A complete guide to the nutrition and smart uses of popular cooking and salad oils.
Walking into the vegetable-oil section of your favorite supermarket can easily trigger choice overload. Bottles in every size containing oils in hues from pale gold to almost green compete for your attention and your grocery dollars. Pricey, artisanal options vie with oils whose labels make confusing health claims. Cooking magazines and television chefs only add to the confusion. Food Network star Bobby Flay mentions canola oil a half-dozen times per half-hour. Giada de Laurentiis does everything with extra-virgin olive oil, even frying. Rachael Ray even has her own brand of olive oil.
Is there a right answer to the cooking- oil choice challenge? What about buying oil for salad dressing?
Healthwise, the fact that youre shopping for liquid vegetable oil in the first place, rather than solid fats such as butter or lard, is a good start. Oils that are liquid at room temperature tend to be higher in heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids and lower in saturated fats. Similarly, most plant-based sources-vegetable oils- contain lower percentages of saturated fat than animal sources of fats; the exceptions are so-called tropical oils such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oil. And liquid oils havent been solidified by partial hydrogenation, which produces trans fats, developed to be solid and more stable for commercial uses.
Both saturated and trans fats are the main culprits in raising bad LDL cholesterol levels, so intake should be minimized. They come primarily from meat and milk fat, and partially hydrogenated oils. (For more on fats, see our December 2011 Special Report.)
The emphasis should be on displacing saturated fat and trans fat with unsaturated fat, particularly polyunsaturated fat, because that is what the data supports in terms of heart health, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, adding, Always keep calories in check.
All fats and oils contain about 90 calories per tablespoon (9 calories per gram).
The best cost/health effective advice is to buy quart bottles of soybean oil, Lichtenstein says, which is an excellent source of the polyunsaturated fats that have been associated with lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. For special uses, particularly flavor, buy smaller bottles of oils such as sesame and olive.
Canola oil is also a good all-purpose choice, as its neutral in flavor and very low in saturated fat. Neutral flavored safflower, sunflower and corn oils, also low in saturated fat, are other options.
Some recent studies of the so-called Mediterranean diet have suggested special benefits from olive oil, which has enjoyed a healthy halo because of its high levels of monounsaturated fats. Extra-virgin olive oil is a smart choice for salad dressings, if you prefer its flavor, but isnt suitable for all cooking uses because of its relatively low smoke point. When oils reach their smoke point, they begin to burn-not only sending nutrition up in smoke but potentially creating compounds that are bad for you.
Processing olive oil (so its no longer extra virgin), while increasing the smoke point, also sacrifices some of the natural antioxidant phenolic compounds. The types of extraction and processing affect the phenolic content of olive oil, says Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD, director of Tufts HNRCA Antioxidants Research Laboratory, and the 30-plus phenolic compounds in olive oil are differentially affected. There is a range of loss in phenolic compounds during the refining process, generally the least in cold-pressed olive oils and the most occurring when heating is involved. Importantly, even with extra-virgin olive oils, there are major losses in olive oil phenolics that occur with storage (after a couple months) and exposure to light (so keep the oil in dark bottles or ceramic jars).
Storage is also a concern if you splurge on any of those fancy oils that are really intended for salads or finishing a dish, which can quickly go rancid. While TV chefs may tout walnut or toasted sesame oil or other exotic options, theyre not pantry staples. Theyre better to be bought in small quantities and stored in the refrigerator.
See note below for buying tips.78814Extravirgin: 320-375 Virgin: 391-420 Pure: 425-450 Light: 468Use extra-virgin for salads, drizzling and low-heat cooking. More-refined olive oils can be used for higher-heat cooking.Flavor of extra-virgin varies, may be fruity, grassy, peppery, and/or bitter. Extra-virgin contains more antioxidants and polyphenols. Good quality extra-virgin oils are pricey.Palm
Extracted from fruit of the palm tree.381052Unrefined: 425-450Baking and highheat cooking-sparingly.Reddish color. High in saturated fat. Health benefits are controversial. Proponents tout high levels of carotenoids and vitamin E.Peanut
Made from peanuts.483418Refined: 450- 460 Unrefined: 320Stir-frying, sauting and searing.Refined has bland flavor. Contains vitamin E. Those with peanut allergy should avoid unrefined peanut oil.Pumpkin seed
Pressed from roasted hulled pumpkin seeds325315Unrefined: 320 or lessSalad dressings and drizzling.Nutty flavor. High in plant omega-3s. Store in refrigerator.Safflower *
Pressed from seeds of safflower plant (a member of the sunflower family).High oleic: 79
High linoleic: 2013
11445-510Sauting, stirfrying, and baking.Mild flavor.Sesame
Regular/light is pressed from untoasted seeds Dark sesame oil is pressed from414415Light: 410Use light sesame oil for sauting and stir-fries. Use toasted as a finishing seasoning-not for high-heat applications.Light has delicate flavor. Toasted has intense nutty flavor that works well in Asian dishes. Store toasted sesame oil in refrigerator.Soybean
Extracted from seeds of the soybean plant. Most generic vegetable oil contains soybean oil275815440-460Sauting, searing and stir fries.Neutral flavor. High in omega- 6s. Most commonly used oil in US. Inexpensive.Sunflower *
Pressed from sunflower seeds.High oleic: 82
High linoleic: 209
11440-460Sauting, stir-frying and baking.Neutral flavor.Walnut
Extracted from English walnuts.24679Unrefined: 305-320 Refined: 400Salad dressings. Refined can be used in baking.Rich nutty flavor. Turns bitter when heated. Provides plant omega 3s and antioxidants. Expensive. Perishable. Store in refrigerator.* High-oleic oil: There are two types of safflower and sunflower oils: high linoleic and high-oleic. High linoleic safflower and sunflower oils are primarily polyunsaturated fats. High-oleic oils have been developed through selective breeding to make an oil that is higher in monounsaturated fats and more stable.
Buying olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil, an unrefined oil, is extracted by mechanical means without use of heat or chemicals. It must be free of flaws and have low acidity. Virgin has some defects and higher acidity. Simply labeled olive oil, sometimes called pure olive oil, is a blend of virgin and refined oils. Light olive oil is filtered to make light-colored, neutral-flavored oil; it does not offer a savings in calories. (Chart by Patsy Jamieson)
Note: Oil % and smoke points may vary slightly by source and because of rounding.