With so many cooking oils on the supermarket shelves, telling them apart, understanding which fats are useful in improving our health and knowing how to best use them is tricky. Clearly, not all oils are equal, and some are more beneficial to our goal of youth prevention and feeling good.
In this post, I’m going to run through the basics of fats, before examining just five of the many types of oils available.
Fats – The Basics
Fatty acids are often categorized into one of two groups – unsaturated and saturated. An easy way to remember the difference is that unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and come from seeds, fatty fish and vegetables. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found in animals and tropical plants.
Saturated fats raise your total blood cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are known as good fats and can have positive effects on your body, helping to protect against type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and age-related brain decline.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats and are required by the body for many reasons. They build healthy cells and help to maintain nerve functions and the brain. These essential fats are only found in food – the body can’t produce them.
One of the most important factors to consider when choosing which oil to cook with is the smoke point – the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke when heated. You’ll often want your pan nice and hot, but when oil is heated beyond its smoke point, the fat starts to break down, releasing free radicals and a chemical called acrolein. This substance gives burnt food its bitter aroma and flavour.
Let’s examine the facts behind five oils found on supermarket shelves.
Due to the popularity of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, olive oil has become one of the most researched cooking oils. There are many different types of olive oil, each one suited to a certain purpose. Whether you’re using it on your skin or drizzling it on salad, the source of your olive oil is important because some lower quality kinds can be diluted with cheaper oils, or even extracted using chemicals.
- Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, helping to prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol.
- This is just one of the ways extra virgin olive oil is regarded as heart-healthy.
- The more ‘virgin’ or less processed the oil is, the more polyphenol compounds it contains. This antioxidant can protect our body from free radical damage as well as control the rate at which we age.
Made from pressed hazelnuts, this oil is pale yellow and has a sweet, nutty taste. In the kitchen, hazelnut oil can be used in salad dressings, with grilled meat and fish and is perfect to dip with bread.
- Hazelnuts are high in healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and low in unhealthier unsaturated fats.
- A rich source of Vitamin E – one cup of hazelnuts offers about 86 percent of the daily vitamin E requirement. It is also an excellent source of Vitamin C and Vitamin A. The antioxidant properties of these vitamins can help prevent the onset of premature ageing.
- Hazelnut oil is a mild astringent that can help tighten pores and regulate the excretion of oils by the skin’s glands.
Sunflower oil is extracted from confection seeds – one of two types of sunflower seeds. Refined sunflower oil is pale yellow in colour, with a mild and pleasant taste.
- The refining process makes sunflower oil more stable and suitable for high-temperature cooking, but this usually involves the use of chemical solvents. This method of refining may remove certain naturally occurring nutrients.
- Sunflower oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, but as this is largely omega 6 polyunsaturates, you also need to make sure you’re getting enough omega 3s in your diet to balance things out.
- With a smoke point of approximately 225°F, sunflower oil is good for deep-frying dishes, but, this method of cooking has long been associated with negative effects on health.
Unrefined extra virgin avocado oil is produced by pressing the pulp and separating the natural oil in a centrifuge, making it one of few edible oils not derived from seeds. Buttery-tasting, avocado oil has an extremely high smoke point of approximately 520°F, making it adaptable in the kitchen for stir-frying, baking and salads.
- Green avocado oil has a similar fatty profile to olive oil, so it’s high in monosaturated fats. When eaten in moderation, and replacing saturated and trans fats, it can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure.
- Studies have shown avocado oil’s polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols reduce skin damage and inflammation from ultraviolet light exposure.
- Antioxidants found in other fruits and vegetables are known to neutralise free radicals, but research suggests avocado oil’s benefits may be able to affect mitochondria, something imperative to arresting the aging process.
Extracted from the meat of matured coconuts, the sweetness of coconut oil makes it ideal for baking and sautéing. It has a low smoke point, so should be avoided for high-temperature cooking. Research into the many potential health benefits of coconut oil has led to over 1500 studies.
- Almost half of the fatty acids in coconut oil are made up of lauric acid, a substance linked to many potential benefits. Once absorbed by the body, it morphs into monolaurin, an antimicrobial agent able to fight viruses, bacteria and other pathogens.
- Coconut oil, like other plant-based oils, doesn’t contain cholesterol. More than 85 percent of the fats in coconut oil are medium-chain triglycerides.
- Coconut oil promotes the growth of healthy probiotics in the digestive tract. It helps in the absorption of essential nutrients and fat-soluble vitamins.
With anti-inflammatory benefits, digestive aids, essential antioxidants and cholesterol-lowering properties, it’s obvious that using the right oil, in the right way, can have a major impact on living a longer, healthier life.
One final note on storing and reusing oil – did you know that all cooking oils will eventually break down over time and become rancid? If you have oil in your cupboard that has been there for a long time, give it the sniff test. Rancid oil has an unpleasant odour and flavor, and while it might not harm you immediately, long-term consumption has been linked to problems such as obesity, cancer and early aging. Store all your cooking oils in a cool dark place, away from sources of heat. This will help to prolong their life.
No matter which type of oil you are working with don’t be tempted to reuse it. Using the same oil, again and again, creates free radicals, which in turn can cause cancer. Other problems with this practice include atherosclerosis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.