By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
The expansion of oils available for cooking and food preparation has grown significantly over the past few years, confusing consumers with various health claims, names, and additional ingredients. It is no longer a simple choice between olive oil or vegetable oil. Oils making an appearance on grocery store shelves across the country currently include: safflower, sesame, cottonseed, peanut, canola, truffle, grapeseed, rapeseed, corn, avocado, sunflower, palm, and coconut oils, to name just a few. All oils are definitely not created equal, but knowing some basic information can be helpful in your quest to be healthier in 2017.
Unhealthy Fats to Avoid
Unhealthy versions of fat may be added to food by manipulating the molecular structure to make it more shelf-stable, palatable, or temperature-resistant. An example of this would be trans-fats, otherwise known as partially hydrogenated oils, which upon further investigation by the FDA are quickly being phased out of products. Some of the food science tricks of the trade to process these items include:
• Hydrogenated: the process of adding hydrogen molecules to an unsaturated fat to saturate it, making the structure more rigid, or solid (shelf-stable)
• Fractionating: separating out particles of a mixture during processing in smaller quantities (fractions) according to their composition and gradient within the substance
• Defatting: extracting the fat, such as in some of the peanut butters on the market
Foods with these fats or ingredients manipulated with these processing techniques are not as nutrient-dense and beneficial to our health, but possibly detrimental, and should be limited or avoided entirely when possible. Oils such as palm oil have been added to many processed foods and are a health concern but also have proven to be extremely unsustainable and environmentally destructive.
Just as in all areas of food and nutrition, the key concepts to remember are quantity (how much), and quality (how good). The type of fat, namely the healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fat is what we want to focus on for heart and body. For example, palm oil has proven to be extremely unsustainable and environmentally destructive.
Cooking oils can be a great way to add healthy fats to your diet, but you can also incorporate healthy fats into your diet through eating the whole food counterparts to oils—think whole olives, nuts, seeds, and avocado. Mixing oil with vinegar for salad dressing or tossing some sesame oil to lightly flavor stir-fried vegetables is a great way to incorporate texture, healthy fat, and a savory taste.
When using oils for cooking in baked goods, vegetable oil (which can be a combination of any of these oils and is often used as a general umbrella term) is often a standard ingredient called for in the recipe. Though vegetable oil can be higher in calories and fat compared to substitutions like applesauce, avocado or mashed fruit, remember that most oils have the same amount of calories at 120 calories per tablespoon. Although high in calories, vegetable oils do have healthy fatty acids that research has shown contribute to heart health, joint health, and help aid our body in converting other nutrients to support brain, muscle, and cell functions.
Omega-3’s and Such
You may have heard of the fatty acids Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9, ALA, DHA and EPA touted mostly coming from fish. These can also be found in walnuts, flaxseed, and algae or can be converted in our body to the longer fatty acid chains, although less efficiently. The ratio of omega fatty acids is also important; too much of one, such as Omega-6 have been attributed to inflammation, arthritis exacerbation, and excess adipose tissue, or body fat. The ratio is typically imbalanced due to the fact that the oils containing these fatty acids are processed and manipulated and added in a way they are not typically found in nature, such as in packaged and processed foods, which Americans are consuming in high amounts, otherwise known as the Standard American Diet (SAD).
Research has also fallen short in confirming the benefit of consistent fish oil and fatty acid supplementation, and once again, the synergy of food in a varied and well-balanced manner is where it’s at. Some individuals may benefit from a high quality omega, DHA or EPA supplement if they are taking a statin, working on lowering lipid levels, are a vegan or vegetarian, or have a sensitivity or malabsorption issue, but a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) can help determine what may be appropriate, as well as educate on some safety and efficacy considerations before taking.1 Just like oil, not all supplements are equal.
Olive oil has gotten a lot of attention for its benefits, versatility, and flavor in the past few years. It is now in mayonnaise, spreads, crackers and more. Made from pressed olives, it can go in all kinds of dishes—from salad to pasta to marinades. Again, the high percentage of healthy fat it contains, a fat called oleic acid, contributes to protecting the heart, lowering of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and may reduce inflammation throughout the body (think joint pain).
If the only olive oil you are familiar with is Popeye’s girlfriend, I challenge you to do your heart and body good and pick up a bottle next time you shop. Key words to to look for when purchasing olive oil are cold-pressed, for maximum nutrient reservation, and Imported from Italy, Spain or Israel, for higher quality and nutrient profile. Oils can also add a lot of flavor and texture without other artificial additives. Cook some whole wheat pasta and toss it with extra virgin olive oil, mushrooms, onions, and spinach sautéed with garlic, and herbs to make a very simple, quick, and healthy meal.2
Halo Health Claims
We call those foods or items with stellar health claims lit up in yellow with alluring words and tempting promises, foods that have the ‘halo effect.’ Think ‘superfood’ or ‘more antioxidants than…’ Be aware of health claims that may be less than honest. If French fries are touted to be fried in ‘100% peanut oil’ for better health and sound more appealing than canola or vegetable, be aware that they are still, in fact, deep-fried potatoes. If the fat they are fried in is slightly healthier, it does not change the fact that French fries offer very little nutrients per ounce and how much you have should still be monitored.
