Chanukah may be the holiday of olive oil, but take a trip down your grocery aisle, and you’ll see as many different oils as there are colours of Chanukah candles. What is the difference between all of them and how is one to choose?
There are two main categories of fats; saturated fat and unsaturated fat.
Saturated fats raise low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL- often called “bad” cholesterol as it transports cholesterol from the liver around the body), and may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Unsaturated fats are a category that’s further broken down into monounsaturated fat (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fat (PUFAs). Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are both healthy fats that should replace less healthy fats in the diet. Monounsaturated fats may lower the risk of heart disease by decreasing LDL cholesterol, while still maintaining high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL cholesterol; the “good” cholesterol that transports cholesterol from the body to the liver for removal from the body). Included in polyunsaturated fats is Omega 3 fat which lowers LDL cholesterol and can prevent the risk of stroke, and omega 6 fats which also lower LDL cholesterol, but may also lower HDL cholesterol and should be eaten in moderation.
Now that we have the basics, let’s look at some specific oils.
- Canola oil has been around for a long time, and yet some are still wary of it, and unsure of its dangers or benefits. Canola oil was genetically engineered from the rapeseed plant to make it more nutritious, and while promoted as being just as good as olive oil, few studies have been conducted to prove this. Canola oil is a monounsaturated fat and also has omega 3, decreases LDL, and is associated with decreased chronic heart disease risks and may also have a protective role in some cancers. Canola oil doesn’t have much of a taste and can withstand high heats, making it ideal to cook and bake with.
- Coconut oil has been receiving a lot of press lately as providing all sorts of health benefits, few of which have been verified. Coconut oil’s chemistry is composed of medium chain fatty acids, which go through a different route of digestion, and so may be used faster than other longer chained fats, and isn’t stored as body fat. However, no studies have shown that using coconut oil can help with weight loss. Additionally, coconut oil is high in saturated fat and so raises LDL cholesterol. Although it also slightly raises HDL cholesterol, it’s not recommended to replace monounsaturated fats (like olive and canola) that lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. And despite certain claims, there is no evidence that virgin coconut oil acts differently than conventional coconut oil.
- Avocado oil was originally processed for cosmetic use, but has recently entered the kitchen as its distinct flavour and high smoking point make it ideal for cooking. Additionally, it is high in unsaturated fat; only a bit lower than olive oil in MUFAs and high in PUFAs (both omegas 6 and 3). Avocado oil also contains antioxidants and phytosterols which may have anticancer and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Pumpkin seed oil is a specialty of South Eastern Europe, where it’s used as an ingredient in vegetable dressings and dessert toppings. This polyunsaturated fat is dark green or red, has an intense nutty flavour, and contains many antioxidants which may decrease the risk of age-related macular degeneration.
Fats are an important part of a healthy well-balanced diet. Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetic Association recommend incorporating 2-3 tablespoons of fat into the daily diet, and fats should make up 20-35% of daily calories. When choosing oils or fats, look for those low in saturated fat, and high in unsaturated fats including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The miracle of Chanukah showed us that not all oil is equal, and that’s just as true now-a-day.
Please leave any questions on this subject or any other in the comment below.