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What are the healthiest oils to cook with? An explainer

The shelf of the cooking-oil section of supermarkets has recently become a crowded spot, with an abundance of options to choose from. But this means it can be tricky to know which is the healthiest one, starting from the healthful olive oil to the more controversial palm and grapeseed oils.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

To help select some of the healthiest, here’s a rundown of the most used ones across the world. Some oils have been well studied for their health benefits, while others have too little research from which to draw firm conclusions about their effects on heart health.

Since there are so many cooking oils across the world, it would be impossible to look at all of them, so we will only look at some of the most popular ones, seeing which are healthy and which not.

Olive oil

Used for cooking but also for soaps and fuel, olive oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the Olive tree, a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. It is regarded as a healthful dietary oil because of its high content of monounsaturated fat and polyphenols.

Buying the right kind of olive oil is very important. Extra virgin olive oil retains some of the antioxidants and bioactive compounds from olives. For this reason, it’s considered healthier than the more refined variety of olive oil. Even so, there is a lot of fraud on the olive oil market.

About 14% of the oil is saturated fat, whereas 11% is polyunsaturated, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.  But the predominant fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, making up 73% of the total oil content. Studies suggest that oleic acid reduces inflammation and may even have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.

Apart from its beneficial fatty acids, it contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K. But olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants are biologically active and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases. They also fight inflammation and help protect blood cholesterol from oxidation — two benefits that may lower your risk of heart disease.

Extra-virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits. The main anti-inflammatory effects are mediated by the antioxidants. Key among them is oleocanthal, which has been shown to work similarly to ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug. Olive oil has also been found to be slightly better for the liver, in a recent study.

Sunflower oil 

Sunflower oil is a non-volatile oil that can be easily extracted from sunflowers. Although most people are already familiar with sunflowers, they don’t immediately think of sunflowers as sources of extremely healthy vegetable oil that can replace some of the less healthy cooking oils available on the market.

Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin K, phytosterols, and monosaturated fatty acids. One of the primary reasons for its growing popularity is its impressive fatty acid content, which includes palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, lecithin, carotenoids, selenium, and linoleic acid. The combination of fatty acids in the body is extremely important to maintain various elements of human health.

At the same time, some of those fatty acids, as well as vitamin E and other organic compounds, act as antioxidants in sunflower oil, which means that they can positively affect a huge range of conditions that people regularly suffer from. It also has more polyunsaturated fats than any other commonly used vegetable oil.

Three common grades of sunflower oil are available, and each varies in its nutritional content. High-oleic oil is from sunflowers bred to have a high concentration of oleic acid in their seeds. Mid-oleic is the oil that’s used for stir-frying and in salad dressings, while linoleic is formed by more polyunsaturated omega-6 fats but is lacking in healthy omega-3s.

Coconut oil

Unlike other plant-based oils, coconut oil is primarily saturated fat. Not everyone agrees that such a concentrated source of saturated fat is a no-go for health, but some experts, including the American Heart Association, argue that replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options can lower blood cholesterol levels and improve lipid profiles.

Made from the fruit of the coconut palm tree, coconut oil has been promoted as a better alternative to butter. Nevertheless, there’s little scientific evidence of that. It is a white solid at room temperature with a consistency resembling that of butter or shortening rather than liquid oil.

Interestingly, however, a study comparing the use of coconut oil vs sunflower oil found no difference in the lipid-related cardiovascular risk factors between the two oils.

Palm oil

Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms. The main source of palm oil is the Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa. Its use in this region dates back more than 5,000 years. In recent years, oil palm growth has expanded to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm oil is one of the least expensive and most popular oils worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil production. It is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties that may support brain health. It also has been linked to protection against heart disease, but with mixed results so far. Furthermore, although it is high in saturated fats, a Harvard study found that “Palm oil has been scientifically shown to protect the heart and blood vessels from plaques and ischemic injuries” and that “Palm oil consumed as a dietary fat as a part of a healthy balanced diet does not have incremental risk for cardiovascular disease.” 

However, while palm oil doesn’t really deserve all the negative reputation it gets (here’s why), it shouldn’t really be your first choice against other vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature. Furthermore, because it is so cheap and robust, palm oil is used extensively in many processed foods, which should absolutely be avoided. The “healthy balanced diet” part in the above-mentioned study is a crucial aspect.

Furthermore, there are also several ethical issues regarding palm oil production’s effects on the environment, wildlife and communities. The increase in production due to the growing demand has led to the destruction of tropical forests and peatland in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. A recent study has also likened the palm oil industry lobby to that of the alcohol and tobacco industry due to its negative impact

Grapeseed oil

Grapeseed oil comes from the pressed seeds of grapes, making it a by-product of wine manufacturing. The health claims around it are based on its supposedly high amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats.

