20 September 2019Plant-based oils for the diet - Are boutique oils really worth trying?

Not too long ago, grocery stores offered maybe 2 or 3 types of oil. Corn, soy and "vegetable" oils might have been your choice. Vegetable oil was a grab-bag of whatever was available cheap on a given production day, such as cottonseed or soy. Now the shopper can be overwhelmed by all the choices. Is there a reason to choose almond over canola? Or avocado over extra virgin olive oil?

The answer is: Maybe. Your oil choice will depend on how you plan to use it, as well as cost. There are plenty of health claims for some of the more exotic oils. They allegedly erase wrinkles, make your hair shine, fight inflammation and lead to weight loss. Those are not valid reasons to buy one oil rather than another.

Here are some of the novel boutique oils I can now find at my local grocery store:

  • Walnut
  • Almond
  • Avocado
  • Grapeseed
  • Sesame

Choosing Oils

When it comes to home cooking, we buy vegetable oils for:

  1. Sauteing, frying or browning vegetables or meats.

  2. Baking, such as for cakes, quick breads and pancakes

  3. Making sauces

  4. Creating salad dressings, such as for tossed green salads, other vegetable salads, or grain or bean salads. You could argue that mayonnaise falls into this category, as it is basically a vegetable oil whipped with egg yolk.

Depending on what type of salad you make, you might prefer a flavorful oil for the dressing. When making a sauce, you probably will choose a flavorless oil, so you don't overpower the sauce. Same goes for cakes or pancakes.

When choosing an oil for high heat cooking, the oil's smoke point is the most important issue. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil literally starts to smoke. At which point the food being cooked may end up burnt along with the oil. That's not desirable. If you're going to use high heat to sear meat or stir fry vegetables, you need a vegetable oil with a high smoke point. For more information, please see What is Smoke Point?.

Nutrition

When choosing a vegetable oil, smoke point and subtle flavors may be your most important considerations. Nutritionally speaking, these oils are very similar to each other. They are all 100% fat and have about 120 calories per tablespoon. Most oils have some vitamin E content and perhaps insignificant traces of other nutrients. Refining will remove many of these substances.

The main difference between oils is the mix of fatty acid types. Avocado and olive oils are especially high in monounsaturated fats, which are linked to health benefits. If you want to emphasize intake of monounsaturated fats and you also like to cook at high heat, refined avocado oil might be a good choice. This table gives the percent of each type of fatty acid for the oils I'm discussing:

Oil Mono Poly Saturated
almond 68 10 22
avocado 70 15 15
canola 65 28 7
grapeseed 15 75 10
olive 75 10 15
sesame 42 41 17
walnut 15 75 10

When choosing an oil for cooking, here's another consideration: both walnut and canola have significant omega-3 fatty acid content. In fact, walnuts are promoted as an omega-3 source for vegans. Unfortunately, omega-3 fatty acids are extremely fragile. Heat will degrade them, so cooking with walnut oil may eliminate this key nutritional benefit. This is one case where using the oil for non-cooking purposes makes the most sense.

Choosing Oil for the Right Purpose

  • High heat cooking
    Smoke point is a key consideration. For very high heat sauteing or searing meat, avocado oil is a good choice. The drawbacks: it's pricey. Also you have to be sure to buy refined avocado oil, not virgin or cold-pressed for this purpose. The label should clearly say "refined". If cooking at very high heat is not important for you, you can make do with soy (usually sold as "vegetable" oil now), peanut, canola or corn oil.

  • Moderate heat cooking
    Cooking over moderate heat -- such as sauteing onions for a pasta sauce or vegetables for a casserole or chili -- can be done with a variety of oils with lower smoke points. Olive oil is a good choice, and of course you can use avocado or other oil as well.

  • Finishing a cooked dish
    There's nothing that says you can't add a dash of a flavorful oil to a dish after it's cooked. Try a bit of walnut oil in spaghetti sauce. Or toasted sesame oil in stir fried vegetables. Or almond or grapeseed oil on cooked rice. Brush grilled or broiled meat with a bit of virgin avocado oil. These are flavorful oils, so you don't need to add much.

  • Baking
    If you're baking a cake or quick bread, you don't want a strong oil flavor, such as EVOO. You also probably don't want to use a pricey nut oil for this purpose. Neutral oils like canola, soy, safflower or sunflower are good choices.

  • Salads
    Here's where the exotic flavorful oils can shine. Whether your salad is tossed greens, grains, pasta, beans or cold meats, you can really perk up the flavors by using a nut or cold-pressed avocado oil. I'd use avocado, walnut or olive on tossed greens; avocado, almond or walnut on a grain salad; avocado, olive or walnut on a bean salad; toasted sesame, grapeseed or avocado on a cold meat salad.

Take Away Message

Novel oils are easy to find in grocery stores. Their unique flavors make them ideal for spicing up the flavor of vegetables, sauces, grains, pasta and beans. Which means these oils fit nicely with the concept of plant-based diets, giving plant-centric dishes delicious flavors. If you do a fair amount of home cooking and are trying to include more plant-based foods in your diet, give one of these oils a try. Just remember to store them in a cool place, out of direct light and heat.

How do they make that?

While writing this, I got into a discussion with a friend about avocado oil. How is that made? We both envisioned avocados being pressed to a pulp, then what? It turns out, this is actually the first step. The pulp is then spun in a centrifuge to separate the water and oil from the pulp. Then the oil is separated from the water.

No, grapeseed oil is not made by laboriously picking all the little seeds out of grapes. Grapeseed oil is made from the seeds of grapes that were left over from wine making. The seeds are separated from the other grape debris and pressed, much as nuts or olives are pressed.

Originally published on 12 February 2019
Updated: September 19, 2019

Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Feed Your Vegetarian Teen and Food Wisdom for Women: nutrition for aging with energy, vitality and health. Donna writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.
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Foods & Recipes/Oils Nutrients/Fats

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