Which Cooking Oils Are Healthiest?

By Raymond Onyango.

Like most men on the planet, my cooking knowledge and abilities have largely been confined to the basics. I know how to put together a simple meal, Ugali, Pasta, Rice, Meat Stew, Chicken or maybe Sukuma Wiki, but I had never really learned the finer points of haute cuisine. For instance I am only just beginning to appreciate how various flavors and spices combine together to make a balanced meal. I have recently learned to incorporate various textures into a dish to make it complete, and most surprisingly, I have most interestingly come to learn that you need different types of cooking oils for different purposes.

Now the great majority of us have been primed to think of oil as essentially unhealthy and something to be largely avoided, but as any knowledgeable chef will tell you; the flavor is in the oil. Contrary to popular assumptions, the human body actually derives several benefits from the oils we consume in our foods. For example, Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids; necessary for human health but which the body cannot produce on its own. Omega -3 oils are known to play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development especially in children. These oils found mainly in fish, and certain plant or nut derived cooking oils, have also been demonstrated to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and arthritis owing to their unique anti inflammatory properties.

The question is, which kind of oil is healthy? The answer to this will depend on what you intend to do with the oil in the first place.  There are three basic types of cooking oils, namely -Polyunsaturated Oils, Monosaturated Oils and Saturated Oils. All three behave very differently when subjected to heat during the cooking process.

Polyunsaturated oils

These are some of the most common oils in the market, and the one’s that a great majority of Kenyans use to cook. Polyunsaturated oils come mainly from plant sources such as Corn.

These kinds of oils are best for cooking at low to medium temperatures, such as when you need to lightly sauté a fish fillet or some vegetables. However most polyunsaturated fats contain toxic substances that are released when they are heated and therefore you should never use vegetable oil to deep fry your potato chips, chicken or any other food.  Scientific research has shown that polyunsaturated oils tend to form unhealthy trans fats when subjected to high heat. Trans fats are also created when hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil changing it from a liquid to a more solid form such as margarine. These trans fats have been credibly proved to increase the levels of LDL – the bad cholesterol and reduce levels of HDL – the good cholesterol, making them a leading cause of heart diseases. Solid forms of Vegetable oil, such as margarine and Shortening Fats are particularly considered very dangerous for your health.

Monosaturated Oil

Monounsaturated oils are very rich in antioxidants, such as Vitamin E and other important nutrients such as Oleic acids and Omega 3 fatty acids, making them much healthier for your heart. The best monounsaturated oils are cold pressed meaning that the oil is extracted without heat, and good examples of this are –

  1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil – the highest quality of olive oil, which preserves the naturally occurring antioxidants found in olives. This is the purest olive oil and also the most expensive, which makes it a luxury for most of us. It is excellent for salad dressings, but should not be used for cooking, because it has a low smoke point and disintegrates easily.
  2. Sunflower oil, Peanut oil, Avocado Oil – These contain high levels of Vitamin E and monosaturated fatty acids similar to olive oil. They are a great choice for stovetop cooking and stir-frying, but should not be used for deep-frying.

Saturated Oils

Saturated oils have taken a bashing from health professional for years, and have often been singled out as one of the more dangerous kinds of oil. Strictly speaking this is not true, because research has shown that Saturated fats raise both the levels of good and bad cholesterol, and whiles some studies may suggest that their consumption increases the risk of colon and prostate cancers, other studies suggest that lauric acid, a compound occurring in saturated oils such as Coconut and Palm Oil actually strengthens your immune system.

The jury may still out on this one, but the fact is you cannot always choose the healthiest oil for cooking because the suitability of any cooking oil, depends on its smoke point or the point at which heated oil begins to emit smoke, and flavor altering odors. As a general rule of thumb, the higher an oils smoke point, the better it is for high heat cooking such as deep-frying.

Saturated oils such as Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Butter and Ghee are the most heat stable oils you can find your kitchen, meaning they can be used at very high temperatures without breaking down and creating toxic elements. This fact alone might negate some of their more negative side effects.

As we have seen the correct use of cooking oils, for the right purpose will aid your overall health, reduce inflammation and protect your heart. Three points to take home with you are to steer clear of Hydrogenated Oils at all costs. Choose Cold –Pressed Unrefined oils whenever possible and avoid heating oils to very high temperatures. You will be healthier for it.

Have a health conscious week will you!