Until about a hundred years ago, most of the vegetable oils that we see every day at the grocery store didn’t even exist: the only fats used for cooking were butter, lard and sometimes olive or coconut oil, depending on the region.
Sunflower oil or soybean oil didn’t exist, because there wasn’t the technology to extract oil from most plants. Today, on the other hand, we are able to extract and refine oil from almost every plant; a very recent addition in the realm of cooking oils is canola oil, which comes from an artificially selected breed of rapeseed, chosen because of its low erucic acid content.
While some vegetable oils are usually considered very healthy and have been used for centuries, like olive, coconut or sesame oil, most of these “new” oils like soybean, canola or corn have to be heavily refined before being declared fit for human consumption, and that is why there has been some concern about whether they are really healthy.
Nowadays the United States are one of the few countries in the world where canola oil is widely used in cooking; other countries have a long history of preferring other oils, according to their geography and agriculture: for example, coconut oil is widely used in South America, while olive oil is common in the Mediterranean area.
One of the reasons for the prevalence of canola oil in American kitchens is the decline of butter, which was the most common fat used in cooking until a few decades ago. When Americans became more health conscious, they were fast to accept canola as a cheap and healthy alternative to butter, preferring it to more exotic and expensive products like olive oil.
Which Oil Taste Better?
Today we can find most types of oil in any grocery store: therefore we can choose to cook different recipes with different oils, according to their taste and composition.
For example, coconut oil is solid at room temperature, which makes it a bad choice for salad dressing, but a very good choice for baking, especially when substituting butter in pastries.
On the other hand, olive oil often has a strong taste, so it is better to use it in salad dressings than in baked goods.
If we want to cook the oil, we need to take into consideration its smoke point, which is the temperature after which the oil starts to smoke, releasing dangerous molecules: olive oil has a low smoke point, which makes it unsuitable for frying.
Canola oil has a bland taste and a high smoke point, which make it good for baking and deep frying. Because of its light taste, it can also be used in combinations with spices and herbs whose taste we don’t want to cover, for example in vinaigrette or salad dressings.
Until the 1970s, rapeseed oil was only used in the industrial world because it was high in erucic acid, a molecule that had been shown to cause heart disease in rats. It was also incredibly bitter and it had a distinctive smell which was sometimes described as “fishy”. About 40 years ago, though, some farmers were able to selectively breed some strands of rapeseed in order to obtain a very different product: the new oil was low in erucic acid and it has also lost its bitterness and smell, thus making it more attractive to potential customers. For marketing reasons, this oil was called Canola, which is a contraption of Canadian Oil, Low Acid.
Like most vegetable oils on the market, canola oil is chemically refined, using solvents and chemicals to extract it and deodorize it; unfortunately, this process degrades most of the good substances contained in the oil, making it considerably less healthy than cold pressed oils, like olive or coconut oil.
Cold pressing means that the oil is mechanically extracted from the plant without the use of heat, thus conserving most of its qualities and vitamins. In the last few years, though, British farmers have begun to market a new kind of canola oil: it wasn’t the industrial, mass produced and chemically treated oil that most Americans knew, but a high end, cold pressed rapeseed oil. Basically, they made rapeseed oil the same way olive and coconut oil has been made for centuries, creating a substantially healthier product.
Which Is The Healthier Oil?
In order to establish whether a particular kind of oil is healthy or not, we have to look at its composition: oil is essentially made of fats, which can be “good” fats or “bad” fats.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered good fats, while saturated and trans fats are bad fats.
According to their composition, canola and olive oil are essentially equivalent, while coconut oil is rich in MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides). Another factor to consider is the ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats: they are both essential in our nutrition because our body cannot make them up from other molecules, but in order to stay healthy we have to keep an ideal ratio between the two of them, around 4:1. Olive oil and coconut oil also contain other good molecules like vitamins and polyphenols, while canola oil doesn’t, mostly because it is so treated and refined.
It is important to consider that not all kinds of olive and coconut oils are healthy: for example, coconut oil is often hydrogenated in order to raise its smoke point and its melting point, especially in warmer climates where both characteristics are viewed as more desirable. Hydrogenated coconut oil will always be less healthy than cold pressed rapeseed oil, and possibly even less healthy than regular canola oil.
Another thing to remember is that all oils are high in fats and calories and can increase cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, so only a small amount should be consumed per day.
All of these oils have their place. All have distinct differences. A well-stocked pantry should probably include many different types of oils. There really isn’t a one-oil-fits-all type of oil. Consider price, the amounts of oil you will be using, and the recipes you will be making when you decide on a type of oil. Remember the smoke-point of each oil and how high your temperatures will be. Also, keep in mind that light-flavored recipes will allow the taste of the oil to come through.