It’s very high in polyunsaturated fats, mainly omega-6. Scientists have speculated that a high intake of omega-6 fats, relative to omega-3s, may increase inflammation in the body. It also contains a significant amount of Vitamin E. However, calorie for calorie, it is not an impressive source of Vitamin E.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of grapeseed oil on human health. It is usually advertised as a good choice for high-heat cooking like frying. However, this may be bad advice, as grapeseed oil is also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fats tend to react with oxygen at high heat, forming harmful compounds.

Canola oil

Canola oil is derived from rapeseed, a flowering plant, and contains a good amount of monounsaturated fats and a decent amount of polyunsaturated fats. Of all vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats. It has a high smoke point, which means it can be helpful for high-heat cooking.

That being said, in the United States, canola oil tends to be highly processed, which means fewer nutrients overall. “Cold-pressed” or unprocessed canola oil is available, but it can be difficult to find. It is a versatile and practical cooking oil that’s not very expensive and can be used in a variety of ways.

Avocado oil

More expensive than other oils and harder to find, avocado oil has a mild flavor similar to avocado, and the oil can withstand high cooking temperatures, making it suitable for sautéing, grilling, roasting or using in salad dressings.

It is rich in monounsaturated fat and it has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fat among cooking oils, second only to olive oil. Like olive oil, avocado oil is also low in polyunsaturated fats. Compared with other vegetable oils, avocado oil has a higher saturated fat content (20 percent), but this percentage is much smaller than the percentage of saturated fat in butter.

So, which should I use?

Sadly, this is not a straight forward answer. Each of the cooking oils has different characteristics, which will help decide which one to buy based on what and how you are cooking.

Overall, it is safe to say that olive and sunflower oil have science-proven benefits and perform somewhat better healthwise than most alternatives — but both have shortcomings. That can also apply to canola oil, but only the unprocessed one. Meanwhile, doubts remain regarding grapeseed, avocado and palm oils, with further research needed.

It’s important to note that the cooking method can also drastically influence the behavior of oils. Olive oil seems to be best-suited for uncooked foods (such as salads), closely followed by sunflower oil. Oils with high smoke points may be more stable than those with low smoke points, and one study found that again olive oil is possibly one of the most stable ones. However, olive oil does lose some of its edge when cooked at high temperatures.

At any rate, cooking oil should only be consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy and balanced diet, low in processed foods. Avoid deep frying whenever possible. Bon appétit!


Extra-virgin olive oil might prevent Alzheimer’s and protect your brain

A new study adds even more benefits to the already impressive pile than olive oil can boast — it protects your brain from Alzheimer’s and improves your synapses.

Image credits: Neufal / Pixabay.

Olive oil is good for you

Extra-virgin olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean Diet, one of the few diets which have been constantly and scientifically proven to yield substantial health benefits. Olive oil itself has substantial benefits and is one of the healthiest types of fats you can consume. Now, a new study focused on the mechanism through which olive oil can protect your brain.

“Consumption of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), a major component of the Mediterranean diet, has been associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). However, the mechanisms involved in this protective action remain to be fully elucidated,” the study reads.

Lead investigator Dr. Domenico Praticò – a professor in the departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology and the Center for Translational Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) in Philadelphia, PA believes that this study brings us closer not only to prevention but also to the reversal of Alzheimer’s. He and his colleagues carried this study and mice and found that mice with EVOO-enriched diets had better memories and learning abilities compared to those who didn’t.

At a closer look, researchers also learned that mice who consumed more olive oil had better functioning synapses — connections between neurons. But it gets even better.

Olive oil reduces brain inflammation and activates the autophagy process, cleaning some of the intracellular debris and toxins in the process. This debris is strongly associated with an onset of Alzheimer’s, and this finding indicates that the oil would prevent and tackle the disease directly.

“Thanks to the autophagy activation, memory and synaptic integrity were preserved, and the pathological effects in animals otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease were significantly reduced,” Pratico said. “We want to know whether olive oil added at a later time point in the diet can stop or reverse the disease.”

“This is an exciting finding for us. Thanks to the autophagy activation, memory, and synaptic integrity were preserved, and the pathological effects in animals otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease were significantly reduced,” the researcher added.

Image credits: G.steph.rocket / Wiki Commons.

Future studies

Next, they want to conduct a similar experiment later in the onset of the disease and see if similar trends are noticed.

The thing is, eating olive oil once or twice does nothing — you need to introduce it firmly into your diet to reap the benefits, but that’s definitely worth it. Not only does it taste good and provide good, healthy fats for your body, but the data presented in the current paper demonstrate that chronic administration of a diet enriched with EVOO results in an amelioration of working memory, spatial learning, and synaptic pathology. The case for olive oil functioning as a prevention tool against Alzheimer’s seems quite strong, so there are solid, scientific reasons to opt for this type of oil.

