Omega 3 Enriched, Vitamin E Fortified, High Oleic Acid Content, Packed with Laureic Acid or Good for the Heart…as you prowl the supermarket aisles or your neighbourhood grocer’s in search of the best cooking oil, how do you decode the jargon?
Last month saw a veritable oil slick from the Mediterranean region with new players flooding the olive oil market in India. Around the same time, the International Olive Council (IOC), an inter-governmental, non-profit organization set up under the auspices of the UN, organized a promotional event in New Delhi highlighting the benefits of olive oil.
A few months ago, the Mustard Research Promotion Consortium got doctors and nutritionists in the Capital to stress the heart-friendly aspects of this regional favourite. In Kerala, coconut oil is getting an image makeover with the launch of Nutri-ko, a virgin coconut oil manufactured by the Kerala State Rubber Co-operative and Marketing Ltd (Rubco). Virgin coconut oil is made from fresh coconut, not copra, and has been endorsed by the Central Food Research Laboratory, Mysore. And, of course, sunflower and soyabean oil are not too far behind though, by current reckoning, they are way down the list.
So, which is the healthiest oil? For New Delhi-based sports medicine specialist Dr Gaurav Sharma, who runs Optima Wellness, it is unquestionably olive oil, followed by sesame, mustard, ghee (clarified butter) from cow’s milk and flaxseed oil. Nutritionist Ishi Khosla, of the New Delhi-based Centre for Dietary Counselling, bats for mustard, sesame and ghee or butter in moderate quantities, apart from olive oil. Mumbai-based obesity, health and food consultant Naini Setalvad endorses the use of olive, coconut, palm, sesame and groundnut oil. And cardiologists now endorse rice bran—a relatively new edible oil which is making inroads into the Indian market.
Finally, the takeaway seems to be this—there is no ‘healthiest oil’. The rule to follow is the same as for vegetables—the more variety, the better, since each has unique benefits. Ideally, you should keep a combination of 3-4 healthy cooking oils in the kitchen. As executive chef Ramit Wason of The Metropolitan Hotel, New Delhi, says: “Cooking methods, cost, composition of fats and the smoking point help us decide which oil to use.”
THREE OILY QUESTIONS
1) How is it processed?
The more refined, bleached and deodorized the oil, the less nutritive value it has. Instead, those obtained by the traditional cold pressing method, and filtered once or twice to remove suspended particles, are better. Khosla warns that not all filtered oils are good—for instance, groundnut is available in both refined and filtered variants but the unbranded filtered variant is also prone to fungal attacks.
2) How is it grown?
Organically grown oils—although costlier—are healthier. Khosla points out that the fatty part of a plant is its seed and pesticides tend to stick there. The good news is that an increasing number of organically grown oils are available in the market today with brands such as Conscious Foods, Panchvati and Sanjeevani retailing in supermarkets.
3) Composition of fats?
Oils that are primarily composed of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats score better on the health front. Having said that, ghee—which has saturated fat—still makes it to most nutritionists or chefs’ kitchens, but for very moderate use. Chef Wason also suggests almond oil to garnish soups with. Nutritionists say that the total oil consumption for a month for a family of four in urban India should ideally not exceed 2.5 litres. This is going by the yardstick of 20ml of oil (three to four teaspoons) per person per day, based on the premise that less than 30% of our calorie intake should come from visible fat.
VIRGIN COCONUT OIL
For years, coconut oil got bad press from cardiologists—but that was because research was being conducted on the hydrogenated version of coconut oil. True, it does contain saturated fats—but these are very different from those present in animal fats. Setalvad points out that coconut oil is a good moisturizer, both externally and internally, as it is rich in Vitamin E. The virgin variant, introduced recently in Kerala, is especially high in vitamin and minerals and is said to boost the immune system. In the Philippines, extra virgin coconut oil—made from the first and only pressing within an hour of breaking open the coconut and hence said to preserve the natural goodness—is retailed as well.
Rs260 a litre.
Contains Laureic Acid, a component of breast milk, which is said to help fight disease-causing germs, viruses, and bacteria. Promotes immunity.
Has a long shelf life, good for flavouring specific dishes.
Mustard or Indian rapeseed is shrugging aside its dubious past —when adulteration with argemone oil and the presence of Erucic Acid made it unpopular—and gaining momentum as the new heart-friendly cooking medium. The presence of Alpha Linolenic Acid and the good ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 (good fatty acids), as well as the fact that it is cold pressed, makes it a healthy oil.
