This is a mind boggling topic. One minute you are told that a particular oil is great for you - then you find out then when you cook with it, it turns into a trans fat ! This blog aims to untangle some of the confusion around oils.
I use oils when I make a salad dressings, when I bake, for cooking vegetables, making treats, the list is endless. But what is the nutritional value of these oils, and how do they affect or benefit our health?
Cooking oils are fats, which are absolutely essential to our health. Fat also adds incredible flavour, help you to feel satiated and fuller longer, helps with the absorption of nutrients (A, D, E and K) and are also used to create a heat-conducting lubricant (think, sautéeing vegetables) so that food can be heated and cooked without sticking to your pan. Every oil has a “smoke point”, which is the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke continuously. Don't start panicking if you see a little smoke, but if it is continuous while cooking your oil has probably reached this point. When an oil reaches its smoke point, it has been heated to the point where the minerals in the oil have started to break down and oxidize (meaning bond with oxygen), creating potentially harmful free radicals that you don’t want to be consuming (for bonus reading on free radicals, check out this article). At this point, oils will also produce acrolein, which is the chemical that gives burnt food a bitter, unpleasant flavour and smell.
There are two main types of oils: refined (aka processed) and unrefined (typically cold-pressed):
1) Refined oils are heated during production and often processed with chemicals, which increases their shelf lives and their smoke points but also eliminates many of the healthful vitamins and nutrients.
2) Unrefined oils are not processed and are typically bottled immediately after pressing. Technically, any oil can not be heated past 120°F to be considered truly cold-pressed. Unrefined oils have strong, robust flavors and are higher in nutrients and minerals, but they also have a lower average smoke point and a shorter shelf life than their refined counterparts.
In a nutshell, refined oils have a higher smoke point and are better for cooking, while unrefined or cold-pressed oils are more nutrient dense but break down at a lower temperature. Below I’ve shared a breakdown of some of the oils that I use, their health benefits, and what dishes and recipes they fit in with best!
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
I'm going to begin with olive oil since it is one of the most popular and widely used oils. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, cold-pressed olive oil. It is high in Vitamin E and antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, and improves the HDL: LDL ratio of cholesterol to keep a healthy heart. It also has amazing flavours, which is why it is so popular in the cooking community. Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 165-190°C, so it is much better used for salad dressings, dips, and low-temperature recipes. That being said, I do cook with extra virgin olive oil sometimes because it tastes so good. If you choose to use this oil, keep an eye on the stove top and keep the temperatures as low as possible, or or add a tbsp. of water to your frying pan too and that should keep the temperature down and prevent the oil from oxidising.
“PURE” OR “LIGHT” OLIVE OIL
I think it’s pretty confusing to market a processed version of something pure. However, “pure”,”light”, or any other description of olive oil that isn’t “extra virgin” is refined and processed to neutralise flavour, increase the shelf life, and bring up that smoke point to about 240°C. This process also strips the product of its antioxidants, vitamins, and other benefits from using the cold-pressed version. This type of olive oil won’t break down as quickly as extra virgin olive oil when heated, so it’s best for high-temperature cooking.
Another favourite oil of mine, and a rather popular topic these days, is coconut oil. Coconut oil is the edible oil extracted or pressed from the mature coconut meat. This oil will be solid at room temperature, its a saturated fat. And it melts around 24°C, with a smoke point of 175°C. Coconut oil is amazing for baking and has an incredibly sweet, tropical flavour. However if you struggle with the coconut flavour but want the benefits of this wonderful oil, then make sure you get the flavour free one!
This cold-pressed oil is incredibly versatile, with a smoke point of 190-200°C and a neutral flavour that carries other, stronger flavors very well. One of the downsides to this oil is that it is much more expensive than other unrefined options, but it is a great healthy option from time to time!
Unrefined Flax oil is not good for cooking, as it has a very low smoke point and breaks down easily with heat. However, this oil is an amazing vegan source of omega-3s with a great nutty flavor, so I like to use it in salad dressings or in my smoothies for an omega-3 boost!
Sunflower oil (pressed from sunflower seeds) is high in Vitamin E and low in saturated fats. It has a high smoke point (225°C), as well as a pleasant, light flavour making it a great oil candidate for lots of recipes! I prefer olive oil myself, but sunflower oil is a great alternative.
Sesame oil has an incredibly strong flavour, so I like to use it in stir fry or other Asian dishes. Cold-pressed sesame oil has a high smoke point, so it’s great for frying up some flavourful veggies on the stovetop!
Which oils do you use for cooking? What questions do you have about these ingredients? Share them and ask in the comments below!
Your guide to living whole and well. Emma Olliff is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, wellness expert, food lover, and advocate for healthy living!