To Your Health: The Best Cooking Oils and How and When to Use Them

Posted by on May 3, 2013 at 12:05 pm

coconut and oil

by Stephanie Viele, Holistic and Wellness Health Coach

healthy-transitions-top-artThere are so many choices these days when it comes to cooking oils that sometimes it can be difficult to know what to choose and what exactly to do with an oil once you bring it home. I love that we are beginning to understand that good quality oil and other healthy fats aren’t what make us fat (that’s sugar and another article).

Utilizing healthy oils in our everyday lives supports our hearts, aids in brain function, and helps our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins from the other food we eat. We are fortunate to have moved beyond almost exclusively using that infamous “blue tub” in the pantry. So let’s take a closer look at some of the healthy choices we have.

First of all, oil has something called a smoke point, which very simply means the temperature at which it begins to smoke. Once oils smoke they become unhealthy for our bodies. Oils with low smoke points, therefore, are best suited not for cooking but as dressings or finishings. Those with higher smoke points are the best for high-heat cooking, grilling, roasting, and so on. Understanding the best ways to use oils is the first step in learning to love them.

I chose three cooking oils and two finishing oils to share with you here, but feel free to experiment with any that help you feel creative in the kitchen.

Olive Oil

avocado salad with olive oil

Avocado spinach salad with extra virgin olive oil

I want to start with everyone’s favorite standby. Olive oil is wonderfully healthy, loaded with beneficial antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. It is important to look for “cold pressed” and “extra virgin” on the label for the most health-giving properties. Olive oils can really range in flavor, so try some different ones to see which you like best. This is a great oil to cook with, but avoid using it with high heat because it begins to break down at around 375 degrees F. Since olive oil has a wonderful flavor, I find it is one of the best choices for salad dressings and finishing my recipes. It also can be used to moisturize your hair and skin and even makes a great shave cream.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil is very similar to olive oil in its fatty-acid profile. It is particularly rich in monounsaturated fat and lutein, making it excellent for eye health. Avocado oil has a light, buttery, wonderful taste and a beautiful color that helps make your meals stand out. It has the highest smoke point of the oils I’m talking about here, so it makes a great go-to for all of your high-heat cooking while also doing a pretty nice job of helping out your salad dressing when needed.

Coconut Oil

olive oil

Olive oil

I don’t mean to play favorites, but I love this oil. It is anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and a great source of anti-oxidants. Coconut oil has an enticing light taste, but if it doesn’t strike your fancy simply adding a pinch of salt will reduce the coconut flavor. To receive its benefits, buy only unrefined coconut oil, which should be clearly stated on the label. If it doesn’t say unrefined, don’t buy it. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, and it melts at 76 degrees F (so let’s hope for some melted coconut oil this summer). It is fine to use in its melted state and will simply re-solidify when cooled. Its usual solid state makes it a great substitution for butter (when using it in place of butter in your baking, use 25% less). Coconut oil holds up well with heat, so it is great for cooking. It has good amounts of vitamin E, meaning it is equally amazing when used as a moisturizer for hair and skin. I keep a tub in the kitchen and the bathroom. Adding a large scoop to your bathwater is a nice healthy indulgence for your skin; just be careful getting out!

Hemp Oil

Hemp oil is incredibly high in those essential omega-3 fats we are all chasing, and it contains GLA, the only omega-6 that has anti-inflammatory properties. This a delicate oil and needs to be stored in the refrigerator. It has a wonderful earthy taste but is not heat stable, so it’s best used to lend flavor to finishing your dishes. Try using hemp oil to add that final, special flair to your favorite healthy meals.

Flaxseed Oil

flax smoothie

Flax smoothie

Flax oil is one of the oldest health foods we know. It’s full to the brim with omega-3 fats and also contains over a hundred times more of the phytonutrient lignin than most other oils. It has a wonderful light nutty flavor. Flax also is not heat stable, so it’s best when used to drizzle your final creative touch, or in those healthy no-cook snacks like smoothies and vegetable dips. Or try it right off the spoon.

Final Tips

A few more tips on buying and using oils are: All oils dislike heat, light, and air, so look for the quality brands in dark or opaque containers that seal well, and buy small amounts at a time to reduce the likelihood that they will go bad before you have the chance to enjoy them. Also check the label and store in the refrigerator when suggested or when you are in doubt.

So, I hope I have sparked some new motivation for buying and using good quality, healthy oils with confidence. Head out to the store to pick out a couple of new oils and play around with them. Go ahead and demonstrate that healthy cooking prowess to your family and friends. And remember every time you go grocery shopping, revel in your ability to choose health.

Cheers!

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Photos courtesy of Phu Thinh Co, Charlotte Dallot, Amy Guth, and David Murray.

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