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Healthy cooking oil for the family
With so many varieties and brands flooding the market today, buying the right cooking oil can prove out to be a tough task. As you enter a departmental store, you see an array of cooking oils sporting all types of jargon on the packaging -- saturated fats, unsaturated fats, refined, filtered, ricebran oil, vanaspati etc. The best cooking practice is to try and cut down on the volume of cooking oil you use.

Different types of fats

Unsaturated fats: These are considered good for health as they do not increase the levels of bad cholesterol.

  • Monounsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA): This refers to a healthy fatty acid, which lowers the levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides without lowering good cholesterol levels.
  • Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA): This lowers the levels of good and bad cholesterol. This is not beneficial as lower levels of good cholesterol increase the risk of developing heart disease.

Saturated fats: When consumed in excess, it increases the level of both total as well as bad cholesterol in the blood, thereby allowing fat to be deposited on the walls of the blood vessels. This promotes the formation of blood clots and heart disease.

The Bad Fats

Saturated Fats Saturated fats raise total blood cholesterol as well as LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol).
Trans Fats Trans fats raise LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and lower HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol).

The Good Fats

Monounsaturated Fats Monounsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and increase the HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol).
Polyunsaturated Fats Polyunsaturated fats also lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Omega 3 fatty acids belong to this group.

Therefore, based on the above classification, the `ideal` cooking oil should contain equal amount of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats and no trans fats.

Cholesterol: It`s a soft substance found among the fats in the bloodstream and the body cells. Cholesterol is essential for the body`s functioning, and there are two basic types; low-density lipoprotein or `bad` cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein or `good` cholesterol. Elevated levels of blood cholesterol are an important risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease.

Oil does not contain cholesterol but helps to promote its formation in the body. Most cholesterol is not of a dietary nature (ie) it is formed within the body. It is only found in foods from animal sources such as meat, poultry, shellfish, eggs, dairy products, lard and butter.

Refined Oil: This type of oil has been purified with chemicals to remove any suspended particles, toxic substances, flavour components, colour and odour, thereby leaving behind clear and bland oil.

Filtered Oil: Obtained by the traditional cold pressing method, this is filtered once or twice to remove suspended particles. In order to derive maximum benefits from oil, it is beneficial to consume a mix of oils to maintain a balance between the three fatty acids. As using a combination of two oils may not be a practical thing to do, today a number of blended oils are available in the market. For instance, blends of rice bran and sunflower oils are the best buys and are suitable even for frying. You could also have two or more different kinds of oils in your kitchen that you could use for different purposes. For example, you could use olive oil for salads, groundnut oil for frying and soyabean oil for other cooking purposes. This will let you take advantage of the health benefits offered by each oil.

Healthy cooking oils

Groundnut Oil/Peanut Oil: These are the most commonly consumed oils in India, particularly in the rural areas. They contain heart-friendly MUFA that lower the levels of bad cholesterol in our body without lowering the levels of good cholesterol. In the market, it is available in refined form as well as unfiltered form. Although the filtered oils are nutritionally superior, they often contain toxic compounds or adulterants. Hence, it is better to buy refined groundnut oils of reputed brands. This oil is suitable for all types of cooking -- frying, grilling, seasoning (bagar), etc.

Sesame (Gingelly) Oil: This cold pressed oil obtained from sesame seeds has been traditionally used in South India and countries such as China and Japan. It is favoured for its antioxidant and antidepressant properties. Claims have been made that it helps control blood pressure owing to the presence of high levels of polyunsaturated fats. It has highest concentrations of Omega-6 fatty acids plus Omega-9. Sesame oil is a good source of Vitamin-E. It also contains magnesium, copper, calcium, iron and vitamin B6. It has a very long shelf life, hardly ever turns rancid because of its high boiling point. Great for stir-frying. In Chinese cuisine, it is often used as a flavour enhancer.

Olive Oil: Although more expensive than other oils, olive oil has many health benefits. It has mono-unsaturated fat and is the preferred cooking oil in Mediterranean countries. Olive oil is thought to offer a number of other health benefits, including reduced risk of some cancers (such as breast cancer), reduced risk of diabetes and, possibly, a delayed onset of complications in established diabetes. It also contains many antioxidant phytochemicals that have many health benefits. Studies have found that consumption of olive oil can lower the risk of coronary heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol levels and blood clot formation. Research has also found that olive oil may influence body fat distribution, with less fat stored around the stomach.

