Choosing which oil to cook with can certainly be a slippery slope. Which are good at low temperatures? What about high temps? Should we fry with olive oil? Which ones are healthiest? So many questions and so many promoted health benefits for each that it’s easier to throw your hands up in the oil aisle and pick the one with the prettiest label.
The world of nutrition is confounding not only because it’s flooded with daily introductions of new products to the marketplace, but information is ever-changing as well. One day something is hailed as a cure-all, only to be deemed a carcinogen three months down the road. New oils are touted as having long lasting health benefits or are said to preserve foods longer than their counterparts only to be found to devastate rain forests two weeks later.
When choosing the right oil, there are a few simple rules.
How do they get it outta there?
The extraction process carves out the path for how nutritious oil will be when it comes into our kitchen. How is it processed? There are a couple of ways to extract oils from the fruits, nuts or seeds from which they’re derived. They can be physically pressed, or squeezed, or can be extracted using heavy chemicals and solvents. Cold or expeller pressed oils are a healthier option, but food companies that are in a hurry to produce mass quantities of oil often opt to extract it using chemicals, simply because that method yields more product. It also leaves substances derived from petroleum, like hexane, in our oils.
Where does it come from? (& my three faves)
The source of our oil is highly debated these days, but it just as important as the extraction method. Extra virgin olive oil has long been the queen of oils, and her reign is far from over. EVOO, as it is deemed in the food world, contains highly nutritious plant compounds called polyphenols that help fight everything from inflammation to cancer. The polyphenol content, however, largely depends on the extraction method, and is compromised by heat during the refining process. That’s why it’s important to source cold-pressed, first-pressed or expeller-pressed oils — they’re not as highly or quickly processed as refined oils. We can determine olive oil’s quality by its clarity. If it’s a little cloudy, we know it’s a more natural product. Olive oil’s smoke point is about 350 degrees, making it ideal for roasting at lower heat, or for salad dressings.
Avocado oil is swiftly gaining momentum, as it packs all the healthy benefits found in avocadoes, (like omega-3s,) and has a mild flavor. Like olive oil, the more refined versions are not only processed with chemicals, but are often bleached and deodorized. Many studies link avocado oil with lower levels of LDL (or bad cholesterol). Like other healthy fats, avocado oil can increase our ability to assimilate more nutrients from the veggies we eat. That’s why having a healthy dressing or avocado with our salad can help us get more nutrients out of the veggies. (Bye, bye, fat free dressings!). Avocado oil’s smoke point is 520 degrees, making it one of my favorite oils for high-temp cooking.
Sesame oil joins rank with these two as well, bringing more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties to the table, or to the pan, if you will. It’s also been linked to aiding blood sugar. With a smoke point of 410 degrees, sesame oil can help with high-temperature cooking and is great in dressings and marinades.
While coconut oil has been ousted as an oil royal due to its high saturated fat content, it still is a great option for light use in baking and is always good for your skin.
The nefarious few
Canola oil eclipsed many of its competitors in becoming a central player in high-temperature cooking. It is, however, derived from a genetically modified rapeseed, which contains toxic levels of erucic acid. Canola oil is highly refined and can even contain trans fats at different levels, depending on how it’s processed. This one tops my steer-clear list, accompanied by soybean, corn and cottonseed oils.
When palm oil was declared the perfect, long lasting, healthy oil years ago, food companies quickly churned out as much as they could. Rainforests were cleared to make way for more and more oil palms, which has had a devastating effect on already endangered animals and creates a looming threat to the environment. Although naturally free of trans fats, the high saturated fat content in palm oil has been shown to raise LDL levels and can contribute to cardiac disease. It’s difficult to avoid, however, since it’s everywhere.
Creamy Citrus Dressing*
*Courtesy of Matthew Kenney (Raw Food/Real World)
1 small avocado, peeled and pitted
1 cup orange juice
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons lime juice
1 handful cilantro
1 green onion, white and 1 inch of green, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped shallot
½ small jalapeno
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
In a blender, add the avocado, orange and lime juices, cilantro, green onion, shallot, jalapeno, and salt and blend until smooth. With the blender running, slowly pour in the olive oil, allowing it to emulsify for a thick, creamy consistency. Season to taste with pepper.