Cooking oil: Make the right choice

Myths and facts surrounding five of the most commonly used oils


To many it may sound funny, but oil and salt are the two ingredients that remain constant in any cuisine the world over. Oils come in many varieties and we’re spoilt for choice. And, thanks to globalisation, we can avail of any oil from any country. Usage of cooking oil has always been closely linked to our health.

While most of us are consciously trying to make choices that define a healthier lifestyle, lack of sufficient knowledge about the exact benefits of each option has one feeling confused about what to pick. It is important to make an informed choice, especially when it comes to an essential item like cooking oil.

Choosing the right cooking oil

Even in a diverse country like India, cooking food mostly revolves around, frying, sautéing and grilling. It is important to pick a neutral tasting cooking oil that does not overpower the taste of the ingredients of our preparations, and is ideal for high heat cooking methods like sautéing and deep-frying.

When it comes to cooking oils, we often hear the terms saturated fat and unsaturated fat with the former sounding like a death threat. In simple words, saturated fat is the ‘bad’ fat which increases the LDL or the bad cholesterol. On the other hand, unsaturated or ‘good’ fats are further divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and are actually considered good for your health. They increase the HDL or the good cholesterol in your body. These include omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids that are known to benefit heart-health, maintain cholesterol levels and provide essential vitamins. Simple? Now for some myth busting around five of the most commonly used oils in Indian kitchens. Use it as a little guide to help you the next time you visit the supermarket

Groundnut oil

One of the main ingredients in the traditional Indian pantry, groundnut oil is extensively used here.

Myth: Groundnut oil may not be best suited to prepare dishes that are deep fried.

Fact: Groundnut oil has a high smoke point which makes it ideal for frying.

Benefits of groundnut oil

  • Suitable for different forms of cooking such as frying, seasoning and grilling.
  • High in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, this oil helps in lowering bad cholesterol.
  • A good source of vitamin E which acts as an anti-oxidant and protects the skin from acne or scars.

Canola oil

Produced extensively in Canada, canola is considered to be a heart-healthy oil. It is also well known for its nutritional as well as culinary benefits.

Myth: Canola oil comes from rapeseed oil and is harmful for consumption.

Fact: Canola oil comes from crushed seeds of the canola plant. It can safely be used for all kinds of cuisines and is the most commonly used oil in the US, Canada and Japan. According to a health claim by the US FDA, the use of canola oil in one’s diet can help reduce the risk of coronary heart diseases.

Benefits of canola oil

  • Because of its light texture, canola is a versatile cooking oil that is neutral in taste and allows the flavours of the Indian spices to come through in dishes. It is suitable for baking desserts and makes good salad dressings.
  • A high smoking point of 204 degrees C makes refined canola ideal for Indian cooking, and suitable for sautéing and frying.
  • It contains a high content of good fats.
  • It has only 7 per cent of saturated fat content, which is half of what olive oil contains and 35 per cent less than that of sunflower oil.

Sunflower oil

Prepared from sunflower seeds, this oil is used for cooking as well as skin and hair care.

Myth: It tends to get oxidised when heated, and can become a platform for carcinogens, or cancer causing substances.

Fact: Sunflower oil doesn’t have any medically proven harmful side effects and is used freely in cooking Indian dishes that require frying at high temperatures.

Benefits of sunflower oil

  • This is a healthy option owing to its polyunsaturated fat content.
  • Due to its light flavour, sunflower oil doesn’t overpower the taste of other ingredients.
  • It has a good source of omega-6 and vitamin E which acts as an anti-oxidant and helps in retaining water.

Mustard oil

Mustard oil is prepared from the pressing of mustard seeds and is used in different regions across India.

Myth: Considered harmful for consumption due to its high erucic acid content.

Fact: This oil is widely used in North India and people enjoy delicacies cooked in mustard oil. There has been no medically proven indication of its harmful effects.

Benefits of mustard oil

  • Its characteristic flavour brings a unique taste to dishes.
  • A high smoke point makes it ideal for frying.
  • It can be used as a stimulant to help digestion and circulation. Due to its antibacterial properties, this oil can help protect the skin.

Olive oil

Olive oil is produced by grinding whole olives that are usually found in the Mediterranean region.

Myth: Extra virgin olive oil can be used for frying and sautéing.

Fact: Extra virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of olives and its flavour is stronger if it is not heated. It has a low smoke point and if heated to high temperatures, it can lead to oxidation or release of harmful substances when it crosses its smoke point. Therefore, it is best when used in salads as dressings and is ideally not well suited for high heat culinary applications such as frying or sautéing.

Benefits of olive oil

  • It can be used very well for salads and appetisers but its peculiar taste may not suit all kinds of Indian dishes.
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids like omega-3 give it its anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Vitamins, minerals and proteins present in this oil suggest that it can be used for application on hair and skin treatments.
  • Olive oil also aids in calcium absorption along with lowering the LDL or bad cholesterol.

Tips on storing and using your cooking oil

  • Every kind of oil has an expiry date and there are chances that if it crosses the expiry date, residue may accumulate at the base of your oil bottle. This also indicates the need for an oil change. Cooking oils should not be stored for long periods of time. If it develops a ‘stale’ smell or odour, it should be discarded. Store your cooking oils in well-sealed cans and in a cool and dry place for its longer shelf life.
  • It is advisable not to mix the oil you use with unused oil. When you mix two cooking oils, their smoking points, flavours and fatty acid content need to be carefully considered and only then can they be mixed. However, this can lead to differentiating tastes and the true flavour of a dish may get overshadowed.
  • You can switch your cooking oil every once in a while and alternate between different options to suit your own style of cooking. Switching between different oils helps to maintain your cholesterol level and adds the flavour you seek in certain dishes. For example, make your salads in olive oil while use canola oil for baking, sautéing, frying and grilling.

Be sure to stock up your pantry with the oil that is healthy and scrumptious as well as earns you some kitchen credit.

This was first published in the January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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