In an earlier column, we started to discuss fat as a macronutrient and the how various types of fat affect both our health and our food differently. That article was written for those interested in how various oils can be used in cooking and how oil compares to butter and margarine. With that background we can now delve deeper into these questions.
Butter is natural and delicious in baked goods, but is also high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. It is for this reason that many people have started to turn to margarine. However, many stick margarines are high in trans-fat and may therefore be just as bad as or even worse than butter. As consumers have become more wary of trans-fat, many margarine producers have changed the formula of the margarine and are now able to label it as “trans-fat free.” This means that it contains less than . 5 grams of trans-fat per serving. While the amount of trans-fat in these margarines has decreased, it is still wise to understand that although the label reads “trans-fat free,” these sticks or spreads may still contain trans-fat.
With more and more companies and restaurants avoiding trans-fat, palm oil has become a very popular substitute. Palm oil, which is about 50% saturated fat, is able to give texture and longer shelf life without the use of partially hydrogenated oils. In fact, if you look at packaged foods, you will begin to notice more and more contain palm oil as an ingredient. However, the USDA agricultural research service does not believe that palm oil is a healthy substitute for trans-fat, and the World Health Organization states that more research is linking consumption of palm oil with higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Extra virgin olive oil, likely the most highly regarded “healthy oil,” is known for its rich taste and many health benefits. Olive oil contains many polyphenols which contribute to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. However, olive oil has a low smoke point, and when heated above the smoke point, the oil begins to decompose. Once this occurs, not only may nutritional value be decreased, but free radicals (compounds which may result in cancer) are formed. For this reason some suggest to consume olive oil in dips and vinaigrettes or to drizzle over steamed vegetables or other cooked dished but not to cook with it at high temperatures. Olive oil is also great in dressings, marinades, sauces and stir fries.
If oils were ranked based on popularity, coconut oil would likely top the list. Coconut oil has a nutty, sweet flavor and is perfect for baking or sautéing. If you were to Google coconut oil, you may find that it can cure anything from thyroid disease to cancer and HIV. However, before you run out to the store to load up, keep in mind that most of these claims are more anecdotal than science-based. And while it may be better than butter or other animal fats, some nutritionists feel that it is better to avoid saturated fats—and 92% of the fat contained in coconut oil is saturated. However, recent research indicates that consumption of virgin coconut oil may have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels. Therefore if you choose to cook with coconut oil, it is advised to use virgin oil.
If you are looking for an oil low in saturated fat, canola oil seems to be a winner. With only 6% of its fat from saturated fat, canola is rich in the “healthier fats.” In fact, canola oil is higher in the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, than any other household oil. (Flaxseed and walnut oils also contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, but are not as common. ) Canola oil also has a higher smoke point, and therefore can be used for sautéing with a higher heat. It is also great for baking due to its mild flavor.
So, this busy yom tov season, amid your baking and cooking, try experimenting with different oils and enjoy both their tastes and nutritional value.
By Shoshana Genack, MS, RD