Soyabean Oil: A relatively new oil in India, soyabean oil contains PUFA, particularly linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in the right balance, which are essential for human health. Soyabean oil is suitable for all types of cooking methods except frying; PUFA gets oxidised at frying temperatures to form toxic compounds.

Mustard Oil: This oil is traditionally used in West Bengal and is prized for its characteristic flavour (pungent and sharp). It is generally available as filtered oil; refined mustard oils are sold as vegetable oil. Mustard oil has a higher proportion of MUFA and is also a rich source of the PUFA. However, it also contains erucic acid, a fatty acid that has undesirable effects on health when consumed in large amounts. Mustard oil is suitable for all types of cooking including frying, but should be used along with other cooking oils to reduce the erucic acid content. Mustard oil is sometimes adulterated with argemone oil, which is toxic. It is very difficult to tell when this kind of adulteration takes place.

Rice Bran Oil: It is a relatively new oil that is extracted from rice bran and is gaining popularity in Asian countries like Japan, Korea, China and India. It is not very expensive. Rice bran oil is a unique edible oil with many nutritional benefits, as compared to other edible oils. It is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and has cholesterol-lowering properties due to the presence of a minor component called oryzanol. It contains natural vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. It also contains squalene, which is good for the skin. It is the ideal cooking oil since it has good stability (it does not decompose at high temperatures to form toxic compounds) and is suitable for deep-frying. Studies have shown that snacks prepared in rice bran oil absorb 12-25 per cent less oil than those prepared in groundnut oil.

Sunflower Oil: It is a popular cooking oil available under many brand names. This oil is rich in PUFA, particularly linoleic acid that lowers the levels of both good and bad cholesterol. Hence, this oil cannot be used as the only cooking oil; it could be used along with other cooking oils such as red palm oil or palmolein oil that are low in linoleic acid (you could use sunflower oil on one day and red palm oil the next day).

Safflower/Kardi Oil: This oil contains PUFA in the form of linoleic acid. Like sunflower oil, this oil too should be used in combination with red palm oil or palmolein oil.

Palmolein Oil: It contains MUFA and is low in linoleic acid, hence it is healthy to use in combination with other oils.

Coconut Oil: Used as a cooking medium in the South Indian states and other Asian countries, there are many misconceptions regarding its use as a cooking medium. Coconut oil contains saturated fats that are different from those present in animal fats. Like other vegetable oils, coconut oil also does not contain cholesterol and hence can be safely consumed as part of a balanced diet, in combination with other cooking oils, particularly sunflower or safflower oils.

Unhealthy cooking oils

Butter: It is made from milk fat and contains a high proportion of saturated fats and cholesterol, both of which when consumed in excess are risk factors for developing heart disease. Hence, it is wise to consume less amounts of butter.

Ghee: Also prepared from milk fat, ghee or clarified butter is an essential item in Indian cuisine. Nutritionally, like butter, it also contains saturated fats and cholesterol which, when consumed in excess, leads to heart disease. Using small amounts of ghee to season foods is not harmful. Just avoid sweets and other dishes prepared with large quantities of ghee.

Vanaspati: It is nothing but a mixture of vegetable oils that have been converted to solid form by the addition of hydrogen. Hydrogenated fat is used as a ghee substitute in cooking as well in the production of bakery products, sweets and snack items. When vanaspati is made, trans fatty acids are also produced; these increase the risk of heart disease when consumed in excess and are best avoided.

The Dos and Don`ts of reusing oil
Most of us are aware that reusing oils is dangerous as the food residue can turn carcinogenic, yet reuse is common. According to the International Olive Council, the digestibility of olive oil is not affected when it is heated, even when it is reused several times for frying. The smoking point of any oil comes down when reheated – besides we should also find out how long the oil was in the pan. On the other hand, if the oil was heated for just 5-10 minutes, then you may reuse it the very same day in other preparations so that there is no time for polymers to form.

Here are some tips to reuse or discard oil safely:

  • Decant, filter and strain the oil through a few layers of cheesecloth or filter paper.
  • Make sure the oil has not been exposed to prolonged heat as that accelerates rancidity.
  • Don`t mix different types of oil.
  • If there was too much salt in the substance fried, then avoid reuse.

Text courtesy: Mrs. Sheela Paul, B.Sc., DND, M.A., Dietary Manager, www.mvdiabetes.com

Image courtesy: Flickr/creativecommonsSmabs Sputzer

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