Rs85 a litre. The organic variety retails at Rs120 for 500ml.
Very low levels of artery-clogging saturated fatty acid and high levels of good Omega-3 and monounsaturated fatty acid. Earlier, there were some concerns about the presence of Erucic Acid, which it was felt does not metabolize well in the body and weakens the heart muscles. This is why Canola, a rapeseed variant minus the Erucic Acid (which also gives it the pungent smell), was preferred in commercial kitchens. But now, with new modified crops of mustard minus the unwanted Erucic Acid constituent, plus new research that rules out cause for concern even if Erucic Acid is present, mustard oil has made a strong comeback.
240°C. Makes it safe for frying.
Discard after one use.
Olive oil is obtained by pressing or crushing the olive fruit. The varieties in the market are extra virgin, which comes from the first pressing of the olives; virgin, from the second pressing; pure, which undergoes some processing, such as filtering and refining; and pomace, which is processed with hexane and other solvents and is blended with extra virgin. It is best to select the extra virgin variety, since it has more antioxidants and lower acidity levels, and is the most natural form.
Extra virgin: ranges from Rs800-Rs1,300 a litre.
High in Oleic Acid, it has monounsaturated fats and a large number of antioxidant phytochemicals. Sharma says: “It has a great antioxidative effect, neutralizing free radicals and a strong anticarcinogenic effect.” Studies have found that consumption of olive oil can lower the risk of coronary heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol levels and blood clot formation. Research also suggests that olive oil may influence body fat distribution, with less fat stored around the stomach. It is also believed to promote longevity and reduce the risk of cancer.
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor encourages the use of olive oil in frying. Nutritionist Khosla says virgin might be more stable for frying than extra virgin.
To get maximum health benefits, i.e. the antioxidant effects, it is best to consume sprinkled over salads. For frying, virgin might be better. Don’t hoard the oil for occasional use as it goes rancid after a year.
RICE BRAN OIL
This is a relatively new oil that is now finding favour with cardiologists and a number of nutritionists. Extracted from the germ and inner husk of rice, rice bran oil is available in India both in its pure form as well as blends (70% rice bran and 30% kardi) with kardi (safflower).
Varies between Rs75 and Rs97 a litre (includes price of blends as well as pure form).
Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, it has cholesterol-lowering properties due to the presence of a minor component called oryzanol. It contains natural Vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. It also contains squalene, which is good for the skin. While doctors are generally in favour of its usage, the fact that it is refined puts a question mark on its usage for some.
Keeps well. Suitable for deep-frying. Snacks fried in rice bran oil, according to some, absorb less oil than those fried in groundnut oil. Discard after one use.
SESAME (GINGELLY) OIL
This cold-pressed oil obtained from sesame seeds has been traditionally used in South India and countries such as China and Japan. It is favoured for its antioxidant and antidepressant properties and is now fast racing up the allopathic health charts, thanks to new studies. Claims have been made that it helps control blood pressure owing to the presence of high levels of polyunsaturated fats.
Rs104 a litre. The organic variety retails at Rs150 for 750ml.
Highest concentrations of Omega-6 fatty acids plus Omega-9. Sesame oil is a good source of Vitamin E. It also contains magnesium, copper, calcium, iron and Vitamin B6.
Very long shelf life, hardly ever turns rancid because of its high boiling point. Great for stir -frying. In Chinese cuisine, it is often used as a flavour enhancer.
THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF REUSING OIL
What do you do with the oil that remains after deep frying—discard or reuse? Most of us are aware that reusing oils is dangerous as the food residue can turn carcinogenic, yet reuse is common. According to the International Olive Council, the digestibility of olive oil is not affected when it is heated, even when it is reused several times for frying. Nutritionist Khosla and chef Wason differ. The smoking point of any oil comes down when reheated—besides, you also need to factor in points like how long the oil was in the pan. “If kebabs were being fried for over an hour for a party, then never reuse the oil,” says Khosla. On the other hand, if the oil was heated for just 5-10 minutes, then you may reuse it, but the very same day in other preparations so that there is no time for polymers to form.
To reuse or discard oil safely, here are some tips:
• Decant, filter and strain the oil through a few layers of cheesecloth or filter paper.
• Make sure the oil has not been exposed to prolonged heat as that accelerates rancidity.
• Don’t mix different types of oil.
• If there was too much salt in the substance fried, then avoid reuse.
• Don’t just throw the used oil down the drain—it can clog the drains and is also environment unfriendly