Oil is often disregarded as being a source of fat building and a trigger for cholesterol-related diseases. However, small amounts of good quality oil used in the proper way can even be beneficial to your health. Rediscover the “good” oil!
Saturated Fat Content
The overall fat content is made up of a mix of saturated and unsaturated triglycerides. Unsaturated means that carbon chains contain double bounds, while saturated means that those double bounds have been replaced by a single bond and a link to a hydrogen atom. For health purposes, it is best when the product contains a higher proportion of unsaturated fat and a lower one of saturated fat, which promote the synthesis of “good” cholesterol (HDL) and “bad” cholesterol (LDL) respectively. This is because saturated fats promote the deposition of “bad” cholesterol in the blood vessels, which build up with time, and increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
Examples of “good” oils are olive, canola or sunflower, among others, while coconut and palm have been marked as lower quality in terms of health. Unsaturated fat can even have a positive effect on LDL levels, improving the condition of cholesterol disease-prone patients.
Resistance to Heat
Heat can alter significantly the properties of oil, turning a good quality base product into an unhealthy food. In particular, those containing high amounts of polyunsaturated fat (like canola or sunflower) are prone to very fast degradation with temperature. It is worth mentioning that unsaturated acids heated at very high temperatures result in the formation of trans fat, which is widely known as being a non-nutritive health-problematic substance. On the flipside, oils with high amounts of saturated fat (such as palm) are highly resistant to temperature increases and are thus very adequate for applications in the food industry.
When heating oil in a pan, it is always best to start adding the ingredients on or before the point when the oil starts smoking, as that’s when its properties start to change.
Regarding the issue of reusing it, it is best not to do it as carcinogenic substances that are formed during the heating stay there, and by re-heating it even more of them will be formed.
Refined or Unrefined?
Unrefined. Always. Refining involves a series of chemical processes to remove the strong flavors (but also many of the good vitamins and nutrients) that are present in the original seed.
So overall, what is the best cooking oil for health?
It depends what you are going to do with it:
- If you're going to deep fry something (or you still want to reuse oil even if it's not the best thing for your health - such as in restaurants), then go for palm oil. Olive and sunflower oil are still good for stir frying or shorter/slower cooking uses (roasting, pizza dough, baking etc...).
- If you're going to have the oil raw, take into account the intensity of the flavour it's going to give to the dish. For salads and hummus, extra virgin olive oil gives an intense and fruity flavor. It's up to the cook's taste, but oils that are rich in unsaturated fat as best eaten raw.
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