Despite being a dietitian, just like many of you, I find asking myself this same question every time I am in the oil aisle of a grocery shop; “What oil should I buy? Which one is the best for me and my family’s health?” Though I have duly studied Nutrition for 6 years and even got A+ in the “Fats and Oils” class, all these advertisements, claims, new research and endless blog posts by health enthusiasts makes me doubt my own knowledge. If I am feeling this way, I can only imagine how confusing it must be for my non-nutrition background girlfriends!
So with a very open mind and a very clean slate, I am getting down to the basics and gonna do some investigation. Hope you join me on this exciting journey 🙂
While walking down the aisle, you are most likely to come across one of these being available for bulk buy-
- Sunflower Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Groundnut/Peanut oil
- Mustard Oil
- Corn Oil
- Coconut Oil
- Soybean Oil
- Rice Bran Oil
- Palm Oil
- Canola Oil
Ghee/Clarified Butter deserves a standalone article, and here it is!
Now other than the 10 frying giants, you will also find these oils that are more of a delicacy (you are more likely to find these in the ethnic or health food section..)
- Olive Oil (Yup, we are waking up to using it, but not on a large scale yet!)
- Flaxseed Oil
- Sesame Oil
- Edible Almond Oil
- wheat germ oil
- Grapeseed Oil
- Avocado Oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Macadamia Nut Oil
- Cashew Nut Oil
When it comes to oils and health, you will hear hundreds of different opinions, doubts, and reasons for why not to consume a certain oil.
Canola and Soy are full of GMO, Coconut and Palm are heart attack on a platter, Corn is cheap, Olive is expensive! Oh, Mustard, such a strong flavor! What’s Rice Bran again?
Well, think of this as a contest of oils to win the “healthiest” title. We will examine different attributes of 11 oils widely used for cooking. For every category they will be carefully examined and pitched against each other, let’s see who wins!
Now, these are the attributes they will be judged for. (If you do not care for all this investigation, you can scroll down to the end of the article to see the results 👇)
- Fatty Acid Composition (Biochemistry alert!! It’s like that non-happening part of the movie when you doze off but without watching it you will have no clue about how the story unfolded!)
So, all Fats and Oils are made up of a basic unit called a Triglyceride (TG). Triglycerides are made of 1 Glycerol backbone and 3 Fatty Acid chains. Illustration below-
Now there are 3 main types of FAs, Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA…think butter), Mono-Unsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA… think olive oil), and Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA… think sunflower oil).
In the image above, as you can see, Saturated Fatty Acids (SFAs) contain all single bonds (which is why they are a straight chains, which is why if a TriGlyceride contains 3 SFA chains, they stack up really well, and which is why they are solid at the room temperature, hence has longer shelf life). Also since they have no double/unsaturated bonds they are the most stable of all three Fatty Acids(unsaturated/double bond tends to make a molecule less stable!)
Similarly, Mono Unsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs) stack up relatively poorly and are viscous liquids at room temperature and semi-solids in colder temperatures. And Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs) stack up absolutely poorly (thanks to poly/multiple double bonds and bends) hence liquids at all temperatures.
Did anyone else notice the missing “Glycerol” in the third diagram?😂😂😂
Now, the moment of the truth: “No oil, NOT A SINGLE OIL is 100% MUFA/PUFA or Saturated Fatty Acids! They are all mixtures of all 3 of these”, so when a nutrition guru tells you to only consume Saturated Fats or MUFAs, take it with a pinch of salt!
But Which one of these is good? Well, They all have pros and cons, let’s take a glance-
All the research studies all these years that associated Saturated Fatty Acids with heart diseases are being questioned and re-examined. Looking back now, a systematic review of all those long-term trials showed no relation between SFA intake and Heart Diseases (CVD, CHD, Ischemic Stroke), Type-II diabetes or All Cause Mortality!
Not just that, PUFA (which were held in higher regards for health) can actually be devoided of most of their innate nutrients and antioxidants(lost mostly during refining) and cooking them on high temperatures actually increases their Reactive Oxygen Species/free radical content!
So which kind of fatty acid is healthiest? You decide… Though SFAs and PUFAs are always in the gray zone with conflicting research showing up, MUFA has consistently been associated with numerous health benefits. Read about MUFA Health Benefits Here.
