An In-Depth Guide To Cooking Oils: Everything You Need To Know

You probably invest a lot of love in cooking for your family. Most home cooks do. Serving up the freshest ingredients in a healthy, tasty and nutritious meal is one of the most satisfying things imaginable.

At least, that’s how I feel when I prepare what I hope is great food for friends and family. They never complain!

Cooking oil is such a fundamental ingredient of great food that it’s important to choose the right one. 

How can you compare cooking oils? 

Choosing the best cooking oil to suit a particular ingredient and cooking method is important. On some occasions you might want to enhance the flavour through your cooking oil. For others, you simply want to cook your food without adding any extra flavour.

This is my take on the most popular cooking oils in this part of the world – Southeast Asia.

Comparing cooking oils is a mix of scientific facts and subjective personal preferences. These are the headings I have chosen and you may want to add your own observations.

  • Nutritional value

  • Health benefits or hazards

  • Flavour

  • Temperature

  • Suitability for various cooking methods

First a word about extra virgin olive oil 

The best cooking oils are those that are cold pressed with no chemicals used and no heat. That production method retains all the best elements that Mother Nature has gifted. 

This is why extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is one of the very best. The Extra Virgin classification can only be used with top quality products. Not all olives produce such quality oil. Buying from a reputable producer guarantees premium olive oil. You owe it to your family to buy the best you can afford.

. . and a quick word about refined olive oil

When a cooking oil does not taste very good and is of poor quality, or even not fit for human consumption, manufacturers must strip out much of the natural goodness by refining it.

Refining typically uses chemical solvents, acids and heating to remove much of the natural characteristics including fats. That leaves behind an olive oil with no flavour aroma or colour. Then the manufacturer adds in small amounts of various natural oils and flavourings to make it marketable.

This type of process is used to make many cooking oils on the market, such as “pure” and “light” olive oil. Canola, rice bran oil and many others are created by this industrial process too. While they may have a high smoke point as a result, they are not necessarily healthy or good for you.

It means you are eating a manufactured product and not a totally natural oil. 

Nutritional value

All cooking oil contains fats. That is vital for cooking. Saturated fats are not considered very healthy at all. Common examples are animal fats such as beef dripping or lard, and butter. They are usually solid at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These are much better for our bodies when consumed in moderation. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 which should be balanced and not consumed in excessive quantities.

Canola

Most canola on the market is manufactured by refining a GMO variety of rapeseed using synthetic chemicals. It has a neutral flavour and a high smoke point. It is low in nutritional benefits with no marked health benefits. Low in saturated fat and contains vitamins A and K. Research reports inconsistent and conflicting findings and more is required. Some studies find it may cause inflammation and not great for your heart and memory. It requires far more serious research and some experts even strongly advise against using it.

Rice bran oil

This newcomer is refined from rice chaff, which is the brown outer layer. It has a mild flavour and high smoke point. Like all refined cooking oils, any significant natural nutritional and health benefits have been stripped out. It has more saturated fat than canola or olive oil but does not provide any notable health benefits.

Vegetable oil

This is a generic term for any blend of cooking oils made from seeds, nuts and plant or tree fruits. The most common basic ingredient in Southeast Asia is palm oil or palm kernel oil. Most vegetable oils are refined products, noted for their low cost and high smoke point rather than any nutritional or health benefits.

Palm kernel oil is very high in saturated fats (over 75% of its fat content) and must be refined by fractionation, hydrogenation and interesterification for food use. It is often blended with groundnut or sesame oil to give it some flavour.

Safflower oil

While the more expensive brands of safflower oil are made by expeller pressing the safflower seeds, most commonly available products are refined. Pure, natural safflower oil has a distinctive nutty flavour but the refined version is bland. Refined safflower oil has a high smoke point. Because it is high in omega 6 oils (over 70% of its fat content) there is some controversy regarding its nutritional and health benefits. Too much omega 6 is not a good thing.

Linseed oil and rapeseed oil – potential hazards

As far as science goes, a significant body of literature supports the fear that exposure to fumes of rapeseed oil and linseed oil while stir-frying is associated with increased risk of lung cancer. In fact, rapeseed oil appears to have a particularly heightened risk.

Similar tests were carried out on canola and extra virgin olive oil. It appears that extra virgin olive oil is relatively much safer than the others as regards fumes being released at high temperatures.

Extra virgin olive oil

I have left this to the end to highlight 4 very important facts:

  • It is a totally natural cold-pressed cooking oil with no heat or chemicals used in extraction

  • It has a high smoke point, which is a feature of the best EVOO

  • It has a great number of proven health benefits, unlike refined oils

  • Nutritionally, it has a high proportion of good unsaturated fats

EVOO is a plentiful source of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants. These are considered to be important in boosting cardiovascular health. 

Find out more

There is a great deal of misinformation on the Internet. So-called scientific studies are often interpreted to claim very dubious nutritional and health benefits for all manner of foods.

Our advice is to buy your EVOO from a reputable manufacturer. Then you are assured that you and your family are consuming the best that nature has to offer in its purest form.

Understanding the composition of cooking oil, especially the type of fats and their levels, is a good first step in making the right choices. This is a very good objective analysis of fats in cooking oils.

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