Sunset’s selection of oils ranges from the familiar to the exotic. While there are many different types, not all oils are created equal. Each type of oil is unique, with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. The right oil for you depends on how you’re using it, your taste preferences, and what sort of health benefits you’re looking for. Here are some tips for choosing wisely.
Each type of oil has a different mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Each of these fatty acids has a different effect on our health. Here’s what each of them do:
- Saturated Fat is sometimes referred to as “bad” fat that have been shown to raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke. Use these fats in moderation.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and usually come in the form of animal products like red meat, butter, cheese, and ice cream. Coconut oil and palm oil are exceptions to this rule, as they are plant sources of saturated fat. Unlike other plant-based fats, they are solid at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated Fat (MUFA) is considered “good” fat. They have been shown to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats are associated with a decreased risk in cardiovascular disease. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Avocado oil, canola oil, olive oil, and peanut oil are all good sources of monounsaturated fats. Oils that include the term “high-oleic” on their label have been modified to contain more monounsaturated fat. This is common for safflower and sunflower oils.
- Polyunsaturated Fat (PUFA) is also considered “good” fat that has a positive effect on our cardiovascular system. These fats are liquid at room temperature. Many oils are mostly polyunsaturated fats. These include: corn, flaxseed, grape seed, safflower, sesame, soybean, sunflower, and walnut oils.
At this point, we’re not exactly sure what the most beneficial ratio of MUFA to PUFA is. We do know they’re both good for us, and replacing saturated fats with MUFA and PUFA improves cardiovascular health.
Mind your omegas
Omega-3s and omega-6s are two types of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3s reduce inflammation in the body, whereas omega-6s promotes inflammation Both are essential to the body, meaning the human body can’t make them and they must come from food. However, Americans tend to eat way too much omega-6s and not enough omega-3. A favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio reduces risk of inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, type II diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Omega-6s are found soy oil, corn oil, grape seed oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil, which are often used to make popular processed foods like cookies, crackers, and chips. Oils that are good sources of omega-3s, like canola oil, walnut oil, and flax oil, are less popular, though healthier choices.
Know your smoke point
Not all oils can take the heat. When cooking with oil, smoke point is important. The smoke point is the temperature at which oil will begin to smoke. At this point, the oil chemically breaks down and produces free radicals that are harmful to health. Oils that are heated past their smoke point may also impart bitter, unpleasant flavors. High smoke point oils, like avocado oil and safflower oil, are best for high-heat cooking like grilling, frying, and stir-frying. Save low smoke point oils, like walnut oil and flaxseed oil, for salad dressings and garnishes.
Refined vs. unrefined
Oils come in refined or unrefined versions. Refined oils will say so on the label. Unrefined oils may use terms like “cold pressed” or “virgin” on their label. The more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point. This is because the refining process removes impurities that cause the oil to smoke. Because these impurities also serve as flavor compounds, refined oils have a more neutral taste. For example, choose refined coconut oil when you don’t want your dish to taste like coconut.
Choosing refined oils is a nutritional trade-off, however, as refined oils have fewer nutrients. For example, the “impurities” found in extra-virgin olive oil not only give olive oil its bold, botanical flavors, but are also antioxidants.
Savor the flavor
Some oils have a neutral flavor that makes them versatile in the kitchen. Mild-tasting oils include canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, grape seed oil, and “light” (light in color and taste, not in calories) olive oil. Others lend themselves to bold flavors that can transform your meal. For example, avocado oil, coconut oil, and extra-virgin olive oil are fruity in flavor (unless they’ve been refined). Flaxseed oil and walnut oil have nutty and earthy flavors. Use peanut oil or sesame oil when you’re going for bold Asian-inspired flavors.
There’s so much to consider when shopping for oil! Here’s a handy chart to help you make the wisest choice in the aisle.
Check back later this week for more tips on choosing and storing oils properly.