. For example, add walnut oil, with its nutty flavor, to your salad; or add sesame oil to your stir- fry after its done cooking to add extra flavor. Other oils to use unheated are flax, evening primrose, borage, black currant, hemp and wheat germ oils. This is also a good way to incorporate essential fatty acids into your diet.
To extend the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of culinary oils, store them in the refrigerator once they’ve been opened. Oils rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids such as flax, walnut, pumpkin and other nutritional oils should be protected from heat and light whether or not they have been opened. For other types of oil, a dark, cool pantry is a good storage option.
Spectrum Naturals has provided consumers with high quality oils since 1986. Spectrum Naturals’ and Spectrum Essentials’ products can be found at natural food stores and fine grocery stores in the United States and Canada. For more information, visit www.spectrumorganic.com.