Who doesn’t love the taste of butter? Whether used in frying or spread on bread, butter is delicious! However, your body may not agree. Did you know that oil is a healthy alternative to butter and even vegetable shortening? Replacing animal fats, such as butter, with vegetable oils can help reduce your risk of chronic diseases by lowering cholesterol and the amount of inflammation in your body. But, with so many different oils on the market, choosing a healthy one can be confusing.
Selecting an Oil
When choosing an oil pay attention to how it was pressed or extracted. Oil that is “expeller pressed” is mechanically extracted from the seeds and nuts without the use of chemicals. In contrast, hexane-extraction uses chemicals to separate the oil from the seeds and nuts. “Cold press” has received a lot of attention in recent years. Oil that is cold pressed is really expeller pressed in an environment where the temperature is kept below 120°F. Choose oils that are cold pressed because the structures of the fats are better maintained.
Refining is another major concern when selecting oils. After pressing, an unrefined oil is left in its virgin state. Thus, unrefined oils tend to be richer in both flavor and nutrients than refined oils. For example, you can taste a peppery flavor from unrefined olive oil that comes from antioxidant-rich polyphenols. These antioxidants largely are destroyed during the refining process due to heat. During refining, oil can reach temperatures up to 470°F. The down side to unrefined oils is a lower smoke point than refined oils.
The smoke point also is very important. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke or break down and become rancid. Oil with a high smoke point can theoretically withstand high temperatures. This is useful when sautéing, pan frying or deep frying. In general, vegetable oils have higher smoke points than animal-based fats like butter or lard. The exception is olive oil, which has a relatively lower smoke point.
The nutrient quality of oil also is important. Vegetable oils, which are derived from grains, seeds, and nuts, tend to contain healthy fats including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats can help improve cholesterol and lower inflammation throughout your body, which can help stave off numerous diseases. In contrast, animal fats contain more saturated fats, which are associated with chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
There is controversy over whether the nutrient quality of oil is maintained when cooking at higher temperatures. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, in particular, are easily damaged by heat as well as light and oxygen. Thus, in contrast with what many product labels claim about their oils, some nutritionists believe that these delicate fats begin to break down and become rancid well before the smoke point of the oil is reached. If that happens, the oil becomes detrimental to your health. Therefore, if the oil is high in polyunsaturated fat then I do not heat it. This means I do not cook with corn, safflower, flax, walnut, hazelnut, pine nut, pumpkin, grapeseed, and some sunflower oils. Instead, I use these oils in salad dressings, for dipping bread, and directly on pasta. For light, lower heat sautéing and baking I use olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fats. It does have a strong flavor so I use olive oil when baking brownies and cakes, which mask the flavor well. Plus, you won’t feel as guilty eating that second brownie! When cooking at higher temperatures, such as higher heat sautéing or frying, I use saturated fats including coconut oil and palm oil.
Grapeseed Oil Vinaigrette
1 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
3 Tbsp. pomegranate balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and mix well.
Dr. Sina McCullough has a PhD in Nutrition and Exercise from the University of California at Davis. She is a freelance writer and nutrition consultant (www.personalizeyourdiet.com).