Our bodies need healthy sources of fat to function properly — namely, the kind of fats that are often found in vegetable oils. A few daily tablespoons of plant-based oils used in dressings or in various cooking methods can help our bodies better absorb nutrients from other food, sustain normal hormone production, protect against heart disease and contribute to good overall health.
When choosing an oil, Katie Keller, a dietitian with the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, recommends that those undergoing cancer treatment opt for whichever is the most palatable. But, she says, the general population should look for oils that are liquid at room temperature, signifying a greater percentage of healthy, unsaturated fat.
These four oils can be particularly useful for everyday meals:
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
The “extra-virgin” in this well-known oil refers to the processing method: unlike a refined olive oil, the extra-virgin version is cold-pressed and not treated with heat or chemicals, leaving all of its natural nutrients intact. The cold-press process also helps the oil to retain its distinctive fruity taste, which makes it ideal for salad dressings and as a dip for bread — unlike some oils, extra-virgin olive oil actually tastes like something.
Olive oil’s smoke point (the temperature where it starts to burn) is lower than some oils, meaning it can lose nutrients if it gets too hot, but according to Keller, it’s perfectly fine to use in a home kitchen for stove-top cooking.
“It’s a multi-purpose oil,” Keller says. “Which is great, because you don’t have to go out and buy several different oils for different purposes.”
Although it’s less familiar than olive oil to most people, avocado oil is becoming increasingly available in grocery stores, both as a spray and in regular pour bottles. Like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil is made with a cold-press process, which means its nutrients aren’t compromised during processing. It differs from olive oil, however, in its flavour — avocado oil has almost no taste, meaning it won’t overpower other foods, whether it’s being used raw in a salad dressing or as a cooking oil. It also has a higher heat tolerance than olive oil, making it appropriate for an even wider variety of cooking tasks.
“It actually has the highest heat tolerance of most other oils,” Keller says. “You can use it in frying, in barbecuing as a marinade or as a replacement for butter in baking and it will still retain its nutrients.”
When it comes to commonly available oils, flaxseed is one of the most nutritious. It’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, making it beneficial for heart, brain and eye health, and is also a source of antioxidants as well as lignans and isoflavones, which are phytoestrogens that researchers believe can have a protective effect against cancer.
The downside to flaxseed oil is that it is far more delicate than most other culinary oils. It is not shelf stable and must be stored in the refrigerator. It’s also not suitable for cooking — any heat will destroy its nutritional properties. It does, however, have a distinctive nutty taste that adds flavour to food as well as those health benefits.
“You really just need to eat it raw,” Keller says. “It can be used in a salad dressing or a condiment.”
Canola oil often gets a bad rap: most canola oil sold in Alberta is certified as a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), which leads many consumers to believe that it’s an inferior oil. But Keller says that people shouldn’t be scared off of canola, as its one modified protein is destroyed during processing, making GMO and non-GMO canola oil virtually identical.
Nutritionally speaking, canola oil contains fewer essential fatty acids than olive oil, but it does have a lower percentage of saturated fat than most edible oils. Plus, it has a mild taste and a high smoke point, making it ideal for all kinds of cooking.
“When I’m baking, canola is what I replace my butter with,” Keller says. “It leaves the finished product nice and moist.”
Recipe: Nutty Slow-Cooker Granola
The ingredients in this wholesome granola are tossed with canola or avocado oil so that the oats get crunchy as they cook. Feel free to use a different mix of nuts and seeds for an endless variety of flavour combinations.
5 cups large-flake rolled oats
1 cup shelled pumpkin seeds
1 cup pecan pieces
1 cup unsweetened coconut
2/3 cup whole almonds, roughly chopped
1 cup dried cherries
3/4 cup honey
3/4 cup canola or avocado oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
non-stick canola or avocado cooking spray
Combine the oats, pumpkin seeds, pecans, coconut and almonds in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the honey, canola or avocado oil, vanilla extract, salt and cinnamon until evenly combined. Pour the honey mixture over the oat mixture and stir until the dry ingredients are evenly coated. Spray the bowl of a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker with non-stick cooking spray and pour in the oat mixture. Cook for 30 to 60 minutes on high with the lid on, or until the granola is warmed throughout. Remove the lid and cook for another 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until the granola is lightly browned, stirring regularly so that everything cooks evenly. Stir in the dried cherries, then spread evenly on two parchment-lined baking sheets. Let cool completely and then store in airtight containers for up to two weeks.