However, it’s not clear if it could counteract the disease once it’s already set in. As impressive as olive oil is, it might become even more powerful as a therapeutic tool.

“Usually when a patient sees a doctor for suspected symptoms of dementia, the disease is already present,” Dr. Praticò explains. “We want to know whether olive oil added at a later time point in the diet can stop or reverse the disease.”

Considering that over 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s and the figure is expected to almost triple to 14 million by 2050, having such a simple and effective tool to combat Alzheimer’s could prove immensely useful.

Journal Reference: Elisabetta Lauretti, Luigi Iuliano, Domenico Praticò — Extra-virgin olive oil ameliorates cognition and neuropathology of the 3xTg mice: role of autophagy. DOI: 10.1002/acn3.431

Coconut oil might be as bad as butter or lard, new guidelines suggest

According to the latest guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA), coconut oil might not be as healthy to eat as we thought.

Coconut oil might not be as good you thought. Image credits: PaulReis123 / Wikipedia.

Coconut oil has risen to fame in recent years, commonly sold as a healthier alternative to saturated fats. The AHA, however, says that there’s not enough scientific evidence to suggest that — we might have given coconut oil too much credit.

Choosing your fats

The “fats” name is rather unfortunate — because for a long time, it was thought that they are responsible for making you fat. But now we know that that’s not really the case, with sugar and not fats being the main culprit behind the obesity pandemic. Still, this isn’t saying that fats are necessarily good for you; fats come in numerous shapes and sizes, with the main categories being:

  • monounsaturated fats; these are the good guys, have then in moderate amounts and they’ll keep your cholesterol levels healthy. Notable foods: avocado, olive oil, hazelnuts, peanuts, cashew, etc.
  • polyunsaturated fats; they’re still OK, especially as long as you have them in low amounts. Notable foods: corn oil, oily fish, sunflower seeds, soya oil, etc.
  • saturated fats; we’re moving into unhealthy territory. These fats are not good for your cholesterol levels. Notable foods: fatty meats, butter, lard, processed meats, palm oil, hard cheeses and coconut oil.
  • trans fats; these should be avoided whenever possible. Notable foods: fried fast food, many takeaways, hard margarine.

This can be a bit confusing, but think about it this way: unsaturated fats, the “good guys” are almost always liquid at room temperature. Saturated and trans fats, the “baddies” are usually solid. Interestingly, the melting point of coconut oil is 76 degrees F (24 C), so depending on your room temperature, it could be liquid (if you’re over 24 C) or solid (under 24 C). Either way, it’s riddled with saturated fats.

Olive oil is an excellent source of healthy fats. Image via Pixabay.

Coconut oil

What I presented above is a simplified way of looking at things. In real life, things contain many kinds of fats, but we simplify that. For instance, when we say that olive oil is a healthy food because it has unsaturated fats — it also has saturated fats, though in a much smaller proportion. So where does coconut oil stand?

According to the AHA, 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, a whopping proportion. Compared to it, even butter (63%), beef fat (50%), and pork lard (39%) fare better. Judging by this alone, coconut oil is actually worse than all these. Of course, there are other aspects to consider, and no one is saying lard is healthier than coconut oil, it’s just that the latter has been given a lot of spotlight for qualities it just doesn’t have. Or rather, for qualities no one has thoroughly proven that it has.

“We want to set the record straight on why well-conducted scientific research overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat in the diet to prevent diseases of the heart and blood vessels,” said Dr Frank Sacks, lead author of the AHA advice.

As it’s so often the case, so-called nutritionists and faux doctors have influenced public opinion much more than actual science, and the hype around coconut oil has grown far beyond what the substance actually has to offer. The full article goes on:

“Taking into consideration the totality of the scientific evidence, satisfying rigorous criteria for causality, we conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of CVD [cardiovascular disease]. This recommended shift from saturated to unsaturated fats should occur simultaneously in an overall healthful dietary pattern such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or the Mediterranean diet as emphasized by the 2013 American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology lifestyle guidelines and the 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The bottom line is, we should try to reduce the saturated fats from our diet, but there’s no need to lead an all-out war on fats. Researchers stress that fats are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. They’re a source of essential fatty acids and help the body absorb vitamins, such as A, D, and E.

Victoria Taylor from the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC we should have a whole approach to our diets. It’s not all about fats, it’s more about having a balanced nutrition and reducing risk factors, not falling for the latest fad in nutrition or the latest wonder food nutritionists pump out.

“To eat well for your heart health it is not just about reducing fat but reducing specific types of fat and taking care over what these are replaced with – unsaturated fats and wholegrains, rather than sugars and refined carbohydrates. Any change should be viewed in the context of a whole diet approach. The traditional Mediterranean diet has benefits for a range of risk factors for heart disease, not just cholesterol levels. We recommend replacing the saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats – using oils instead of butter and choosing foods like avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds instead of foods high in saturated fats like cakes, biscuits, chocolate and fatty meat.”


