March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
What's the best for cooking and drizzling?
Have you browsed the cooking oil aisle of your local grocery store lately? You may be surprised to see exotic oils such as sesame, flaxseed and coconut sitting next to vegetable oil and shortening. Many of these "new" oils have distinct flavors and properties that make them tasty additions to your cooking repertoire, and healthy additions to your dinner table.
When it comes to cooking, not all oils are created equal — some oils can handle the heat, and some can't. An oil's smoke point is the temperature at which it will start to smoke and break down. If cooking oil starts to smoke, it should be discarded. It's likely lost some of its nutritional value, and it could impart a bitter, unpleasant taste to your food.
Oils with high smoke points (vegetable, peanut and sesame, to name a few) are good for frying or high-heat stir-frying, while oils with low smoke points (flaxseed and walnut) work well for salad dressings and dips.
Canola oil is extracted from the seeds of the canola plant, which was developed through crossbreeding with the rapeseed plant. Canola is a healthy oil that's low in saturated fat and a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3s. (Note: Canola oil is not the same thing as rapeseed oil, which contains erucic acid that can be harmful to humans in large quantities.)
How should you use it? Canola oil has a light flavor, which makes it versatile in cooking. Replace solid fats such as butter or margarine with canola oil when cooking or baking. Canola oil works well for sautéing and stir-frying. It also is good for coating pots, pans and your grill.
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which may help reduce one's risk of heart disease. MUFAs lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and raise HDL ("good") blood cholesterol. Olive oil is often sold as "virgin" or "extra virgin." Extra-virgin olive oil has less acid and a fruitier flavor and stronger aroma than pure or virgin olive oil, so a little goes a long way. Olive oil labeled as "light" is often lighter in hue or flavor, but it's not lighter in calories.
How should you use it? "Use olive oil in place of saturated fat, such as butter," suggests Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Angela Ginn, RD, LDN, CDE. "Dip bread [in it], use it in cakes, sauté, even fry vegetables and meat. But beware the smoking point is not very high so frying at high temperatures will cause your food to brown quickly."
"[Sesame oil] is rich in mono- and polyunsaturated acids (PUFAs) — the good kind of fat that cuts cholesterol,” says Ginn. Sesame oil contains linoleic acid, which is a type of omega-6 fatty acid that may promote heart health by reducing LDL cholesterol.
How should you use it? Sesame oil is typically used in Asian cuisines. "Its strong, nutty flavor can be used in Thai and Japanese dishes. Drizzle it over an Asian cabbage slaw with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds," suggests Ginn.
"Flaxseed oil contains omega-6 and omega-9 essential fatty acids,” says Ginn. Since this heart-healthy oil also contains some omega-3 fatty acids, it is often cited as a vegetarian alternative to fish oil.
How should you use it? Flaxseed oil has a low smoke point, so it's not ideal for cooking. "Enjoy a drizzle over quinoa, or toss with a salad dressing," says Ginn.
Peanut oil is a source of phytosterols, which benefit the heart by preventing cholesterol absorption in the intestines. Although, it's difficult to get enough phytosterols from peanut oil or any other food unless it's a product fortified with added sterols. Peanut oil is also a common monounsaturated fat, and contains vitamin E — an antioxidant.
How should you use it? "This oil is often used in deep frying [because of the] high temperature it can reach," says Ginn. "Because of its nutty flavor, use this oil in stir-fries and ginger dressing."
Grapeseed oil is extracted from grape seeds, which are a byproduct of wine-making. Grapeseed oil has lots of PUFAs, which have been shown to lower total cholesterol and bad cholesterol.
How should you use it? "Grapeseed oil has a moderately high smoke point, which makes it great for sautés and frying," says Ginn. It can also be used in dressings and dips for vegetables.
Coconut oil is extracted from the fruit of mature coconuts. It is a saturated fat, and consumers are cautioned against a diet high in saturated fat. Virgin coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that raises both good and bad cholesterol levels.
How should you use it? Coconut oil has a sweet, nutty taste, and is often used as a substitute for shortening or butter in a vegan diet. It also imparts a tropical flavor to vegetables, curry dishes and fish. Because it is a saturated fat, use coconut oil in moderation, and buy the kind labeled "virgin."
Walnut oil is made from nuts that have been dried and cold pressed. This oil has a high concentration of alpha-linolenic acid that partially converts to omega-3s (EPA and DHA). Omega-3s have properties that support heart health.
How should you use it? Walnut oil has a rich, nutty flavor that makes it a great for dressing salads, or drizzling into a pasta dish. Walnut oil doesn't stand up to high heat, so it's best used as a dressing or flavor enhancer rather than a cooking oil. Refrigerated walnut oil keeps for up to six months.
Heat and light are oil's enemies. Over time, oils can degrade and lose some of their good nutritious qualities. Store your oil in a cool, dark place and replace it if it smells bitter or "off." Some oils — particularly polyunsaturated oils such as grapeseed or walnut oil — are prone to quickly turning rancid. Store these oils in the refrigerator to prolong their usability.