Confused about Cooking Oils? Part I: Olive and Canola Rumors
"What type of oil should I use?" is a question we've been hearing a lot lately. There are so many different types of oil to choose from, and rumors and opinions abound about which oil is best, which is toxic, or which is most nutritious. Then there's the question of saturated fats vs. trans fats vs. polyunsaturated fats vs. essential omega fats, that unless you majored in biochemistry in college it's easy to get confused!
Part I: Olive Oil and Canola Oil Rumors
This is a huge topic that can't be adequately covered in one article, which is why we're going to cover this in a several part series.
For the first part in this series, we want to address some rumors that are going around about Canola Oil and Olive Oil, two oils that for a long time we have been told are excellent sources of good dietary fats but lately have been called "toxic" and "dangerous" by some sources. What's the truth?
This oil has been everyone’s favorite oil for a number of years now. It’s a foundation of the famous health-promoting Mediterranean Diet; rich in health-promoting Omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil has been associated with improvement in cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, age-related dementia, blood clots, cancer, and living longer (to name a few!).
Olive oil also tastes great and can be used heated in cooking as well as cold as a substitute for butter on bread, as the base of a healthy salad dressing, or in a marinade.
So, is this wonderful, health, tasty food also dangerous? The answer is…it can be. But it’s not the fault of the oil; it’s when we mistreat it or use it for purposes it was never intended to fulfill that it can become more harmful than helpful.
The key to understanding this paradox is looking at the concept of “Smoke Point.” The Smoke Point is literally the point at which oil starts to smoke. Different oils smoke at different temperatures; olive oil is one that generally does best at Low to Medium heat. Much hotter, and it may smoke.
Smoke when cooking is not a good thing—the oil is decomposing under the extreme heat, and the antioxidants we usually love in olive oil are replaced by free radicals and other dangerous molecules. The smoke itself is also toxic and shouldn’t be breathed. Finally, when there’s smoke, it means the oil is dangerously close to its “Flash Point”—the point at which it may catch on fire!
So, the general rule is to only cook with olive oil on Low to Medium heat, or use it cold. If you need a hardier oil for baking or high heat cooking, consider an oil with a higher Smoke Point such as coconut oil. Unrefined Coconut Oil is stable to medium heat cooking and Refined Coconut Oil is stable to medium-high heat cooking.
Canola Oil also has high amounts of health-promoting Omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids, just like olive oil, as well as relatively high Omega-3 levels. Canola oil seems to have a higher Smoke Point and thus can be used more reliably for higher-heat cooking compared to olive oil.
You may have seen some emails about the dangers of canola oil that have been spread around the Internet. This oil has been accused of being genetically engineered, full of trans fat, an industrial chemical used as an insecticide or fuel, a toxic weed, a biopesticide, a form of mustard gas, a trigger for diseases such as mad cow disease and lung cancer, and full of cyanide.
While we won't give any credence to these rumors, caution for canola oil should be exercised due to its content of Linoleic Acid, an Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA). Excessive PUFA intake, especially Omega-6 fatty acids, is rampant in today's diet due to it's inclusion as part of artificial and processed foods. Oils such as safflower (78%), grape seed (73%), sunflower (68%), corn (59%), cottonseed (54%), and soy (51%) have the highest degree of PUFA.
Compared to these other oils, canola is a better choice with a lower percentage of PUFA overall at 21%. Olive oil is only 10% PUFA, while coconut oil and butter are the lowest at 2%.
Caution should definitely be used in lesser quality (i.e. less expensive) forms of Canola Oil. This is an oil to splurge on purchasing organic and expeller-pressed. It is an oil to consider for Medium-High heat baking and sautéing. In truth, expeller-pressed, organic canola oil is not be feared-- just try to limit your intake to a few times per month because in general, "everything in moderation" is the best rule for a balanced and healthy diet.
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