Chewing the fat on oils – Which oil is the healthiest?
Not all oils are created equal and with so many plant-based oils on the market, you could be a little bit confused about which ones to use in your kitchen.
Vegetable oils are nutritional powerhouses, which predominately contain heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It’s important to note that animal-based oils such as butter or lard are comprised of saturated fats – the nasty stuff that raises your cholesterol and ultimately clogs your arteries. Nevertheless, all oils have a similar energy content (700Kj per tablespoon). When it comes to choosing a plant-based oil, the choices range from avocado oil to wheat germ oil, and everything in between, so it may simply come down to how you intend to cook with the oil and the flavours you desire. If you want to make a choice based on science, here’s some inside information:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil is the pick of the bunch, but you already knew that, right? Its use is widespread in Mediterranean countries such as Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain and its origins date back to the Canaanites in 4500BC. Numerous studies have shown extra virgin olive oil’s ability to cut heart disease by reducing triglycerides, LDL cholesterol (the bad type) while increasing HDL cholesterol (the good type). It is also chock-a-block full of antioxidants. These compounds, specific to olive oil, appear to contain free-radical scavenging properties and so it may also have a cancer-lowering effect due to its ability to reduce oxidative damage. And the good news keeps on coming; contrary to popular opinion olive oil does not overheat during cooking, therefore its nutritional qualities are retained. Add it to your roast vegies, salads or pasta.
Rice Bran Oil
There has been much debate recently about rice bran oil being “the world’s healthiest oil” and while it ticks many nutritional boxes, it still has a very similar nutritional composition to other oils. It is largely comprised of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which have both been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. However, unlike other oils, rice bran oil contains two rare compounds known as oryzanol and tocotrienols. Oryzanol is able to block cholesterol absorption while tocotrienols are converted into vitamin E – a powerful antioxidant. Rice bran oil is best used for pan-frying and baking.
Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fats (approximately 70%) yet low in polyunsaturated fats (approximately 13%). As such it has a positive effect on lowering cholesterol. It is also particularly high in vitamin E and lutein – a compound involved in eye health. Avocado oil and salads form a winning partnership.
Described by some as a “toxic oil”, canola oil is anything but. It has a high omega-3 fatty acid content. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve and reduce heart rate, cut the risk of blood clots, decrease plaque in arteries, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure and boost HDL cholesterol. Also, they are involved in the production of the “happy” hormones in the brain and therefore they may be protective against depression. Canola oil is a wonderful oil to use when shallow frying and roasting. Consider it a present for your brain, heart, joints and mind.
Recently there has been much discussion around the health benefits of coconut oil. However, these claims have yet to be substantiated. Coconut oil is largely comprised of saturated fat (~90%). Foods high in this type of fat increase our risk of heart disease by increasing our LDL cholesterol. The National Heart Foundation advises against the use of coconut oil for this reason. Until there is overwhelming evidence supporting some of the alleged benefits of coconut oil it is best used sparingly or not at all.
Palm oil not only wreaks havoc on the environment, but it also damages our arteries. It is typically found in baked goods and fast foods. Palm oil is best-avoided, full stop – the orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as your arteries, will be grateful.
Butter vs. Margarine
This debate has raged for years. However, the evidence strongly favours margarine over butter. That’s because butter contains almost 50% saturated fat, yet margarine contains a maximum of 20%. The notion that margarine is full of nasty trans-fats is simply not true. In fact, the levels of trans-fats in Australian margarines are kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, if you’re not completely sold, check out the range of olive oil-based spreads now available in supermarkets.
Some other healthy plant-based oils include safflower, sunflower, peanut, soybean and corn. Nevertheless, oils of any variety are best used sparingly due to their high-energy content. Better yet, use a spray oil to cut back on the extra kilojoules. At the end of the day, too much of a good thing isn’t good either, so go easy on the golden stuff if you want to keep your weight in check and remember, oils ain’t oils.