Walk into any grocery store and the variety of cooking oil lining the shelves will overwhelm you. From olive and rice-bran to canola and flaxseed, each has a distinct taste, and each promises wholesome nutrition.
“All oils are health builders, offering almost similar benefits. Canola, rice-bran, flaxseed, olive oil, the good old mustard oil and ghee.... There’s no such thing as an unhealthy oil—unless, of course, we are talking about refined oils and vanaspati ghee, all of which are chemically processed,” says Shikha Sharma, founder and managing director of Delhi-based wellness clinic Nutri-Health Systems.
“Having said that, there is no one single oil which is the healthiest of the healthiest. One should keep changing the variety every now and then. And always, always opt for the cold-pressed, and not the refined version of any oil,” she adds.
Also, some oils are not suitable for cooking, though they are perfect as add-ons in soups and salads, says Rajeswari Shetty, head of dietetics at the Fortis SL Raheja Hospital in Mumbai. “It all depends on the oil’s properties and flavours,” she adds.
We list the benefits of popular cooking oils.
Well known among dieters, olive oil has scientifically proven benefits. It is known to help in weight management, improve skin health and treat depression. Some studies even suggest olive oil may help prevent diabetes and Alzheimer’s. A Spanish study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal in 2015, reported that a Mediterranean diet, characterized by a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil and moderate intake of protein, may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
“Since this oil is high in monounsaturated (good) fats, it is good for the heart as well,” says Shetty. “It has a high smoking point (220 degrees Celsius; smoking point is the temperature at which an oil starts to burn), which means it can be heated to a high temperature,” she adds. Using olive oil in Indian dishes, however, is not the best idea because its pungent taste doesn’t blend well with dals and sabzis. Also, it is expensive; a 100ml bottle can set you back by about Rs110. A litre of mustard (kachi ghani) oil—popular in Indian households and a source of good fats, vitamins and minerals—costs as much.
“It is best to use olive oil in limited quantities in salads, cooked pasta, and you can even mix it with porridge,” says Shetty.
Made from crushed canola seeds, this oil’s name comes from a contraction of Canada and ola (meaning oil). “Canola oil is said to be among the healthiest of cooking oils,” says Shetty. It consists mostly of monounsaturated (Mufa) fats (about 61%) and polyunsaturated fats (Pufa) (32%)—both good for the body. “This oil has the lowest saturated fat content of any oils and high amounts of omega-3. It helps reduce blood pressure and inflammation,” says Ritika Samaddar, head of dietetics at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi. A review of 40 studies, published in the Nutrition Reviews journal in 2013, found that canola-based diets, rather than saturated, fat-based diets, helped reduce oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoprotein), or bad cholesterol (oxidation makes LDL more harmful), and decreased blood clotting. It even has the backing of the US’ food and drug administration, which says canola oil can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
“Canola oil has a high smoking point (240 degrees Celsius), and hence can be used in almost all culinary applications—from salad dressings to baking, grilling and sautéing,” says K.K. Talwar, chairman (cardiology), Max Super Speciality Hospital. This oil is a great substitute for butter and margarine too, says Shetty, adding, “Canola oil’s light flavour blends with Indian food and makes it ideal for regular usage as it does not overpower the flavours of other ingredients.”
Like canola oil, the rice-bran variant is a relatively new entrant in the category of cooking oils. “It is among the healthiest because it’s got an ideal balance of Pufa and Mufa and is also a heart-friendly oil,” says Samaddar. Extracted from the cereal germ and inner husk of the rice grain, this oil has a nutty flavour with a smoking point of 254 degrees Celsius. “Rice-bran oil has many benefits and is not very expensive (a litre of rice-bran costs around Rs150). The reason it is gaining popularity is because of the high amounts of omegas 3 and 6, which help increase good cholesterol and lower the bad one,” says Dr Talwar. What’s more, it helps build immunity because it contains three different kinds of natural antioxidants—tocopherol, tocotrienol and oryzanol. “The high level of antioxidants also helps resist rancidity and spoilage. It has a longer shelf-life as well,” says explains.
