The Dietary Benefits of Oils and How to Cook with Oils
The Dietary Benefits of Oils and
How to Cook with Oils
Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, but it’s important to make sure these are healthy fats and that they’re used in the right way! If you’re an olive-oil-all-the-time type of cook, or get through gallons of vegetable oil every month, it’s a good idea to switch things up and get to know some other dietary oils and their benefits.
Knowing a bit about smoke points, omegas 3, 6, and 9, and the best way to use different oils can help save your smoke alarm and your arteries and even give your brain a boost!
An oil’s smoke point is simply the temperature at which it begins to burn and produce smoke. This is something you’ll want to avoid because when oil burns it can turn formerly innocuous or even healthy compounds into chemicals that create a bitter or burnt taste and act as free radicals that are bad for your health. Smoke point matters because once an oil starts to burn, it becomes less safe, both immediately (think kitchen fires and smoke inhalation!) and because consuming this oil can harm health.
In general, the more free fatty acids in a fat or oil, the lower the smoke point. Older oils tend to have a lower smoke point too, so it’s best to buy smaller quantities of oil and store them well.
Refined vegetable oils and animal fats tend to have higher smoke points, while smoke points are lower for unrefined vegetable oils:
- High-oleic safflower or sunflower oils - 500°F (280°C) or above
- Clarified butter (ghee) - 482°F (250°C)
- Refined corn oil, peanut oil or soy oil - 450°F (230°C)
- Refined coconut oil - 400°F (204°C)
- Lard – 360-400°F (182-204°C)
- Butter - 350°F (176°C)
- Unrefined coconut oil - 350°F (176 °C)
- Vegetable shortening - 325°F (163°C)
- Unrefined vegetable oils (canola, flax oil, safflower, sunflower) - below 225°F (105°C).
Unlike ‘raw’ oils which contain more minerals and flavour molecules and compounds, clarified or refined oils like ghee (clarified butter) and refined coconut oil, have had these elements filtered out. This means they can be used at much higher temperatures before they start to smoke. It also means they’re a terrible choice for making flavourful dressings or as dipping oils.
Remember, butter that isn’t clarified and coconut oil that isn’t refined still contain minerals and flavour compounds, meaning a lower smoke point but more flavour and nutrition.
Many plant-based oils are best used raw rather than cooked as even moderate heat below the smoke point can damage the healthy fats, ruining the health benefits and flavour. These include hemp oil and flax oil.
One major exception is avocado oil. This is actually one of the best cooking oils for high temperatures as it has a smoke point of around 520°F (271°C)! Avocado oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), low in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and has less saturated fat than most animal fats but more than olive oil. Avocado oil is a safer option for high-heat stir fry dishes and for barbecuing and searing meat.
Unrefined, Extra Virgin, Cold-Pressed – does it matter?
In short, yes! How an oil is extracted and processed matters a great deal for its potential health benefits. Cold-pressed, raw, virgin, or unrefined oils are extracted using little or no heat and are bottled immediately. This helps preserve their healthy fats, minerals, enzymes, and other nutrients.
The trouble is, these more delicate oils are more prone to breaking down and going rancid. This happens when oils are exposed to high heat, air, and light. So, store your flax, pumpkin seed, and hemp oil, and olive oil in opaque glass bottles in a dark, cool cupboard or in the refrigerator. Then use them as dressings and dips or, at a push, for very low heat cooking.
With these kinds of oils you’ll also want to check that they are extracted without the use of hexane. This chemical can create toxic residues in the oils. Cold-pressed oils extracted without hexane are the best choice for health. These oils are also less likely to have been subjected to bleaching or other chemical processes that can harm their health properties.
Choosing the Best Oil for Every Recipe
You can safely use most cooking oils for low-temperature cooking, with the biggest factor being how the flavour of the oil will work for the meal. Unrefined coconut oil is a great choice for low-temperature cooking where a little coconut flavour would work well, such as in a curry. For other dishes, extra virgin olive oil is always a good go-to.
For higher temperature cooking, you’re best to turn to avocado oil as it has a naturally high smoke point and is a bit healthier than most other oils suitable for such high heat. While it’s best not to make ghee a regular part of your cooking, because of its saturated fat content, it can be a good option for occasional high heat cooking.
For dishes where you want a largely neutral oil to carry other flavours, safflower or soybean oil are decent options.
And for raw dishes or for warm salads, look at plant-based oils that add some flavour and nutrition. Excellent options including pumpkin seed oil, flax oil, hemp oil, or walnut oil. Unrefined sesame oil is another good choice for dressings and drizzles but does have quite a rich flavour, so use sparingly.
The health benefits of oils
Many culinary oils contain a wealth of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs and PUFAs). These fats are essential for the body to maintain cell membrane function and flexibility. They can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, support healthy skin, and you’re your cognitive health and mood a boost. Ideally, you wouldn’t cook PUFA-rich oils and would limit heat when using MUFA-rich oils (with the exception of avocado oil).
Focus on flax
Flaxseed oil is a rich source of omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids. These healthy fats support heart health, immune and cognitive function, a normal inflammatory response, cellular metabolism, skin health, and the hormone system.
The omega-3 in flaxseed oil is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can then convert into long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA. ALA itself may have benefits though, with one meta-analysis of 27 studies involving over 250,000 people finding that individuals with a higher dietary intake or blood or tissue level of omega-3 as ALA had a 14% lower relative risk of a cardiovascular disease event such as a heart attack or stroke (5).
Flax oil has a slightly nutty flavour and isn’t to everyone’s taste, meaning it’s best to be sparing at first and to mix this with other flavours in dressings, dips, and drizzles. Try adding some to houmous or a bean dip.
Hyped about hemp
Hemp oil does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), so using this oil won’t get you high. It does, however, contain some cannabidiol (CBD), as well as large amounts of omega-6 and omega-3, which are associated with a growing raft of health benefits.
Hemp oil may help support healthy skin, a healthier stress response, calm inflammation, and support cognitive and cardiovascular health. In addition, hemp oil contains the amino acid arginine which may help support a healthy cardiovascular system.
Hemp oil adds a delicious nutty taste to dishes and can be used as a drizzle for cold soups, dips, and rice dishes as well as salads.