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Healthy cooking oils: A not-so-simple quiz

Which of the following are healthy cooking oils?

If you pick olive oil, you are only partially right. It depends on the type of olive oil and it depends also on what type of cooking you do. Good quality extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthy cooking oils for salads as well as low to moderate heat cooking, like sauteeing. It is not for high-heat deep frying.

If you pick canola oil, you are dead wrong. It is an artificially created oil from the seed of a genetically modified plant. It is unnatural and has been found to cause several health problems. It is far from being one of the healthy cooking oils.

You are also off the mark if you pick corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil and other polyunsaturated fats. Yes, these are the oils widely recommended by nutritionists, dieticians, doctors and other health experts. But, sorry to say, they, too, are off the mark. They don't understand what are healthy cooking oils.

Sunflower oil is a special case - because the composition of sunflower oil varies greatly. We will look at this more closely later in another article.

Sesame, peanut and rice bran oils are about in the same class as olive oil. They are relatively healthy cooking oils with the added advantage that they can tolerate high heat cooking. On the other hand, they may not have as many beneficial nutrients as extra virgin olive oil.

And if you really want to do some serious high heat cooking, like deep frying, your best bets are actually the saturated fats, including coconut and palm oils, butter, ghee and lard. Aren't these harmful to health? That's what most health experts say. Yet the people of Okinawa, who are known for their longevity and good health, cook predominantly with pork lard. One of their favourite daily dishes is stewed pork leg, laden with lard!

Puzzled? The key is 'cooking'

As you can already see, what I have to say about healthy cooking oils can be both puzzling and controversial. Yet it is not me who is saying it. As a writer, I only share what I have learned from my research, from reading what some of the world's leading experts on fats and oils have to say.

The key to understanding healthy cooking oils lies in one word - COOKING. It's a different matter if you use oils in raw salads, or swallow them by the spoonful or in pill form as health supplements. When you use oil for cooking, the most important thing to consider is what happens to the oil when it gets heated?

Briefly, these are the answers:

Sadly, this issue of oils turning rancid is not considered by most nutritionists and doctors when they recommend polyunsaturated oils as healthy cooking oils. They simply base their recommendations on the mistaken belief that polyunsaturated oils prevent heart disease while saturated fats cause heart disease.

This belief ifself is a mistaken belief and we shall look more closely at it in another article. But even if we accept that polyunsaturated fats are beneficial to health, whatever benefits they bring are negated once the oil turns rancid.

And this is the most troubling part - most polyunsaturated oils have already turned rancid during the manufacturing process, because high heat is used to extract the oils from seeds. So even if you don't use the oil for cooking, what you get from the bottle is already rancid, damaged, harmful oil.

Incidentally, rancid oil is smelly. The Chinese term for rancidity translates to "smelly oil". However, you do not get the rancid smell because the oil has been deodorized and processed in various other ways.

The only way to ensure good quality, non-rancid vegetable oils is to buy cold-pressed oils that have been extracted without the use of high heat and chemical solvents. Make sure you buy from reliable suppliers who take care to prevent the oil from being exposed to heat, light and air during storage and shipping.

After all this, do not use the oil for high-heat cooking - not for Chinese-style stir fries with a wok over a huge fire, and certainly not for deep frying. And always look out - sniff out - for a possible rancid smell.

Further reading

The subject of healthy cooking oils is a big and complex subject that cannot be covered in just one article like this. Please also read the following articles:

In addition, there are links the left of this page to discussions about some of the more common types of cooking oils, includingboth the unhealthy and healthy cooking oils.

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Healthy cooking oils
Monounsaturated fats
Polyunsaturated fats - the dangers
Saturated fats - why they are not harmful
Saturated fats - health benefits
Saturated fats and heart disease I
Saturated fats and heart disease II
What is canola oil
Canola oil dangers
Duck fat
How to render duck fat
Choosing olive oils - what to look for
Extra virgin oilve oil / olive oil fraud
Olive oil health benefits
Olive oil types and grades
Olive pomace oil
Premium olive oils
Rapeseed = canola
Rice bran oil
Cooking with raw / toasted sesame oil
Sesame oil health benefits