Cooking with Chemicals?
When you think about Thanksgiving dinner, you’re likely envisioning the giant turkey, sweet cranberry sauce, mountains of mashed potatoes and a countertop covered in casseroles. Needless to say, cooking oils are probably not one of the first items that come to mind. However, I’m going to back you up several hours from the beginning of your feast, all the way back to the crack of dawn when you started putting it all together. Before you throw anything onto the pan, consider the oil you just smothered all over your pans and baking dishes. Did you use canola? Vegetable? Olive?
While there are many options when it comes to cooking oils, they are certainly not all created equal. Let’s take a look at the best and the worst. Good health choices now can keep you away from the doctor later.
The worst: Vegetable oil (the most common being canola oil). Safely hiding behind the healthy-sounding word “vegetable,” this oil has snuck into a majority of American households over the past several decades. The crazy thing is that it was practically nonexistent until the early 20th century. It was first introduced as a cheap substitute for traditional cooking oils, like butter and olive oil, and it is often touted as a heart-healthy substitute to fattier cooking oils like butter and lard. However, if you’ve read my post “Fats: The Misunderstood Food Group,” you know this is a bunch of hullaballoo. The truth is vegetable oil is far from being part of the vegetable family. It’s made through a complicated process in which rapeseeds are hybridized (likely through genetic modification), heated at extremely high temperatures so they are oxidized, processed to extract the oils, heated again to remove the wax solids (which are formed during the first processing), treated with chemicals for color improvement and then deodorized to get rid of the nasty odor that develops during processing. Besides all that grossness, these oils become extremely high in omega-6 fats, a problem also explored in my post about fats. Simply put, there’s nothing vegetable about vegetable oil. Yuck, vegetable oil, you get last place.
Almost as bad: Other seed oils (cottonseed, sunflower seed, soybean, corn). While there might not be anything inherently toxic about the seeds themselves, the process to create oils from these plants is what creates such an unhealthy effect. Oils from these crops are made just like canola oil is, except that they might be a little less gross because they aren’t necessarily made from hybrids of real food like canola is (you can find sunflower seeds in nature, but let me know when your search turns up a canola seed). These oils are still heavily processed and excessively high in omega-6 fats. Keep them away from your pans!
Better: Flaxseed oil. This is okay to use sparingly, as it is high in omega-3s and low in omega-6s. However, when put under high heat, flaxseed is prone to oxidation or becoming rancid.
Even better: Avocado, walnut and macadamia nut oils. I lump these together because, although they are all pretty healthy and safe cooking oils, it’s not likely you’re going to go out of your way to find them and keep them in your pantry. These oils are great, but they’re rather pricey and, because they’re not processed to death, they’re also perishable.
Best: Olive and coconut oils. Congratulations, we have a winner! Well, we have two winners, because these oils are both healthy and wonderful to cook with, and I don’t want to play favorites. You really can’t go wrong with olive oil—it tastes great with anything, and unlike those other oils, it stands up well to heat and doesn’t have the oxidation problem the other oils do. Coconut oil is a bit trickier because it has more of a distinct flavor, so I wouldn’t necessarily say it goes with anything. A lot of people will write it off because of its saturated fat content. Those people? Read the aforementioned post on fats! This oil is extremely healthy, and its benefits are simply immeasurable.
It might seem like I’m being nitpicky here, but when you think about all the processing and possibility for these oils to become rancid before they even hit the grocery store shelves, it’s just not worth the risk. Choose good cooking oils this holiday season and you just might feel a little healthier (after you wake up from your food coma).