The different options we have when shopping for cooking oil have expanded recently. Where previously you could basically pick from olive, sunflower or vegetable, now supermarket shelves are full of coconut, groundnut, sesame and even avocado oils. That’s not to mention the virgin, extra-virgin, light and organic varieties of plain old olive oil to choose from!
While you might choose your oils based on their flavours, or the cuisines you’re planning on cooking with them, there is something else to consider: your health. We tend to use a lot of oil – frying with it as well as putting it in marinades, dressings and dips – so it is important to pick one that won’t have negative effects, especially for your heart.
Because the nutritional makeup of any oil is basically 100 per cent fat, you should always use it sparingly. If you can keep your overall consumption fairly low, you will find it is much better for your health. However, not all oils are created equal, and even in small amounts there are some elements you should consider for your wellbeing.
Saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
You might have already heard something along the lines of ‘saturated fats are bad, unsaturated fats are good’, and this is mostly true. But what does this actually mean in terms of what oils to buy?
If you’re worried about your health, saturated fats are generally a bad thing. They increase the levels of cholesterol in your blood, putting you at higher risk of heart disease. Luckily, they’re easy to spot: they are solid at room temperature. This is why it is recommended you use oil rather than solid fats like butter or lard.
Unsaturated fats are better for your heart. However, there are two different types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. There is some controversy over this, but most research suggests that polyunsaturated fats are better for reducing the risk of heart disease.
However – as seems to be the case with any research surrounding diet – it is more complicated than this. Heating polyunsaturated fats can lead them to release chemicals called aldehydes and lipid peroxides, the consumption of which has been linked to increased risk of cancer and heart disease. This is obviously a downside if you are going to be frying with your oil.
Saturated fats are actually much better for you in this regard, although the previous health risks still apply. It seems that the best option for you is to find a balance, choosing an oil that is low in saturated fat but also does not release high levels of aldehydes when heated.
The best oils for you
First of all, while coconut oils is often thought of as healthy, it’s not as beneficial as it might seem. It’s gained a reputation for being good for you, but the limited research on it has found it only reduces risk of heart disease by a marginal amount compared to using butter. In fact, it contains a higher amount of saturated fat than both butter and lard.
Then there are the oils that could release aldehydes when heated, which are those with high levels of polyunsaturated fat. Grapeseed oil is the worst culprit here, consisting of 71 per cent polyunsaturated fats, but it is not a common oil so it’s unlikely to be an option for most.
However, sunflower oil and vegetable oil are also potentially bad for you in this regard. Around 69 per cent of the fats in sunflower oils are polyunsaturated, as are 61 per cent of those in vegetable oils.
The middle ground is made up of peanut and sesame oils. These contain a more even balance of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than most other oils, so while they’re not particularly bad for you, they’re not particularly good either. They have a strong flavour, so they’re a good option to use sparingly in dressings and sauces.
Finally, the top three oils for you are two classics – olive and canola, also known as rapeseed – and a less common option: avocado. Olive oil contains just nine per cent polyunsaturated and 14 per cent saturated fats, making it a great, heart-healthy option. However, it doesn’t behave well at high temperatures, so isn’t great for heavy-duty cooking.
Canola oil contains one of the lowest proportions of saturated fat of all oils – just six per cent – but is higher in polyunsaturated fats than some options, with these making up 32 per cent of the product. This makes it another good choice.
However, avocado oil might be the healthiest option, despite being quite uncommon. It is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, and has been found to promote healthy cholesterol levels and enhance absorption of some nutrients. It also has a unique flavour, making it great for all kinds of cooking.