2. Stability/Shelf Life
We will see how stable is the oil at higher temperatures or how prone it is to oxidation and rancidification.
3. Smoke Point
At what temperature do the oils start burning.
4. Omega 3 content
Omega 3 (n-3) or alpha-linolenic acid is a type of PUFA, an essential fatty acid (essential because your body can not produce it). n-3 have myriads of health benefits from preventing stroke to improving lipid profile and from being anti-inflammatory to anti-aging! This topic too is so vast that it deserves its own article. Read more about Health Benefits of Omega 3s.
5. Omega 6: Omega 3
Omega 6 (n-6) or alpha-linoleic acid is also a type of PUFA, an essential FA. However, unlike n-3, excessive consumption of n-6 is associated with increasing inflammation and causing N number of diseases. Which is why it is very important that we try and consume both these essential FAs in a balance. That balance or ratio, well there isn’t any set one! Most avid champions of healthy livings insist on a ration of 1:1 (which is difficult to achieve, because we consume far more n-6 on daily basis). Though there is no clear guideline or a consensus between scientific community about the ratio, it is believed any ratio of 1:1–1:5 or anything closer to this is what we should strive for.
6. Micro-nutrients in the oil
Other than fatty acids, n-3, n-6, whether or not the oil has any additional vitamin, minerals, antioxidants will be considered.
As you can see (table 👆), If one were to consider stability and shelf life, Coconut oil is the clear winner. If it is the n-6:n-3 ratio, mustard oil is giving canola oil a tough fight. And if MUFA content is of concern, safflower oil is beating olive oil in a close race! Almost all of them contain a trace amount of vitamins/antioxidants. Groundnut oil is not doing bad either, with impressive amount of MUFA, it is certainly better then the highly sensationalized rice bran oil! Take a moment…no, really look at the table and the result should be clear to you…
They are all good in something (except for corn and palm maybe…)! Thing is that you can use more than one kind of oil (You don’t have to marry a certain type of oil!). I myself have used and have been using almost all of them (except for corn and palm again).
Canola/sunflower/rice bran are good for sautéing.Coconut is good for deep frying. Groundnut is best for Maharashtrian cooking. Safflower gives food that smooth, almost buttery flavor and texture. Olive is good for salads and chutneys while trust me on this, “use mustard oil for any kind of tadka and fish, you will know what I mean when you taste it firsthand!”
Again (I know this is a very cliché advice), using variety of oils for different cooking purposes and using them in moderation (remember oils are oils…they all are BAD in excess!) will ensure that you and your family are getting best of all worlds 🙂
CALL TO ACTION:
- Do not make a pact with any certain oil, variety is the key!
- Extra Virgin/Cold Pressed: It’s absolutely unnecessary to use it for high heat cooking (heat will burn away all nutrients anyways), use these kinds for cold dishes, salads, chutneys, low heat involved cooking etc. Read, Cold Pressed Oils: Make the Switch Today for Excellent Health!
- Be Frugal: No need to purchase different kinds of oils at once, blends are good (many big shots in oil industry offer blends of rice bran, soy, safflower, sunflower etc. etc). I usually use blends for most of my cooking and I have small bottles of mustard, olive and extra virgin coconut oil in my refrigerator. Trust me, I did not have to break my piggy bank to go crazy with cooking oil purchase (and neither should you)!
- Next time you read a blog or hear a news saying “research shows that XYZ oil is best/worst for you…” do take it with a pinch of salt! It requires years and years of pilot studies, research and then validation research to determine something substantial. One single study is not enough! And studies can be misleading too. So unless you know how to disintegrate them and check for the authenticity of the results, do not jump the ship! Watch Painfully Hilarious John Oliver explaining the farce that most “Scientific Studies” are…
So friends, always, ALWAYS consult your Registered Dietitian for most accurate, and evidence-based nutrition information.
You can consult a Registered Dietitian on DawaiBox.
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She is a Registered Dietitian who does not believe in dieting; She has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition but she is not your “I know it all Nutrition Guru!”; She loves food but loves talking about food even more. Her articles are a direct reflection of her personal quest where nutrition science meets real life! Oh, and she is owned by a 3 m.o. naughty kitten 🙂