“No matter what oil you use, try to get a good quality oil, especially when you are using them in a salad or as dip,” McEwan told Global News. “Quality ingredients always speak for themselves.”
When it comes to flavour, the best oil for the job will depend on the food you’re cooking. According to McEwan, refined oils are best for cooking at very high temperatures (like deep frying), and unrefined oils are best for salads or light sautéing.
This is because refined oils have a higher smoking point, which is the temperature at which the oil begins to burn and smoke.
“Vegetable, refined sunflower, canola, grapeseed, refined peanut, corn and avocado oil, for example, have a higher smoke point than unrefined extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil,” McEwan said.
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An unrefined oil has a very low smoking point, retains most of its nutrients and has a more fragrant, robust flavour, “perfect for dipping breads or brightening up salads and vegetables,” said McEwan.
Refined oils — like vegetable, canola and avocado oil, for example — have higher smoking points and more neutral flavours. These are best for searing and frying.
Sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil and toasted nut oils have the strongest flavour.
“I love sesame oil in stir fries, and toasted nut oils as a finishing touch for soups and to add to certain salad dressings. These oils are also the best options for non-heating,” said McEwan.
“Coconut oil is a little different because it’s solid at room temperature which means it’s not ideal for vinaigrettes or as a finishing oil. It’s OK for moderate-heat roasting and has a mild coconut scent. I actually like to use coconut oil for non-dairy baked goods.”
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When it comes to your health, cooking with oil is better than using other fats (like butter or lard), but they should still be treated with care, said Lauren Baker. She works as an in-store registered dietitian for Loblaw.
The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats
According to Baker, oils are known as a “heart-healthy fat.”
Oil can be made up of two different kinds of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fats — which can further be divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — are healthier overall, though you can still have saturated fats in moderation.
Most oils are higher in unsaturated fat content. “These unsaturated fats help keep our cholesterol in check, and makes it a better choice… compared to things like butter or shortening or lard (which are higher in saturated fats).”
You may want to consider using oil instead of other saturated fats (like butter) if you’re at risk of high blood pressure or high cholesterol, Baker said. Even though oil is healthier than other kinds of fat, it’s still fat — and you can have too much.
The smoking point affects more than just flavour
“You don’t want an oil to exceed its smoke point because at that point, it could start creating free radicals, and they can cause cell damage, and that’s not great when we look to manage inflammation in our body,” Baker told Global News.
When oil surpasses its smoke point, it goes through a process known as polymerization and the construct of the oil can change. This is when free radicals are created, which, if ingested, can promote inflammation.
That’s why olive oil — an unrefined oil with a very low smoking point — shouldn’t be used in your pan! Reach for vegetable or canola oil instead.
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Portion control is crucial
All sources of fats are “equal,” Baker said. They provide the same amount of energy — which means they all yield nine calories per gram — that your body then uses to fuel your metabolism.
“Your body metabolizes carbohydrates, proteins, and fats as its energy sources. When considering… healthier fats… it comes down to choosing options higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” said Baker. “These are considered to be higher in antioxidants… and omega-3 (which you get from oils with a higher polyunsaturated fat content).”
With regards to weight management, oil is a better option than butter or lard, but you should still use it sparingly. The old Canada’s Food Guide recommended two to three tablespoons per day, and Baker says this is still a good measure.
“The current food guide doesn’t use serving sizes, so I’d say just use what you need to get the flavour or the taste in your food, or to prevent your food from burning,” said Baker.
Oil is a great source of omega fatty acids
“Sunflower oil is a higher source of omega-6, while canola oil is a higher source of omega-3,” said Baker. “Both oils are safe to use if pan frying.”
Adult women (aged 19 and older) need 1.1 grams per day of omega-3, while adult men (aged 19 and older) need 1.6 grams omega-3 per day.
Flaxseed oil, which can make a very nice salad dressing, is also high in omega-3.
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If you’re simply looking for an oil to drizzle in a pan before you cook…
Baker would recommend an oil that has a medium to high smoking point which is also high in unsaturated fatty acids.
Examples include canola oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil and coconut oil.