Choosing Healthy Cooking Oils

Fats are an essential part of our diet—but some are “good” and some are “bad”.  In this article, we'll give you a run down on the best cooking oils and help you choose which to use. 

We recommend three oils for the pantry.  These, along with a little shortening (we rarely use shortening because of the hydrogenated fat), butter, and vegetable oil in aerosol cans, should meet nearly all of your cooking needs.  These three oils are olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. 

We use olive oil for Italian breads such as ciabatta and focaccia because of the distinct olive flavor.  For the same reason, we use olive oil in salad dressings and marinades.  It is suitable for low heat or quick cooking but changes flavor rapidly at higher heats. 

Olive oil is one of the healthiest of oils.  It has a high percentage of monounsaturated fat, a good fat, and a lower percentage of saturated and polyunsaturated fats than vegetable oils.  Unlike oils processed from hard seeds with heat and chemicals, oils from the fruit of the olive are soft pressed and healthier.

Peanut oil is more heat tolerant than olive and some other oils and is suitable for frying.  The peanut taste of the oil complements some foods well.  Peanut oil is higher in monounsaturated fats than most vegetable oils. 

Canola oil is neutral flavored and is suitable for frying.  It is relatively high in monounsaturated fat and has some omega-3 fatty acids.  The safest canola oil is organic, expeller-pressed available in the health food section of the grocery store.

While we recommend olive, peanut, and canola oil, some experts don't.  Dr. Andrew Weil, the author of Eating Well for Optimal Living, does not endorse peanut oil because of possible harsh processing and because some peanut oil may be tainted with a carcinogenic mold that frequents peanuts. 

How oil is processed and how you store oil once you get it home may be as important as the type of oil that you buy.  Heat, light, and oxygen damage the fatty acids that comprise oils.  Store oils in a cool, dark place, preferably the refrigerator and buy smaller bottles and keep them tightly capped.   (For a complete discussion about storing oils, we recommend the bulletin on storing oils mentioned earlier in this article.)

We suggest that you read labels regularly noting the types and amounts of fats present in the articles that you buy.  The nutritional information table will tell you what is measured as a serving size and how much saturated or polyunsaturated fat is present—the bad guys.  Read in the ingredient listing to discover the presence of hydrogenated fats—another unhealthy fat.  You will find that many processed foods contain hydrogenated fat, including most baking mixes found in stores.

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