Cooking with plant-based oils is healthier than cooking with butter or margarine because the oils are high in unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature, and low in saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature and can clog your arteries. Butter is primarily saturated fats. Margarine is made of vegetable oil, but is highly processed, which reduces its health value.
Plant-based oils also are high in vitamin E—an antioxidant that fights off free radicals (bad cells) in your body. Also, they have no sugar or sodium.
There are two types of unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats include omega-9s, or oleic acid, which help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats consist of omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6s (linoleic acid). Omega-3s have been shown to lower triglycerides and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Omega-6s are good for overall cardiovascular health, but only in small amounts. They should be consumed in equal balance with omega-3s. Large amounts of omega-6s without the balance of omega-3s are unhealthy.
Finding the Healthiest Oils
Compare Nutrition Facts labels to find the lowest amounts of saturated fat and the highest amounts of unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturated fats. The American Heart Association advises that saturated fats should equal no more than 5-6 percent of your daily calories.
Look for the words “extra virgin” on the label, or oils that have not been refined. Choose one that has been cold-pressed (extracted by squeezing without the use of any chemicals or processes), is unfiltered, is organic, has no additives, and has not been genetically modified. Processing removes nutrients, so cold-pressed oils have more nutrients.
Cooking oils can last up to two years in storage, but should be kept in a cool, dark place with an airtight cap, as heat, sunlight, and oxygen can cause them to break down and become rancid. Here are some of the healthiest cooking oils and how to use them.
Avocado oil. Avocado oil is high in oleic acid (an omega-9) and lutein, an antioxidant that benefits eye health. It’s light tasting, and has one of the highest smoke points at around 500°F, making it ideal for high heat. It’s also good for sautéing and in dressings and rubs.
Canola oil. Canola offers a good balance between omega-3s and omega-6s, and helps to lower total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides. Be sure to look for an organic or cold-pressed version because many canola oils have been genetically modified from the rapeseed plant to remove two ingredients that are non-consumable—euricic acid and glucosinolates. Canola oil is good for stir-frying, grilling, baking, and sautéing. It’s light flavor also blends well in dressings, marinades, and sauces.
Flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is high in alpha-linolenic acid and has a mildly nutty flavor. It’s best in salad dressings, dips, sauces, and foods that require no heat. Mix it into oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothies or brush or drizzle it onto a meat, grain, or vegetable after the food is cooked. When baking or cooking, use flaxseed meal instead of flaxseed oil.
Olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the least refined and healthiest of all vegetable oils. It’s linked to heart health and reduced risk of diabetes and some cancers. Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 405°F. Use it to sauté, grill, fry, even bake. If the flavor of extra virgin is too strong, try light olive oil.
Peanut oil. Refining peanut oil removes the allergen for people who are allergic to peanuts. Peanut oil is often used for deep frying and stir-frying. It’s smoke point is 437°F.
Sesame oil. This oil’s nutty flavor is even stronger in toasted sesame oil. Common in Asian cuisine, it’s not ideal for frying, but is often tossed into stir-fries a minute or two before completion to enhance the flavor.
Soybean oil. Soybean oil’s mild, neutral flavor blends well with other flavors. It’s popular in salad dressings and stir-frying, and is a key ingredient in mayonnaises, generic vegetable oils, and processed foods.
Stay away from:
- Coconut oil. According to the American Heart Association, 82 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat.
- Corn oil. Corn oil is high in omega-6s, but there are not enough omega-3s to provide balance.
- Palm oil. Despite the fact that half of the fats in palm oil are saturated fat, this oil is heavily used in the manufacturing of processed foods.
- Safflower oil. This oil contains no omega-3s.
- Sunflower oil. Sunflower oil is 60 percent omega-6 fatty acids and 11 percent saturated fats. It contains no healthy omega-3s.
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