Understanding Different Cooking Oils

Nutrition enthusiast and recipe curator, Nicole Smolen*, explores different cooking oils in this guest blog post. Learn which cooking oils might be best for your daily use or for cooking certain dishes.

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Our ancestors prized rich flavoring agents including tallow, lard, and poultry fat. In ancient Africa, around 8,000 B.C., dairy products yielded animal fat and oil, in the form of butter. Early peoples eventually harnessed heat from the sun, a fire, or an oven, distilling precious cooking oils from plants. Southern Europeans have extracted olive oil since 3,000 B.C. 2,000 B.C. marks the beginning of soy oil production in China and Japan.

Some of the most common cooking oils we use today did not gain widespread popularity until the first half of the twentieth century.

Nowadays, many people shy away from dietary fats, especially oils. According to Food Insight, this vital macronutrient is “involved in many parts of digestion and nutrition, from improving the taste of our food to providing us with a major source of energy to helping our bodies absorb vitamins to refereeing communication between cells in our body.” Not all fats are created equally…

So, which cooking oil is best? The short answer: determine which method your dish requires. You may be grilling bell peppers, searing salmon, caramelizing onions, sauteing potatoes, frying foods, or baking banana bread. It is particularly important to consider an oil’s smoke point, the temperature at which an oil starts burning and smoking. Besides degrading the flavor and nutrients, heating an oil past its smoke point releases free radicals.

Here is a helpful guide to the nine most popular cooking oils:

  1. Avocado

Aside from heart-healthy oleic acid (monounsaturated fat) and polyunsaturated fats, avocado oil is rich in lutein, a carotenoid and antioxidant known for promoting eye health and supports healthy skin. The addition of avocado oil increases the bioavailability of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

What is an easy way to help your body absorb vital nutrients? Incorporate avocado oil in salads or even marinades. With an impressive smoke point of 510-520 degrees Fahrenheit, it is perfectly suitable for high-heat cooking. Even so, the healthiest form is raw and cold-pressed.

How to Cook With It: A high smoke point of about 520 degrees Fahrenheit makes avocado oil an efficient pantry item. Its many uses range from sauteing to roasting and searing.

  1. Canola

Derived from rapeseed, canola oil is made of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Compared to other vegetable oils, this variety contains the least amount of saturated fats. Although usually a major source of omega-6 fats and it is usually refined, canola oil does still offer the unique benefits associated with ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The human body is unable to produce this heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid. In an overall healthy and balanced diet, canola oil can still play a role in it.

If you can find it, cold-pressed canola oil is the best choice. It has a light flavor, high smoke point, and smooth texture, which expands your culinary options.

How to Cook With It: With canola oil, the possibilities are endless. Saute, stir-fry, grill, or even bake your favorite meals.

  1. Coconut

There is a lot of hype surrounding coconut oil. Supporters claim that coconut oil can increase good cholesterol, control blood sugar, reduce stress, promote shiny hair and healthy skin, fight candida, improve liver health, reduce asthma symptoms, improve satiety, advance dental health, and encourage weight loss. That being said, more research is needed.

Being high in saturated fats, which can raise cholesterol levels, coconut oil is more stable at raised temperatures. It is commonly found in fried foods, sweets, shampoos, coffee, and smoothies. If incorporating coconut oil in moderation into your diet, you may consider extra-virgin coconut oil. It is best to avoid partially hydrogenated coconut oils, which contains trans fat.

How to Cook With It: Saute and roast ingredients in coconut oil. Add it to baked goods or morning brews (e.g. bulletproof coffee). Since it becomes a solid at room temperature, coconut oil is less popular in vinaigrettes and marinades.

  1. Grapeseed

As the name suggests, grapeseed oil is pressed from the seeds of wine grapes. Its neutral flavor and medium-high smoke point (390-420 degrees Fahrenheit) enhance dressings, stir-fries, as well as baked or sauteed dishes. Vitamin E and antioxidants are a few of the associated benefits, however keep in mind, it is a rich source of Omega 6, which may contribute more to the disproportion of Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio in a typical Western diet.