Olive Oil Compound Kills Cancer Cells Within an Hour

An ingredient in extra-virgin olive oil kills a variety of cancer cells in a matter of minutes, without damaging healthy ones. The ingredient is called oleocanthal, and it breaks down the “recycling center” of the cancerous cell, destroying it.

Image via Wells Oriented.

Olive oil has a myriad of health benefits – although a conclusive cause-effect study hasn’t been conducted yet, olive oil consumption is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, it can help fight the effects of aging, and replacing butter, sunflower or palm oil with olive oil is indicated when dealing with obesity and diabetes.

Oleocanthal is the compound responsible for the burning sensation that occurs in the back of the throat when consuming extra-virgin olive oil. Oleocanthal has been found to be have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and it shows potential in the treatment of inflammatory degenerative joint diseases. Researchers have known for a while that oleocanthal killed some cancer cells, but weren’t really sure how, and they didn’t know if it also harmed healthy cells in the process. Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and David Foster and Onica LeGendre of Hunter College wanted to figure this out.

“We needed to determine if oleocanthal was targeting that protein and causing the cells to die,” says Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers and coauthor of a new study published in Molecular and Cellular Oncology.

After applying oleocanthal to cancer cells, they report that cancer cells were being killed off in 30-60 minutes – way faster and more efficient than researchers imagined. The compound punctured the cancerous cells’ vesicles – the cells “recycling centers”.

“Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose [for the cancer cells],” Breslin says.

What’s interesting is that this process doesn’t destroy healthy cells – it puts them to sleep for a while, but they quickly recover with no side effects.

However, it has to be said that this was only proven to work in lab cultures. Now, the next step for scientists is to test how oleocanthal works in living animals.

“We also need to understand why it is that cancerous cells are more sensitive to oleocanthal than non-cancerous cells.”

If this also works out as expected, then the team can start trying it on humans. It’s a long and difficult process which can drag out for years, but there are serious reasons to be optimistic.

Journal Reference: O LeGendre, P A S Breslin & D A Foster. (-)-Oleocanthal rapidly and selectively induces cancer cell death via lysosomal membrane permeabilization (LMP). DOI:10.1080/23723556.2015.1006077

8,000-Year-Old Olive Oil Found in Ancient Clay Pots

We know that ancient populations really liked olive oil, and it’s not that uncommon to find oil-filled pots from Ancient Greece. However, archaeologists were really excited to find that pressed olive oil goes as back as 8,000 years ago. Researchers found residues of the Mediterranean-diet staple on ancient clay pots dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.

8,000 year old olive oil was found in Israel. This is the earliest evidence of olive oil production. Credit: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

“This is the earliest evidence of the use of olive oil in the country, and perhaps the entire Mediterranean basin,” Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov, excavation directors at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

Today, Spain acounts 43.8% of world production of olive oil, while Italy accounts for 21.5% of the world’s production and Greece comes in at 12.1%. But in ancient times, things were very different. It is not clear when and where the olive tree was domesticated, but the word comes from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey and Syria), so it’s likely that the origin of olive oil lies there. Before this study, the earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 BC (Early Minoan times), though the production of olive was assumed to have started before 4000 BC.

Now, we have evidence to place olive oil production 2 millennia before that – in 6000 BC. The team actually discovered the clay vessels by accident. The government required an excavation at En Zippori in the Lower Galilee region of northern Israel before the Netivei Israel Co. could widen Highway 79. The researchers unexpectedly found the pottery during the excavation, which lasted from 2011 to 2013. It’s not uncommon for this to happen – sometimes, construction works take place in area with rich history, and archaeologists are called to ensure that nothing will be destroyed. When Milevski and Getzov found the vessels, they were understandably excited and wanted to find out what was the content of the vessel.

Olive Oil is one of the healthiest sources of fats. Image via Olive Oil Excellence.

I’m gonna be honest with you… I’d be tempted to just taste it. But alas, science doesn’t work like that – you can’t just go tasting stuff from 8,000 years ago, no matter how cool it sounds. The real analysis showed that the pottery contains olive oil, and the oil is actually very similar to the one produced today. In all, the researchers studied 20 pottery vessels, including two that date back to about 5,800 B.C., indicating that the oil was well preserved inside the vessels for almost 8,000 years. This confirms the theory that the olive tree was domesticated in 6000 BC.

“Although it is impossible to say for sure, this might be an olive speciesthat was domesticated and joined grain and legumes — the other kinds of field crops that we know were grown then,” Milevski and Getzov said.

Olive oil is  the main cooking oil in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, also used as a dressing for salads and even as a skin treatment. It’s also one of the healthiest sources of fats in nature, with study indicating that it can may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fats if it replaces other types of saturated fats (not in addition).