Cooking Oils: Nutrition & Uses
Oils are a type of fat that can be useful for keeping you feeling full for a long time. However, with so many options on the market, it’s hard to know what to choose. Put simply, the best oil will depend on what you’re cooking. Different oils have different smoke points, which is the temperature at which they begin to burn. Heating an oil past the smoke point will make it taste bad, destroy the nutrients, and potentially create harmful free radicals.
Unrefined, or virgin oils, are less processed, more flavorful, and retain more nutrients than refined oils, making them the generally better choice. That said, refined oils tend to have higher smoke points, and are able to withstand more cooking. Different oils have different advantages, so we’ll break it down here:
Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined and processed without heat, which allows it to retain more vitamin and mineral content. It’s a source of vitamins E and K, as well as antioxidants that reduce inflammation. Olive oil is associated with better heart health and cancer prevention, making it an excellent choice. However, the smoke point is only about 375 F (191 C), so it’s best used for salad dressing, dips, and sauteing at low temperatures.
Avocado oil is another healthful option. Also unrefined, it contains vitamin E and has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents of all the oils. Unlike olive oil, Avocado oil has a high smoke point and works for stir-frys and high heat. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive oils.
Coconut oil has recently become very popular. It’s being touted as a super food that will improve your heart health and make you lose weight. However, these claims are largely unsubstantiated. Some studies show coconut oil intake slightly improves cholesterol levels, while others do not. There is also some evidence that coconut oil may modestly increase metabolism. The beneficial health effects of coconut oil are small and the super food claims are exaggerated. If you like coconut oil for the taste please use it, just do not rely on coconut oil intake for reduced cholesterol or improved metabolic rate. Coconut oil is in fact a great choice for frying because of its ability to withstand high heat.
Vegetable oil is any oil from a plant source; most vegetable oils on the market are a mix of canola, corn, soybean, safflower, palm, and sunflower. Vegetable oil is refined and processed, which reduces flavor and nutrient content. However, the neutral taste of vegetable oil means it can be used with any dish- from salad to baking a cake, and may provide a good source of unsaturated fats. It’s high smoke point (400 F) makes it the most easily usable, and It is also the most widely available and affordable oil.
Most people keep a couple different types of oil in their kitchen for different occasions. Other favorites include peanut oil, known for its strong flavor, and sesame oil, which is full of antioxidants. Oils to use less often include sunflower and grapeseed oil, who’s high omega-6 fatty acid content can cause inflammation when over consumed. Make sure to store your oils in opaque containers in a cool, dark place to prevent rancidity.
Take away – try to use virgin oils where possible (my favorite is extra virgin olive oil), and limit the refined oils to high temperature cooking like frying.
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Content submitted by Jessica Roy, MS, RD, LDN, Registered Dietitian & Nutrition Counselor, and Lucy Bergeron, Nutrition Intern