Oil is a common ingredient in all kinds of cooking. Whether you're following an already healthy recipe or modifying an existing recipe to be healthier, the type of oil you use really matters. Here's a quick guide to the most common types of cooking oil, and how they affect your health efforts:
Types of Fat
Before you can really understand the health benefits of various oils, you need to know about the different kinds of fat. Fat has a bad reputation, but the right kinds are actually good for you. Your body needs fat to survive: Not only is fat a source of energy, it also surrounds your organs to protect them from damage. Instead of trying to cut fat out of your diet completely, make sure you're eating more of the healthy fats than the unhealthy ones.
There are three main kinds of fatty acids:
Saturated: Oils with saturated fat are solid at room temperature. Overconsumption of these fats is linked to heart disease, obesity and high cholesterol, so use sparingly. Examples: butter and lard.
Polyunsaturated: These oils are liquid even in the refrigerator. When used in place of saturated fats these oils can reduce heart problems and other health issues. Examples: canola oil and sunflower oil.
Monounsaturated: Monounsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature, but solid in the fridge. They can reduce cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated fats. Examples: olive oil and peanut oil.
The easiest way to improve the healthfulness of your meals is to swap saturated fats with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.
This doesn't mean you can never eat butter again - there's nothing inherently bad about saturated fats in moderation. However, since you probably cook with oils fairly regularly, switch to healthier oils to avoid excess saturated fats.
Properties of oils
Different oils have properties that make them better for one kind of cooking or another. Even once you've switched to healthier oils, these qualities need to be taken into account. For example, extra-virgin olive oil is a go-to for health-minded cooks because it's chock full of antioxidants. However, the same minerals that bring extra-virgin olive oil its nutrients also make it sensitive to heat. Extra-virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, which is the heat at which it begins to smoke and break down. This means it's only good for low-heat cooking or drizzling.
Alternatively, sunflower oil has a high smoke point. This makes it great for recipes that call for frying foods at high heats. Sunflower oil will not only maintain its structural integrity through the heating processes, but it will also infuse your fried foods with health-boosting nutrients.
Another element to consider is the flavor of the oil itself. Some oils have a neutral flavor, which is to say they take on the flavor of whatever is cooking. Other oils will affect the overall taste of the dish. Keeping this in mind while cooking will prevent you from adding a flavor you didn't mean to include in the dish.
Understanding the oils you use will make your food be healthier and more delicious.