Refined, Unrefined, Expeller or Cold-Pressed, oh my!
Oils are produced through extraction from the nut or seed by one of the above processes. The most processed oils are those labeled “refined,” which are often the most mass produced commercialized oils. Refined oils may use a combination of heat and solvents, such as hexane, to extract, filter, and produce the desired outcome of a smooth and consistent product. Naturally, this leads to a reduction of healthy antioxidants, beneficial plant sterols, and integrity of the original product. Refined oils are not the most desirable choice for nutritional density but are desirable for food manufacturers in their ability to be more shelf-stable and for cooking at high heat temperatures. Much controversy, with no clear answer, exists over the safety and use of chemical solvents like hexane or whether trace amounts are still left in the final product. If that is a personal concern, choose organic oils when choosing refined, which prohibit the use of many solvents, or try a product made from the next two methods, expeller pressed or cold pressed.
Expeller pressed is a mechanical extraction method similar to a mechanism like cranking an old ice cream maker and pressing the oil out of the nut or seed. It usually involves higher heat than cold-pressed but does not use chemical solvents. The taste may be slightly nuttier than the neutral, blander taste of an oil that has been refined due to the heat applied. Note, products can sometimes be both refined, and expeller pressed, which means that the mechanically pressed oil was treated to remove all flaws, but also much of the flavor.
Cold-pressed is precisely how it sounds, no heat is used, and in Europe strict regulations on exact temperatures not to be exceeded allow the nutrients to stay most intact. The drawback for the producer is that less oil is extracted which makes it a more costly product in terms of labor, time, and volume produced. The taste and nutrient profile are much more desirable with this method of extraction. In terms of ‘Extra Virgin’ or ‘Virgin’ oils, which refers to the number of times an unrefined oil has been ‘pressed’ – ‘Extra Virgin’ oils are the highest quality and are produced without chemical solvents or high heat. Virgin oils are of the next highest quality.
If using oil for stir-fry’s, pan-searing, and other methods of cooking on the stove-top, you should know what the term “smoke point” refers to. Smoke point is the point at which oil can reach the hottest temperature before breaking down into a carcinogen(s), or substance that is capable of causing cancer. A stir-fry is usually made at a very high temperature, therefore oils like grapeseed, sesame, or canola (450-470oF smoke points) would work because they have a high smoke point. Extra virgin olive oil would not be good oil for this, because it has a lower smoke point and the flavor would also be altered; however, a light olive oil can work since it has a smoke point of 460oF. Although palm and coconut oil have a high smoke point, keeping consumption of these oils to a relatively minimum level is recommended. Their structure is a little bit unique, and although they are from plant sources, the fats are in the form of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT), very readily absorbed by the body. The craze of adding coconut oil to everything from coffee (bullet-proof diet) to smoothies is not recognized as beneficial enough for the amount of calories from fat it provides. In general, canola, safflower, vegetable, flaxseed, and sunflower oils are healthier everyday cooking oils that can be used in a variety of recipes and preparations. Oils like truffle, walnut, and hazelnut can be used for flavoring, as they are expensive, but a little goes a long way and can be used more to finish off a meal creation, adding that special something (cue the air kiss from lips to fingers here).
Oils should be stored according to directions on the bottle, usually in a dry, cool place out of the light to protect the oil from going rancid. Although the healthier, more authentic oils may be a little pricier per bottle, a little can go a long way and the bottles can last quite a while. A simple recipe with olive oil and vinegar can make a vinaigrette for $0.44 per serving, saving you money and avoiding added ingredients you cannot pronounce from a store-bought prepared version.
Branch out, try a new recipe, oil, or healthy fat and enjoy the benefits of nature’s gifts. Make an appointment with me, your integrative registered dietitian nutritionist today for more on your dietary needs and nutritional goals.
1. Parelman MA. Omegas: Dissecting the Science on Omega-3 Supplements
Today’s Dietitian Vol. 17 No. 5 P. 14. Accessed January 3, 2017.
2. Hauser, M. Using Whole Grains & Healthy Fats for Quick, Versatile Meals: Harvard Medical School-Conference on Practical Approaches to the Treatment of Obesity June 2011.
3. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/021115p24.shtml Accessed March 10, 2017.