Healthier Cooking Oil Choices

by Shannon Clark


Unless you’ve been conked in the head by an olive branch, you know that “no fat” is out and healthy fats are in. Good fats help to maintain body tissues, they provide an excellent energy source, and they help normalize blood sugar for diabetics and non-diabetics alike. And that’s not to say anything of the well-studied long-term benefits they provide for your heart and circulatory system.


But if your oil arsenal is limited to olive oil in salads and on chicken, and vegetable oil for frying, you’re missing out. Other seed and fruit oils can add a range of savory flavors and textures to your menu, helping you make the most of your meager cooking abilities-without having to cheat your health.


Whatever your cooking demands, there’s an oil for that. Let’s meet the rising stars which should be in your recipes.



Coconut Oil

If you came of age in the 1990s or earlier, you might have trouble reconciling yourself to the idea that coconut oil has any place in a healthy diet. Along with its evil allies palm and soybean, coconut has defined “bad fat” for most of the last generation. Heck, it’s the fat movie theater popcorn is popped in! We’re talking trans fats here, for crying out loud!


Well, that was then-and to the point: that was partially-hydrogenated coconut oil. The hydrogenation process blasts all kinds of good stuff out of coconut oil, including essential fatty acids and antioxidants galore. In contrast, virgin coconut oil, sold in a solidified form in small jars in health food stores, is a delicious and versatile fat that has plenty to offer, especially for vegetarians and vegans.


One advantage to coconut oil is that it is rich in lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that your body burns more efficiently than almost any other fat. This makes it great energy food. What’s more, the vitamins K and E in coconut oil help support healthy skin and hair.


“But how do I eat that pasty stuff?” you ask. This is where it gets fun. Coconut oil is a one of the world’s great butter substitutes. It melts just like butter on hot toast or pancakes, and it has a uniquely nutty, creamy flavor that many people actually prefer to butter-no, really. It is equally effective subbing for butter, shortening, or lard in baking, which is why you’ll see it popping up all over “guilt-free” recipes.



Walnut Oil

Walnut oil is one of the world’s great secret ingredients-once you know how to use it. Try to fry with it, and you’ll be disappointed. But put it in salad dressing, banana bread, or brush it on home-baked oven fries, and you’ll have everyone asking you for the recipe.


When it comes to health, the walnut is king of the nut aisle. It’s high in antioxidants and phytonutrients and comparatively low in saturated fat. Just a tablespoon of walnut oil has as much omega fats as a salmon filet, making it a great fat to consider if you’re vegetarian or don’t eat a lot of fish. And unlike most oils, walnuts are high in omega 3 acids, not just omega 6 acids.


The only real drawback with walnut oil, as with walnuts, is that they’re not as good for your wallet as for your heart. Keep your eye open for sales, or consider asking for some as a stocking stuffer during the holidays. You won’t miss that marshmallow Santa, anyway.



Sesame Oil


Sesame oil has one of the most distinct flavors of all the cooking oils. It comes in both light and dark varieties, which are both healthy but have different flavors. Light sesame oil is more subtle and can be used for frying, while dark oil is made from toasted sesames and is used more for its flavor. The darker one goes great with Korean, Chinese, and Indian foods and gives a unique nutty edge to boring chicken recipes.


In either case, sesame oil offers a great profile of healthy fats, made of almost half monounsaturated fat, and half polyunsaturated fat. Only a small component comes from saturated fat, making this a great oil to use for anyone concerned with heart disease. Sesame oil is also a premier source of vitamin E, which can further help to boost your health by combating free-radical damage.


As anyone who has ever over-seasoned with sesame oil knows, a little goes a long way. This means a bottle might chill out in your cupboard for months or years on end. If that’s the case, consider using it as massage oil, like they’ve been doing in India for thousands of years.



Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseeds are one of the leftovers in the winemaking process after all the stomping and squishing is done. While the oil pressed from these seeds doesn’t have the cachet or health claims of wine, it’s catching on as a versatile, healthy cooking fat.


Grapeseed oil has a higher smoke point than many other oils, so it’s good for frying and dishes that require high temperatures. Its light neutral flavor makes it ideal for muffins, cakes, and other baked goods. It also absorbs other flavors effectively, making it a perfect candidate for infusion with garlic, herbs, or other flavors.


Nutritionally, grapeseed has double the vitamin E of olive oil, but it isn’t as high as other popular frying oils like safflower. It also has high levels of several fatty acids and like all vegetable oils is cholesterol-free, so you can sauté without guilt.



Avocado Oil

The avocado has built up loads of press in recent years for its nutrient-rich nutritional profile, abundance of healthy fats, and potential to combat heart disease and hypertension. It’s become North America’s answer to the almighty Mediterranean olive, and avocado oil is our olive oil.


Avocado oil has a great fatty acid profile made up of 70 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, 12 percent omega 6 fatty acids, and just 12 percent saturated fatty acids. This makes it a great option for people who want to incorporate more omega fats in their diet but are looking to keep their saturated fat intake down. It also has an unusually high smoking point, so it works great for any high temperature dish.


At first taste, you might have trouble differentiating avocado oil from a high-end olive oil; both have a subtle nutty flavor and yellow-green color. But the light avocado aroma and fruitier flavor will definitely grow on you as you try this versatile oil in meat rubs, sautéing, and as a dipping oil or salad dressing.





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