How to choose the correct cooking oil ?

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Oil is inevitable to Indian cooking. Every form of cuisine and method of preparation explores the myriad flavors of oils. Oil is an integral part of a balanced diet providing energy, essential fatty acids, aids the absorption of fat soluble vitamins – A,D,E,K, supple skin and give us satiety. Oil is 100% fat and calorie dense, contains 45 kcals per teaspoon and therefore must be used judiciously. All cooking oils, are a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in varying proportions. In general, a healthy amount of fat in the diet ranges between 20% and 25% of total calories.  One way to reshape your health status is by choosing heart-healthy oils - monounsaturated fats( MUFA), omega-3 fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats( PUFA). 

Choosing a correct cooking oil can be confusing ! Let’s explore more;

Unsaturated fatty acids :

Prefer MUFA (comprise only 1 double bond) found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, peanuts, pecans, almonds and avocados.

PUFA (comprise 2 or more double bonds) is found in sunflower oil. Consuming too much PUFA is dangerous as double bonds are less stable, highly reactive and bind oxygen to form peroxides when exposed to air or heat, responsible for bad flavor and odours known as rancidity. PUFA rich oils are also reactive in cooking when subjected to routine frying and cooking, they generate high levels of toxic aldehyde products that promote CVD and cancer.

Essential fatty acids are long chain PUFA derived from omega 3 (linolenic acid – flax seed, canola oil, walnuts, green leafy vegetables), omega 6 (linoleic acid- flax seed, hemp, grape seed, olive oil, unrefined oil – sunflower, safflower) and omega 9 (oleic acid - olive oil. The body can manufacture in limited amounts, if other EFA are present.)

Caution: high heat, direct light and oxygen destroy EFA, therefore avoid cooking them or using them on excessively hot food.

Limit and moderate saturated fatty acids which are solids at room temperature – Ghee, butter and dalda.

Avoid trans fatty acid that are formed during hydrogenation of double bonds, used to enhance shelf life and flavor stability of foods. They are also found naturally in small quantities in beef, pork, lamb, butter, milk and present in most baked foods – cakes and cookies. They have a direct impact on raising the LDL or the bad cholesterol.  

DIFFERENT VARITIES OF OIL:
Canola oil:
This oil is extracted from rapeseeds (a plant in the mustard family). The word "canola" was derived from "Canadian oil, low acid". It is also known as "LEAR" oil (for Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed). It is versatile, neutral tasting, high in MUFA, omega-3 fatty acids (ALA/alpha-linolenic acid) and lowest in saturated fat. It can be used in salad dressings, cooking including deep frying.

Groundnut oil/ peanut oil
This most common Indian oil contains heart-friendly MUFA that lowers the levels of bad cholesterol in our body and is effective in protecting against heart disease. Peanut oil is made from pressed, steam-cooked peanuts and it contains resveratrol, an antioxidant also found in wine that has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.  Groundnut oil best for stir frying/deep frying which involve high heat, as it has a high smoke point.

Olive oil
Olive oil has the highest amount of heart-protective monounsaturated fats and polyphenols — antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties. It is the preferred cooking oil in Mediterranean countries. This oil is extracted by pressing or crushing olives and comes in different varieties, depending on the amount of processing involved.
~ Extra virgin: Is from the first cold pressing of the olives. It has the most antioxidants, flavor and is best for salad dressing and it cannot be used for high-temperature frying.

~ Pomace olive oil: Is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace (the product remaining after the mechanical extraction of olive oil) with solvents or other physical treatments, involving synthetic processes. It is suitable for Indian food as most is subjected to cooking.
Mustard oil
Mustard oil was traditionally used in West Bengal for its characteristic flavour – pungency. It is a rich source of both MUFA and PUFA. Mustard oil is suitable for all types of cooking including frying.  It also contains erucic acid, a fatty acid that has undesirable effects on health when consumed in large amounts.
Rice bran oil:
This mild oil is extracted from the germ and inner husk of rice and is gaining popularity in Asian cuisine. It is rich in MUFA, vitamin E and has cholesterol-lowering properties due to the presence of oryzanol. It contains natural vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. It also contains squalene, which is good for the skin. It has high smoke point and hence does not disintegrate into toxic substances at high-temperature.

