Nowadays the home chef is faced with an ever-increasing array of choices when it comes to choosing a cooking oil when preparing fried foods. But to the healthy eating advocate, which types of oil are the most healthy — or at a minimum which ones should we avoid?
Oils all have the same purpose during cooking, that is to increase surface area of the food in contact with the heat, and to produce a crispy layer on the surface of the food by means of a reaction called the Maillard effect. This crispy layer enhances taste, texture, and is one of the many reasons we love fried foods.
Criteria for a Healthy Cooking Oil
Each type of oil comes from a different source however and can have vastly different nutritional properties. But what are the main criteria in determining what is a healthy oil and which are not? It turns out that there are essentially four main criteria:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are considered to be healthy dietary fats unlike saturated or transfats. We should be striving to eat foods that contain unsaturated fat.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are the “Omega” fats that are present in the oil. The health effects depend on the proportion of Omega-3 (good in moderate amounts) to Omega-6 (research generally showing it’s bad for us). The downside of PUFAs is that they are sensitive to heat, so when used for cooking much of the health benefits are lost.
- Calories are high in all types of oil however some are higher than others. High calorie foods cause weight gain if eaten in excess.
- Other Benefits can be found in various types of oil by virtue of the parent plant they are derived from and will be considered in the analysis of each.
Types of Cooking Oil
We are going to look at three of the most popular cooking oils used by home chefs today. These oils are all readily available in urban markets and each has readily available information and/or studies documenting their health benefits. We are going to look at the following oils:
Next to vegetable oil, Olive oil is the most commonly used type of cooking oil used in Western countries. It is made by means of pressing the fruit of the olive tree (olives!). Qualitatively it’s believed that olive oil is quite healthy due to the general healthiness of mediterranean people, who are known to consume olive oil on a daily basis.
Following are the health guidelines for olive oil:
- Olive oil is very high in Omega fatty acids, however the highest percentage is Omega-9 (oleic acid). The more beneficial Omega-3 acid is present though in very small quantities however.
- For maximum health-effect, only certified Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) should be used. Non-extra-virgin oils have a higher oleic acid (Omega-9) content which has been shown to decrease the anti-inflammatory benefits of olive oil. Stay away from “refined” olive oils, as this oil has had most of the healthy benefits stripped away through the refining process.
- Some components of olive oil such as oleocanthal, squalene, and lignin’s have promise in reducing the risk of cancer.
- One tablespoon of Olive oil has a total fat composition of 13.5g: 9.8g MUFAs, 1.4g PUFAs (the majority being oleic acid), and 2.1g saturated fat.
- One tablespoon of olive oil contains 119 calories.
Vegetable Oil (Canola)
Vegetable oil is the most common household cooking oil in use today. It’s somewhat of a generic term however and may actually consist of plant-based oils such as canola (the most common), corn, soybean, sunflower, etc. Due to its prevalence, vegetable oil is also among the least expensive.
Following are the health guidelines for vegetable oil:
- Vegetable oils are produced almost exclusively by chemical processes which use chemicals to extract the oil from the plant and then must be stripped out. A widely believed concern related to this fact is that chemical residue remains in the oil and actually causes detrimental health effects.
- One tablespoon of canola oil has a total fat composition of 14g: 9g MUFAs, 4g PUFAs in a 3:1 ratio of Omega-6 vs. Omega-3, 1g of saturated fat.
- One tablespoon of canola oil contains 124 calories.
Avocado oil has surged in popularity over the past few years due in large part to its perceived health benefits. Avocado oil is produced by pressing the avocado fruit, which is a naturally fatty fruit native to Mexico but grown in other warm climates.
Following are the health guidelines for avocado oil:
- Avocado oil is very high in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E. It has also been shown to increase the absorption of beneficial carotenoids in the body.
- Avocado oil has a PUFA content very similar to olive oil, where the majority is made up of oleic acid (>70%) and a poor MUFA ratio of 13:1 for Omega-6 vs. Omega-3 fats.
- Avocado oil has been shown to have an extremely high ability to eliminate free radicals in the body.
- It also carries many of the same nutritional characteristics of the fruit itself such as a high potassium content rivalling bananas, as well as other micronutrients such as lutein, magnesium, folate, choline, glutathione, and phytosterols.
- One tablespoon of avocado oil has a total fat composition of 14g: 9.9g MUFAs, 1.9g PUFAs, and 1.6g saturated fat.
- One tablespoon of avocado oil contains 124 calories.
While much of the decision comes down to personal choice, both olive oil and avocado oil have very similar characteristics and have proven health benefits. Vegetable oil should potentially be avoided, as well as non-virgin olive oils due to the potential for unwanted trace chemicals. Avocado oil has slightly less saturated fat than olive oil as well as a host of other nutritional benefits and is my personal preference.