The Oil Spill: What's the healthiest cooking oil?
There are so many types of oil on the market these days, it’s no simple task trying to work out which one is best for your health. Oil is also really expensive. And, if you’re anything like me, you use it often and liberally. It’s no wonder the liquid gold market is saturated with so many choices.
Speaking of saturated, how about that coconut oil?
Yeah, that escalated quickly. I blinked my eyes and suddenly coconut oil was in every health product imaginable. It’s become one of those magic potion, multi-use products – which often means, it does a lot of things, poorly.
Why is coconut oil so popular?
Is coconut oil good for you?
There is virtually no evidence to support the claimed health benefits of coconut oil.
Like many of us, in the height of the craze, I slathered copious coconut oil in my hair and all over my skin each night, hoping I would turn into a dewy, glowy goddess the next morning. The result? My hair still looked greasy after washing it thirty times and I grew some record-breaking pimples. Coconut oil is comedogenic, which is a fancy word for ‘pore-blocking, acne-giving, nightmare lotion’.
As for cooking with coconut oil… well, it has its place when cooking a curry or in desserts. But do you want all your meals to taste like coconut? I think the moment I sautéed my mushrooms in coconut oil was the moment I realised that I couldn’t continue with this charade. Coconut flavoured mushrooms? Not for me.
Evidence tells us that there is no question that processed coconut oil is terrible for us. Researchers have actually used it in studies where they needed to purposefully raise LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, knowing confidently that it would have that effect. Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, the kind of fat that raises LDL cholesterol and heart disease risk.
What about extra virgin coconut oil?
Extra virgin coconut oil may be a little different, as it contains some polyphenols that may ameliorate the oxidative, inflammatory effects of the saturated fat content. However, this theory is just that: theory. There are few human studies showing any health benefits to be gained from consuming extra virgin coconut oil.
The saturated fat content is still kind of concerning, so use it sparingly. Don’t go full-bore.
What does extra virgin even mean?
The virginity of an oil gives you an indication of the level of processing it has gone through. An extra virgin oil means that the oil has been pressed mechanically or, as your local hipster barista would say, cold-pressed. This is instead of using chemicals or heat to extract the oil. Extra virgin is better than virgin, and virgin is better than not-virgin.
Heat and chemicals can destroy the beneficial polyphenols found in oil. These factors can also turn healthy fats into unhealthy fats.
Less processing = much healthier. Whichever oil you decide to go with, choose the extra virgin/cold-pressed version.
OILY TIP #1: Sunlight reduces polyphenol content. Keep your oils in a dark cupboard and only buy oils sold in darkly tinted bottles to preserve their health benefits.
What about canola and vegetable oils?
Whilst Canola oil is low in saturated fat, it is highly processed and very cheap to manufacture. It may be a heart-healthy choice compared to processed coconut oil and saturated-fat laden butter, but it does not contain the beneficial polyphenol content that can be found in less refined oils.
Vegetable oil is usually a mixture of oils (not made from vegetables, by the way) and can sometimes contain high levels of saturated fat. It’s also heavily processed. Avoid.
Let’s cut the fat. What’s the healthiest oil?
Of all the oils in the oil kingdom, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is king. EVOO has the biggest foundation of evidence supporting its health benefits.
One of the key components of the Mediterranean diet is EVOO. The Mediterranean diet is one of the all-time healthiest diets, determined by scientific evidence (rather than celebrities).
EVOO contains monounsaturated fats which have been associated with reducing the risk of heart disease. EVOO also contains a number of beneficial polyphenols, associated with all sorts of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic effects.
Like I said before, we’re talking extra virgin ONLY. Once olive oil has lost its virginity, it no longer offers these benefits. Yes, religion was right, virginity does matter.
OILY TIP #2: Buy local. Imported olive oils are not as well regulated as Australian olive oils. Overseas companies are notorious for selling refined olive oil in bottles labelled as ‘extra virgin’.
I’ve heard you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil because cooking destroys the goodness?
This is one big fat lie that really grinds my gears.
The smoke point of an oil tells us when the good fats will turn bad. The smoke point of EVOO is 207 degrees Celsius. Rarely would your oils reach this temperature when cooking in your kitchen at home, regardless of whether you are frying, baking or steaming.
Reaching the smoke point is more of a concern in an industrial setting where manufacturers use extremely high temperatures. Those potato crisps you love to snack on with a gin & tonic, they were probably cooked at extreme temperatures in a super-refined oil that could withstand any heat. In any case, I’m sure you don’t eat potato crisps for health reasons. Sadly, if I had titled this article ‘the potato crisp diet’, I would probably get more site visits.
I’m trying to lose some weight, should I stop using oil?
Yes, reducing oil is one easy way to reduce your calorie intake and potentially burn fat. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend it as a first port of call for weight loss.
Before cutting out healthy sources of fat, work on reducing processed food, animal fats and takeaway foods from your diet. Say adios to sugary drinks, pre-made dips, Indian takeaway, ice-cream and your beloved potato crisps.
Heart-healthy fats can and should be an enjoyable part of a healthy, colourful and balanced diet. Not only does EVOO offer some real benefits, it also makes other healthy foods, like vegetables and whole grains, one million times better. A little oil, salt & spice makes everything taste nice.