Flax seed oil: The oil is one of the richest source of omega 3 essential fatty acids (linolenic acid) and a rich source of linoleic acid (omega 6). It is wonder oil given that the metabolism converts the short chain omega 3 fatty acids into long chain fatty acids. It should not be heated, but must be drizzled over food, as salad dressing. 

Sesame oil : It is richly nutty, fragrant and is commonly used in south Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine usually added at the end of the cooking as a flavor highlight and is not used as a cooking medium. Indian sesame oil called gingelly or til oil, is golden and sweetly nutty because it is mixed with jaggery – a palm sugar.

Wheat germ oil: It is extracted from wheat kernel. Apart Vitamin E, it is particularly high in octacosanal, which behaves like a natural anabolic steroid by increasing oxygen utilization during exercise and increasing stamina as well as reaction time. It also has a role to play in reducing blood cholesterol. It is strongly flavored, thick textured and dark golden yellow in color. Expensive and easily perishable, it is not an oil for cooking but can be drizzled over salads, cooked meals, prior to eating to boost nutrition.

Sunflower oil
It is a light, odorless oil pressed from sunflower seeds and is a good all-purpose oil. It is rich in PUFA, particularly linoleic acid that lowers the levels of both good and bad cholesterol. Like safflower oil, sunflower oil labeled "high-oleic" is higher in monounsaturated fat than sunflower oil not labeled with that term.

Safflower/ kardi oil:
This flavorless and colorless oil contains PUFA - linoleic acid. It is a favorite for salad dressing, because it does not solidify when chilled, and is also used in cooking.

Soya bean oil:
It is a good source of linoleic (omega 6) and oleic acid (omega 9) and an excellent source of vitamin E. High PUFA content, moderate MUFA and low saturated fats.

Grape seed oil: It has become nutritionally noted and is recommended for inclusion in the diets for lowering cholesterol as it is low in saturated fats and rich in vitamins and minerals. It has very high linoleic acid content – omega 6. It is best used as a dressing oil or for shallow or stir frying.

Coconut oil:
It is extracted from the inner flesh of coconuts, used in south Indian states and other Asian countries.  Coconut oil contains highest saturated fat of all cooking oils. It is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCT) that gets used up for energy quickly. It’s lauric acid is endowed with antibacterial properties. Choose cold pressed variety for the best benefits.

Infused or flavored oils: Infused oils contain herbs and spices and are very easy to do it yourself. Chinese chilly oil is probably the most common and most well used flavored oil, where chilli is added to the oil, which is used as a finishing oil to add a dash of spice. Wok oil is useful kitchen oil – a blend of groundnut, palm and coconut oil and a secret blend of herbs and spices is used which is designed for high temperature cooking.

Deep frying: Oils suitable for deep frying sustain intense heating before the fat breaks down into visible gases – ‘smoke point’. Tall deep pan is best suitable for deep frying as it reduces the surface area of the oil. Oil can be re – used if it has not been heated to its smoke point and is filtered. At the smoke point, the oil not only smokes and emits unpleasant odors, imparts unsavory flavors onto the food but also it can erupt into flames. Always discard oil that has become cloudy, smelly or tainted.

Storing oils: It is not an uncommon practice to rest the oil bottle either by the stove or the window sill. But o­n exposure to air, most oil turn rancid, develop an unpleasant smell and taste. PUFA oils are more susceptible to deterioration than MUFA. Bright light and excessive warmth will only speed up bleeching of color and destroy­ flavor and nutrients. Therefore store oil in a cool and dry place and avoid open storage on kitchen worktops or in your cupboards above stove. Purchase oils in small quantities in order to use them as quickly as possible. Alternatively decant a large bottle into smaller one. Dark glass bottles, earthernware or cans will offer the maximum protection for the chosen oil. Shelve the bottles in deep dark cabinets.


It is best to choose cooking oils that have the least amount of saturated and trans fats and more of healthy fats - omega-3s and monounsaturated fats. Pomace olive oil is worth incorporating in our daily cuisine for its invaluable benefits. It is beneficial to consume a mixture of oils in order to maintain a balance between the three fatty acids. 

Refrain from blending oils at home. Commercial oil blends are already available in the market - ricebran and sunflower oils. Restrict oil consumption to only half liter per person per month, i e 2 – 3 tsp/person/day. It is also best to use different oils for different food items, benefiting your health of all the various oils. 

Published for Stayfit magazine 

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