How to Cook With It: Grapeseed blends well in baked, sauteed, or stir-fried dishes.

  1. Olive

The crown jewel of the Mediterranean Diet is unrefined extra-virgin olive oil. Best for cooking at low-medium heat, this versatile oil contains high levels of monounsaturated fats, which can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. Additionally, it offers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

How to Cook With It: Best for dipping and dressing, EVOO (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil) pairs perfectly with bread, vegetables, and balsamic vinegar. It can even replace butter in baked goods.

  1. Peanut Oil

Not surprisingly, peanut oil is known for its signature nutty flavor and high smoke point of 448-475 degrees Fahrenheit. It contains antioxidants (e.g. Vitamin E), which combat free radicals, keep blood cells healthy, and support the immune system. Omega-6 fatty acids, which may be harmful when consumed in excess, are also abundant. The polyunsaturated fats in peanut oil put it at risk of oxidation.

You will find it in a wide variety of deep-fried favorites, ranging from French fries to Yellow Curry and Singapore Noodles. Most of the peanut supply originates in China, India, and Nigeria.

How to Cook With It: Peanut can be used for frying, sauteing, and layering in nuanced flavor.

  1. Sesame

Sesame oil supplies culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic benefits. It contains restorative antioxidants, strong anti-inflammatory properties, and monounsaturated fats. This luscious lipid is also thought to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce osteoarthritis.

Known for its signature flavor profile, sesame oil is cherished across Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. While the unrefined variety has a stronger aftertaste, refined sesame oil’s neutral flavor is best for deep- or stir-frying. Characterized by a darker color and light flavor, toasted sesame oil is commonly infused into dressings and marinades.

How to Cook With It: With a higher smoke point of 410 degrees Fahrenheit and balanced flavor, light sesame oil is useful for frying or roasting. Cold-pressed sesame oil works well in vinaigrettes, dressings, and marinades. On the other hand, toasted sesame oil is prized for bringing bold flavor to stir-fries and dips.

  1. Sunflower

Did you know that sunflower oil meets 28% of a person’s daily vitamin E requirement? With a high smoke point and mild flavor, it is easy to incorporate in a wide variety of dishes. This popular ingredient is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are considered to be pro-inflammatory if not balanced with anti-inflammatory omega-3’s. Excessive consumption of omega-6’s may lead to inflammation, weight gain, and heart problems. At high temperatures (above 180 degrees Fahrenheit), sunflower oil can release toxic compounds. It is best used within limits, drizzled on fresh vegetables or mixed in dips. High-oleic is the healthiest variety.

How to Cook With It: A smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit makes sunflower oil ideal for sauteing, stir frying, deep frying, and even baking.

  1. Vegetable

Most oils that fall into this category are a blend of canola, corn, soybean, palm, and sunflower oils. Refined and processed vegetable oils typically lack flavor…and nutrients. Hydrogenated versions, high in unhealthy trans fats, are especially risky.

Fatty acids, including omega-6, are essential to brain function, bone health, metabolic regulation, as well as skin and hair growth. Soybean, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, peanut, sesame, and rice bran oils are high in this nutrient; however, it is important to be mindful of your intake. For example, scientists have hypothesized that too much omega-6 relative to omega-3 can contribute to inflammation, an underlying factor in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.

How to Cook With It: Best for frying, roasting, and baking. Although convenient, your consumption of vegetable oil should be regulated. Many brands are heavily processed and refined.

Although each oil offers unique health benefits, it is important to remember that oils and fats should be consumed in moderation. When possible, try to avoid partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats. For recipes without heat, you may wish to explore flaxseed, walnut, and hemp seed oils.

*Nicole is a nutrition enthusiast as well as an avid recipe developer. She is a self described foodie who enjoys creating plant-based recipes with a cinematic twist (utilizing her background in cinema, she combines it with her passion in food and nutrition to create fun recipes).

(References relative to blog post upon request)

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