Finding yourself in an aisle labeled "Cooking Oils" can be somewhat daunting. But, like most casual shoppers, you save time and avoid any uncertainty by sticking to the most commonly used vegetable oils, like olive oil and canola oil.
Lately, however, something else has come into the spotlight. Never before would you have considered buying a product so blatantly recognized as a saturated fat, but it seems to be all the rage these days.
It's coconut oil, and everybody is cooking with it.
"Saturated fats have always gotten a bad rep," said Deborah Orlick Levy, registered dietitian and Health and Nutrition Consultant for Carrington Farms. "And for good reason."
Consuming these unhealthy fats can lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.
So why is coconut oil suddenly jumping off grocery store shelves and showing up in recipes for everything from pan-fried tilapia to almond pound cake?
Recent research has come out in defense of coconut oil, proving that it is not as unhealthy as previously believed. In fact, many dietitians today recommend using coconut oil in place of almost all other oils.
"Not all oils and fats are created equal," said Mihaela Telecan, a registered dietitian and the owner of Healing with Foods in Jacksonville.
Although coconut oil is a saturated fat, it is a naturally rich source of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are easy to digest and are quickly absorbed to be used for energy instead of being stored as fat.
Vegetable oils, on the other hand, are made up of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs), which take longer to be digested and are not readily available as an energy source, so, instead, are stored as fat.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition cited that eating MCFAs increased metabolism more than three times that of eating LCFAs and also helped to burn off stored fat.
Coconut oil's high smoke point is yet another reason to consider making the switch. The smoke point is the temperature at which oil starts to smoke and it is very important to consider when deciding which oils to cook with.
Oils such as extra virgin olive oil and flax oil have low smoke points and should not be used when cooking at high temperatures. Doing so causes a change in the oil's chemical structure, depleting it of many beneficial qualities, releasing toxic fumes into the air and creating harmful free radicals.
For high temperature cooking, such as frying, baking and sauting, coconut oil, as well as canola oil and sunflower oil, are your best options.
Coconut oil does, however, impart a mild coconut flavor to the food it is cooked with and may be an acquired taste for some.
"No doubt about it, you have to like that if you're cooking with it," Levy said.
Those who don't care for the flavor say that using coconut oil is like slathering lotion on your food.
But if you like coconut, coconut oil will be a welcome addition to many dishes. The natural sweetness of the oil also makes it a perfect substitute for butter when baking.
In the end, whichever oil you choose should suit your own personal tastes and needs. Cooking oils are a fantastic and easy way to make sure that you are getting all the healthy fats that your body needs.
"Don't be afraid of fat," Telecan said.
Fats should account for 20 percent to 30 percent of your total calorie intake, and they are important to have in your diet for a number of reasons: Fats help the body absorb vitamins, steadies the metabolism and leaves you feeling more energized and full, just to name a few.
Even so, be aware that oils are still pure fat and high in calories. That healthy dressing you are drizzling over those leafy greens can quickly become the culprit of tight pants and extra pounds on the scale.COOKING OIL PRIMERCOCONUT OIL What is it: Extracted from the meat of fresh, mature coconuts and has a distinct, sweet flavor. Comes in liquid and solid form.Health benefits: Contains lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid, and has been shown to increase good cholesterol in the blood, improve blood pressure and boost brain function. Coconut oil is also known to have antimicrobial properties.How to use: Use liquid coconut oil as you would use olive or vegetable oil (remember, though, that it will impart a sweet, coconut flavor to what you are cooking). It is especially great for high temperature cooking such as sauting, baking and frying because of its high smoke point. Roast Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or broccoli with coconut oil and a pinch of sea salt, or brush on steak or fish before grilling.What to look for: Extra virgin coconut oil ensures you are consuming the purest form of the oil with all of its natural benefits. Storage: Room temperature or in the refrigerator. If solid, soften the oil in a warm bath or microwave for a few seconds before using. Coconut oil has a naturally long shelf life since it is a saturated fat.Smoke point: 400 to 450 degrees.Calories: About 130 per tablespoon.FLAXSEED OIL What is it: Comes from the seeds of the flax plant and has a sweet, nutty flavor. Health benefits: Contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are necessary for good health. Like other omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseed oil may help in treating a variety of conditions, including high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer. How to use: Never cook with flaxseed oil because it oxidizes at extremely low temperatures. Only add flaxseed oil to foods after they have been cooked or to cold foods, such as smoothies and salad dressings. What to look for: Because flaxseed oil goes rancid quickly (about 6 weeks after pressing), only purchase it in refrigerated sections in opaque containers and watch expiration dates carefully. Storage: Store in a dark glass container and keep in either the refrigerator or freezer.Smoke point: 225 degrees.Calories: About 120 per tablespoon.OLIVE OIL What is it: A staple in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is made through a process of crushing and then pressing whole olives, which are very rich in oil. In fact, the botanical name for olive tree is Olea europea, "oleum" meaning oil in Latin. Olive oil is available in a variety of grades, which reflect the degree to which it has been processed. Health benefits: Studies show that conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and cancers can be avoided or improved with a diet that includes olive oil because it is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids.How to use: Use in salad dressings, drizzled over sauted vegetables after cooking and on bread or rolls in place of butter. Refined olive oil can be used for sauting. You can also puree olive oil with garlic and potatoes to make garlic mashed potatoes, or with beans to make a dip. What to look for: Look for extra virgin olive oil, which comes from the first pressing of the olives and has the most delicate flavor and strongest overall health benefits.Storage: Store in an opaque jar, in a cabinet and away from heat.Smoke point: 320 degrees (for extra virgin).Calories: About 120 per tablespoonSAFFLOWER OIL What is it: Made from the seeds of safflowers, which are similar to sunflowers. Health benefits: Rich in monounsaturated fat, safflower oil may help protect against cardiovascular disease. According to a study published in the Clinical Nutrition journal in 2011, safflower oil may also be a healthy choice for diabetics to help manage blood sugar. How to use: Its mild flavor can be used in baked goods as well as salad dressings or marinades. The refined variety has a high smoke point that allows it to be used for frying or sauting.Storage: Store in a dark, airtight container in the refrigerator.Smoke point: 450 degrees (refined variety).Calories: About 120 per tablespoonCANOLA OIL What is it: Comes from the seeds of the canola plant, which is part of the same botanical family as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Health benefits: Has the least saturated fat of any common cooking oil and is considered heart-healthy by reducing the risk of heart disease when used in place of saturated fat. It also has a high level of monounsaturated fat and a good balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats.How to use: Its light texture and neutral taste make it a great option for everything from salad dressings to sauting. Its high heat tolerance means canola oil can be used to bake, stir-fry, deep-fry or grill.Storage: Should be stored in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator. Smoke point: 435 degrees.Calories: About 124 per tablespoon.SUNFLOWER OIL What is it: Made from pressed sunflower seeds and is one of the healthiest oils to consume. Health benefits: Sunflower oil contains more vitamin E than any other vegetable oil and is packed full of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.How to use: An excellent substitute for lard, shortening and regular cooking oil because it has a neutral flavor. Sunflower oil's high smoke point makes it suitable for nearly all cooking, from stir-fry to salad dressing.Storage: Store in an opaque, glass bottle and away from heat.Smoke point: 440 to 450 degrees. Calories: About 124 per tablespoon.Source: Deborah Orlick Levy, M.S., R.D. and Carrington Farms nutrition consultant, and Mihaela Telecan, registered dietitian.FARRO RISOTTO WITH COCONUT OIL AND ROASTED GARLIC
2 tablespoons coconut oil 3 onions, diced 2 cups farro (grains), soaked and drained 2 cups vegetable stock Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoon Parmesan cheese 4 to 5 cloves of roasted garlic Vegetables such as mushrooms, squash, tomatoes, broccoli, asparague, etc.
Heat 1 tablespoon of coconut oil, add onions and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add farro, stir and toast kernels for a few more minutes.
Add vegetable stock and simmer until cooked through and most of the liquid is absorbed.
In a saut pan, add farro, 1 tablespoon of coconut oil and roasted garlic. Add a small amount of vegetable stock. When heated thoroughly, turn off heat and add cheese.
Top with other vegetables such as sauted mushrooms, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes and fresh herbs.GINGER BROILED SALMON
1 tablespoon coconut oil 1/4 cup water 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger 1 tablespoon umeboshi plum vinegar 2- to 4- ounce wild salmon filets
Make marinade by combining oil, water, ginger and vinegar.
Place fish in a shallow baking dish, cover with marinade and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Broil fish skin side down for 6 to 8 minutes.
Baste with remaining marinade once or twice while broiling.
Use any remaining marinade as a sauce and serve.
From Mihaela Telecan, www.healingwithfoods.org.