Except for the outliers registered in the very prestigious Olive Oil Club, few consumers have put an inordinate amount of thought into cooking oil.
Nutritionists and doctors have done a great job of spreading the word that we should steer clear of “bad fats,” like “trans fats,” even if we sometimes get a little fuzzy about what, exactly, artificial trans fats are. (FYI: When liquid vegetable oils are altered by adding hydrogen to turn them into a solid, such as margarine.)
Many of us also know it’s a good idea to limit your intake of “saturated fats,” another category of bad fats that includes butter, duck fat, and other things that remain solid at room temperature (but without the chemical process that leads to the addition of hydrogen).
This is probably where most people’s knowledge begins to slip away. Even if you stay away from the bad fats, nutritionists warn there are subtle differences between cooking oils that we should be aware of. Many people ignore the health benefits, as well as the potential risks of using the wrong oil and/or the wrong oil for the job.
“I think it’s really important to select a better cooking oil, because it’s an ingredient that people use a lot and it’s something people use every day,” explains Amanda Lee, registered culinary dietitian and founder of Wellness Simplified, a practice in Toronto. “It’s a key component that I think many people can make better choices with, because it can have a huge impact on health.”
Although we tend to think of oil as something to be avoided, some are associated with its health benefits. Three to four tablespoons of olive oil, for example, has been linked to reduced inflammation.
“I always say choose an oil based on three things: burn point, degree of processing and health benefits,” said Daniela Wolf, registered dietitian and founder of Making Food Fit for You.
The “smoke point” is the temperature at which the oil is no longer stable and begins to break down and oxidize. “
This change allows the formation of “free radicals” (unstable atoms). This is not good, because free radicals can cause damage to cells. Wolf cautions against cooking with oils such as flaxseed, fish oil, and most “unrefined” oils, which often contain minerals and compounds that tend to react poorly to high temperatures.
“I really like avocado oil, which has a very high smoke point – over 500 F – so it’s perfect for high heat,” Wolf said. “It has a very neutral taste and is similar to olive oil in terms of health benefits. It is also anti-inflammatory and also reduces bad cholesterol.” (Bad cholesterol, also known as low-density lipoprotein, is the “bad cholesterol”).
If you can only have one oil, avocado would be a good choice, as it’s a versatile liquid that can be used in everything from salad dressings to deep fryers. However, most of us have two options in stock. In addition to avocados, Wolf likes to cook with sesame oil, due to its high burning temperature (450 degrees Fahrenheit), nutty flavor and health benefits. In addition to these two, she always has a bottle of olive oil at home.
“Refined olive oil has a good burning point—about 350 degrees Fahrenheit,” Wolf said. “It’s good for baking, it’s good for cooking and most of us don’t usually cook at temperatures much higher than that anyway.”
However, heat is not the only thing that can destabilize the oil.
“Oil oxidizes with light, heat, and oxygen,” he told me. “So if something is in a large, transparent plastic container, that’s a potential problem.” She adds that most of the oil you buy at home comes in opaque glass bottles, which protects the oil better than clear plastic.
Lee continues, “I never buy a large amount of cooking oil, because unless you use it quickly, you risk oxidizing, a process that starts the moment you open the bottle.”
Do you have a fancy oil bottle you’ve been rationing? If he was more than a year old, he would probably be gone. Especially if not stored properly – away from heat and light.
So use up the oil and it’s still good. Especially since we know that, in moderation, it can really be good for you.
“It’s a really important component of healthy eating,” Wolf said. “I know a lot of people think less oil is better and they use sprays or minimal oil, but I encourage my clients to include oil in their daily cooking because it can actually be good for your health.”
“And they increase flavor and enhance the taste of food, so you can enjoy a meal and feel more satisfied after you eat it,” she added. “When it comes to the good fats, there’s no reason to completely avoid them.”