But you need to be careful about the amount you use, warns Sharma. “Rice-bran oil is less viscous, which means it does not get absorbed into the food, and tends to feel less oily on the tongue. So one may end up using or consuming more of it than required,” she warns.
Often promoted as an alternative to fish oil, flaxseed oil is slowly getting noticed in India. “Flaxseeds are brown, tan or golden-coloured seeds that are the richest source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA),” says Samaddar. This translates to about 7g ALA in one tablespoon of this thick viscous oil with a pungent smell; the same quantity of canola oil has 1.3g ALA. “Among the reasons for its lack of popularity here is its low smoking point (107 degrees Celsius) and its overpowering aroma which does not go well with Indian dishes. It is best used in its raw form to enhance the flavour of salads and soups,” says Shetty.
As Sharma mentioned earlier, there’s no such thing as the right kind of oil. The trick lies in changing or rotating oils, because no single oil has all the essential fatty acids that the body needs. “We need a judicious combination of Mufa, Pufa and unsaturated as well as saturated fatty acids which is not offered by any single variety of oil,” argues Shetty. “So you can spread your oil usage, like using ghee for dals, mustard/canola for vegetables and olive/extra virgin olive/flaxseed for salads,” she suggests. “An average person needs four teaspoons of oil every day. If you go beyond that, you will be putting your health at risk. It won’t then matter whether you were using cold-pressed olive oil or canola, or rotating your oils religiously,” says Sharma. As with everything else, the right quantity is the key to health.
Book extract: The good fat story
Weight management is about more than just diets and workouts. It has a lot to do with understanding what you are eating and why, believes Madhuri Ruia, a nutritionist, Pilates expert and Mint columnist. Ruia, who runs Integym in Mumbai, has just come out with her first book, Who Stole My Calories? .
The book charts the weight-loss journey of a fictional character Natasha Sharma, while delving deep into the fitness conversation, and offering in-depth information about what is good and bad for health.
In the chapter “The World Of Fats & Oils”, Ruia discusses the importance of the most misrepresented nutrient, fats, and edible oils. Edited excerpts:
Fats perform several roles in the body. First, they are a powerful, concentrated and backup source of energy and provide the body with 9 calories for every gram. Backup energy is required when the body is in a fasting state and you have skipped meals. Second, the vitamins A, D, E and K are stored and absorbed in fat; that is why they are known as fat-soluble vitamins. Third, fat cells insulate the body and help it to sustain a core body temperature.
In addition, some fats, along with protein, form an integral part of cell walls and structure. 60% of our brain cells are made up of omega fats.
There are two types of fats—saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats, such as butter and ghee, are dense and solidify at room temperature, and should be eaten in very limited quantities. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are better for heart health, and are found in oils like canola, olive, groundnut and rice-bran.
Cooking oils are not alike—they vary in the types of fats they contain. Choose cooking oils that have no trans fats (or partially hydrogenated fats), lower saturated fat and higher monounsaturated (Mufa) and polyunsaturated (Pufa) fats. Mufa and Pufa fats help to reduce cholesterol levels, especially the “bad” cholesterol, LDL, and increase “good” cholesterol or HDL levels. Saturated fats, especially trans fats, on the other hand, increase cholesterol levels, especially LDL levels.
My simple way to use healthy fats
■ 5g or 1 tsp of all fats and oils is 45 calories whether it is butter, ghee, olive oil, almonds or flaxseeds
■ Use 3-4 tsps of Mufa oil like olive or groundnut or rice bran for cooking, if you are on a weight-loss programme
■ Have 2 tbsps or dry ground flaxseeds for the best in omega 3 nutrition. It actually helps you lose fat.
■ Avoid other nuts and seeds for the next two months Avoid all convenience, off-the-shelf foods with trans fats and hydrogenated fats, like cookies and convenience foods
■ Avoid deep frying foods. Even healthy foods like purple cabbage turn carcinogenic when deep-fried.