Cooking with Oil: Which is Best?

Over the past decade, more and more research has gone into the effects of heated oils on our health.  The research can be confusing - is olive oil suddenly bad? Should I stop using oils in cooking altogether? Before you decide to go completely raw from fear of dying from heated-oil-itis, read on to find out how you can still safely use oils in cooking.

General Recommendations for Choosing Oils
Toxins are more readily transferred through fat, so oils used in food preparation should be as clean as possible. As a general rule, choose oils that are organic, unrefined and cold pressed as much as possible. The refining process often uses hexane solvents and other harsh chemicals; while only a trace amount is generally found in the final product, less is best. Cold pressed oils are also more pure because they evade heating that damages delicate minerals and enzymes present in natural oils. It's also a good idea to stock your pantry with a variety of oils, as different oils will be better for different cooking methods, as explained below.

High Heat Cooking and Smoke Points
Oils have a "smoke point" which is the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke. If you have ever turned your back on a heating pan with oil in it and returned to find a smoking pan, you have seen this happen.  The smoke point of oil is an important consideration because this is when toxic chemicals and free radicals are produced, which increase your risk for heart disease, inflammation, GI disturbances and possibly cancer. (The jury is still out on this last one.) These include aldehydes, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

Some of these toxins are produced even before the smoke point is reached, so avoiding very high temperatures is a good idea, although cooking duration is also a factor – over cooking can also increase the chances that some toxins are being generated. Ayurveda's ancient wisdom teaches us to choose the middle path here: cook food at a moderate temperature and don't eat food that is over or under cooked.

 Note that we are exposed to many of these toxins on a daily basis from environmental sources anyway, so we are not able to avoid all contact. When our bodies are working properly, we are able to detoxify on a daily and seasonal basis to remove much of the damaging effects. A reasonable effort and some basic mindfulness in our kitchen can further reduce exposure, but there is no need to become obsessive about this. Conscious eating 80% of the time is sufficient, and allow freedom in the remaining 20% of your meals.

Specific Oils for Different Cooking Methods
The following are smoke points and notes for common cooking oils, starting with the highest smoke point. Smoke point temperatures are general - oils that are older or improperly stored may generate toxins at a lower temperature, for example. All information is for unrefined oils, unless otherwise specified. Doshic recommendations are given where information is available.

 For High Heat (Stir Frying, Sautéing, Searing):

·  Rice Bran Oil - 490 degrees – Also high in vitamin E and antioxidants.

·  Ghee (Clarified Butter) - 485 degrees, good for all doshas V/P/K - Also contains high quantities of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA - an essential fatty acid and antioxidant), butyric acid (short chain fatty acid that is food for your good gut bugs), and vitamins A, D, E and K. This is one of Ayurveda's super foods!

·  Avocado Oil - 400 degrees, best for V/P. Also a good candidate for homemade mayo because of its neutral flavor. (Difficult to find unrefined – the refined version has an even higher smoke point of about 500 degrees.)

·  Macadamia Nut Oil - 390 degrees, best for V.
 

For Medium Heat (Baking, Stewing):

·      Coconut Oil - 350 degrees, best for V/P - In recent years, coconut oil has been in the lime light for its antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant benefits.  It is also a medium chain fatty acid, which offers a long list of health benefits.

·      Sesame Oil – 350 degrees, best for V.

·      Butter – 350 degrees, best for V/P. Research shows that fewer oxidation products were found in saturated fats, such as butter, so this is a good moderate-heat cooking option.

·      Olive Oil – 320 degrees, best for V/P.

·      Walnut Oil – 320 degrees, best for V/P.

·      Sunflower Oil (high oleic) – 320 degrees, good for all doshas V/P/K. This is difficult to find unrefined; the refined version can be heated to 450 degrees.

 
For Low or No Heat (Salad dressings, Drizzling after cooking):

·      Flaxseed and Hemp Oils – These are high in anti-inflammatory Omega 3s so they are worthwhile to add to your diet. However, they should not be heated to protect their health benefits.

 
Oils to generally avoid:

·      Canola – Derived from the rapeseed, this oil has to be highly processed using hexane in order to remove high levels of erucic acid, which causes a long list of health problems. (There is an enormous amount of research on the negative effects of canola oil on our health, too much to include in this article.) Rapeseed has also been genetically modified and there may not be a truly organic rapeseed available any longer.

·      Corn – Also genetically modified. If you can find an organic corn oil, it is best for K and has a smoke point of about 320 degrees.

·      Soy – Also genetically modified. If you are able to find organic soy oil, it is best for V/P and has a smoke point of about 320 degrees.

·      Peanut – Peanuts contain high levels of mold as well as aflatoxins, which are carcinogenic and poisonous.
 

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