Let’s Talk About Oil.

When it comes to cooking with oil, there are many options to choose from: sunflower oil, olive oil, canola oil, etc. Growing up, I thought all oils were the same in terms of health benefits, cooking temperatures, etc. Once I got into my teenage years, I remember hearing people talk about “low fat” diets, recipes without oils, and how oils will give you cancer. Up until recently, I didn’t fully understand the world of oil; Is it good? Is it bad? Are all oils the same? Are some oils actually cancerous?! If you’re in the same boat, read ahead. I dive head first into the oil industry with the hopes to educate consumers to reach for the best oil.

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Oil: An Overview

Oils can be extracted from various forms of seeds, kernels, grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The process of extracting oil began thousands of years ago when people noticed oily plants and seeds gave off an extractable oil when heated. Various forms of oils, and oil producing methods, soon came about worldwide. In Mexico and North America, farmers would roast and beat peanuts, boil them, and collect the oil that rose to the surface. In Africa, they would grate and beat palm kernels, boil, and extract the oils. With time, of course, this process got to where it is today: manufactured by machines and mass produced.

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The manufacturing process is different for each oil source. However, here is a general process for creating refined oils. The seeds, kernels, etc. are harvested and brought into the manufacturing facility. Here, the oil inputs are run over magnets to remove any trace metals, and then crushed into smaller pieces, which we call meal. This meal is then heated, pressed, and the oils extracted are collected. The oil then gets boiled with water, and the evaporated oil is again collected and sent to be refined. Refining, which is essentially neutralizing the fatty acids, is done through bleaching and deodorizing, stripping the oil of micronutrients. Once refined, the oils are ready to be consumed.

Cold pressed oils on the other hand are made in a similar fashion, but they are not heated above 120 degrees fahrenheit. This is not easily done with most seeds and kernels, but olives in particular take well to this form of processing. Cold-press oils are not put through the refining process, so they hold onto more micronutrients, making them a healthier option.

So far, it seems like cold-pressed oil seems to be a healthier option compared to refined oils. However, there are so many oils on the market, so let’s talk about common oils to further narrow down the healthy oils from the unhealthy ones.

Vegetable Oil

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Vegetable oil is a mild flavored oil derived from a various number of sources, including nuts, kernels, seeds, and soybeans (most vegetable oil is derived from soybeans.) It has a high cooking point (above 400 degrees F), so it is great for frying. During manufacturing, vegetable oil is treated with phosphoric acid, bleached, and deodorized, making it one of the most highly processed oils on the market. Vegetable oil is rich in polyunsaturated fats which contribute to cell mutation and clogged arteries when over consumed. Vegetable oil is also rich in omega 6, which in itself is not bad, but if too many omega 6’s are consumed in relation to omega 3’s consumed, health problems, such as heart disease and cancer, can arise. Overall, I would give vegetable oil a 2/10 in terms of health value.

Olive Oil

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Olive oil is one of the only oils I use in my day-to-day cooking. As mentioned above, olives are one of the few oil inputs that take well to cold-pressing, which decreases refining and increase micronutrients. However, not all olive oils are created the same, so let’s talk about each type.

  • Pure Olive Oil. The name is actually quite misleading here. “Pure” olive oil is typically made up of 25% virgin olive oil, and 75% refined olive oil. Because of this, there is a lack of micronutrients in this oil. It has a smoke point of around 470 degrees F though, so it’s great for sauteing, baking, frying, and more.
  • Light Olive Oil. “Light” does not refer to caloric content, rather it refers to the aroma and neutral flavor in the oil. Light olive oil only contains about 10% virgin olive oil and 90% refined oil, making it the least health-friendly of the olive oil family. It also has a smoke point of 470 degrees F, so it will not break down during the cooking process.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This is the gold standard of oils. Extra virgin refers to the manufacturing process: the oils are never subjected to high heat or chemicals. The oil is packed with antioxidants, micronutrients, and heart healthy fats, making it one of the best oils on the market. It has a slightly lower smoke points of around 370 degrees F, so it’s best used in low-heat cooking, salad dressings, etc.

Overall, olive oil (especially cold-pressed extra virgin) is the most health-conscious oil. However, it’s important to note that olive oil is more light sensitive, so you should never buy olive oil in a translucent container – it should always be tinted! My health rating for olive oil is an 8/10.

Avocado Oil

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Avocado oil seems to be a rising cult favorite when it comes to oil. Manufactured similar to olive oil (by pressing the fruit), avocado oil also has the ability to be cold pressed or refined. The flavor in avocado oil is more earthy, grassy, and almost sweet, so it’s not as versatile as olive oil when it comes to cooking. However, it has a smoke point of over 500 degrees F, so it’s great for cooking at high heats.

As we know, avocado is rich in heart-healthy fats, so avocado oil (when virgin) has the same nutritional qualities. When cold-pressed, avocado oil is similar in chemical make up to olive oil. The only thing to be cautious of when buying avocado oil is to ensure you’re buying extra virgin; anything below this standard is often mixed with soybean oil, cutting back on the nutritional benefits. Overall, I give avocado oil an 8/10 on the health scale.

Coconut Oil

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Coconut oil, to my surprise, can also be cold pressed. When cold pressed, the oil is manufactured using fresh coconut meat. When refined, the coconut oil is made using dried coconut meat. The oil itself contains few vitamins or minerals no matter how it’s processed, but extra virgin is still the best way to go due to the chemical makeup. Coconut oil is made up of 90% saturated fat, but don’t panic – it’s good fat! The fat in coconut oil is packed with medium chain fatty acids, so it’s a good source of healthy cholesterol. When cooking with coconut oil, it’s important to note it’s smoke point is only 350 degrees F, so it’s best used in low temperature cooking. Overall, I give coconut oil a 5/10 on the health scale due to a lack of micronutrients.

So, there you have it. The oil industry is a lot more complex than meets the eye! If there is one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s that type of oil matters, and they are not created equally. Also, please do not be scared of using oils in cooking – the fats in oils actually help to bond with healthy carotenoids in vegetables making them digestible in the human body. So next time your aunt Karen tells you to use fat-free salad dressing for less calories, run! Fat-free does not = healthy.

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