Oil I Ask For

Recently I have been thinking a lot about fat. There is new controversy brewing around the role of fat in our daily diet and whether it really is the culprit in the growing epidemic of today’s chronic diseases.

Should we be including fat in our diet? Are we eating too much or too little? The first question is easy to answer, much to everyone’s relief, yes we should have fat in our diet.  We need fat just as an engine needs oil. Fat provides essential ingredients for healthy skin, hormones, digestion and just about every body process you can think of and it makes food taste good, enhancing the pleasure of eating, which at Eat Well Shanghai is our core philosophy!

So getting back to fat. I am going to focus on oil because there seems to be confusion on which is the best one to use.

In today’s market there is a myriad of oils to chose from. There are vegetable blends, corn oil , peanut oil, sunflower, safflower, canola and olive oil. Not to mention the new healthy hopefuls of coconut oil, grape seed oil, flax and walnut oil.

If you could buy all of these fresh off the cold press and store them in dark glass bottles, then anyone one of these would be a perfectly good choice. Problem is not many of these are sold that way and if they were the cost alone would certainly reduce your intake of fat!

My curiosity  of this subject lead me to read a few articles, and what I found most interesting and a bit disturbing was the description of the commercial edible oil process. It is quite a production that starts with cold pressing and soon adds heat and chemicals that are all removed by the time the oil gets to the bottle, so you bring home a clear, almost odorless and mellow tasting product. For an unbiased , straight forward introduction to the process I suggest the following article: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Cooking-Oil.html

The chemical make up of oil is different depending on the source. As most of us are aware oil/fat from animals is made largely of saturated fat, i.e. butter. Plants will have some combination of saturated fat, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Over the years studies have suggested that an intake of PUFAS and MUFAS  helps to reduce the risk of cardiac issues. Problem is that oils high in the PUFAS are more unstable , particularly at higher heats, these oils would include sunflower and corn oil. Oils that have more MUFAS, such as olive oil and coconut oil are much more stable. So what does stability have to do with it? The more stable an oil the less likely it will oxidize at a higher heat. We want to avoid oxidized oil because there is some suggestion that the by products of the oxidation process may be detrimental to health*. We need more studies to find out at what level these byproducts are a problem.  By the way, air and light will also cause oxidization.

Then there is canola oil.

Canola conundrum: Canola, Canadian light oil, was developed in the 1970’s from cross breeding several varieties of the rapeseed plant. The most common variety of rapeseed  contains an acid, erucic acid, that can be harmful to humans in large doses. Cross breeding  successfully produced a variety of the plant rich in PUFAS and MUFAS with low erucic acid and voila! canola oil was born. So why all the fuss about canola? The fuss comes from the fact that almost all canola oil is made from GMO plants and that makes some people uneasy. If GMO doesn’t bother you , canola oil is as healthy a choice as olive oil.

I could go on but most of you just want to know what oil to use. For high heat cooking: rice bran, grape seed oil, sesame and coconut oil.  For baking and sautés: olive oil, coconut oil, grape seed. For salads: olive oil, grape seed oil, walnut and flax oil.

Bottom line:

1. Avoid oil sold in clear plastic bottles. If you can’t, believe me it is not easy to find oil that isn’t in a plastic bottle, buy the smallest size available. (Remember it is heat and the exposure to sunlight that degrades the oil). Dark glass bottles and tins are preferred.

2. MUFAS  (monounsaturated fats) are more stable than PUFAS (polyunsaturated fats). Think olive oil and coconut oil.

3. Cold pressed oil when ever possible.

4. Eat less but eat the best.

*http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3118035/

Eat Well, Live Well, Have Fun!