One of the most common questions asked in a clinic is, “Which [cooking] oil is good for health, Doctor?”
There are so many options out there.
The very popular olive oil, canola, sunflower, groundnut, mustard, rice bran oil; the list is endless. Then there are ‘proprietary’ healthy mixtures or vegetable oil blends, branded as ‘Saffola Gold’ and many others like it.
Which one is the best?
Sadly, the answer here is none.
An ideal diet should not use oil for cooking, but only as a dressing for salads. Requisite fat should instead come from natural sources such as nuts, seeds, meat, eggs etc. In addition, such items have healthy proteins as well. Add vegetables, salads and fruit – and your diet is complete.
Fat as a macronutrient has been shown to have a net positive effect in general, especially heart health. As per some key studies, fat lowers the risk of stroke, heart attack and diabetes. Therefore, the principal source of fat in our diet i.e. cooking oil should not be treated as taboo the way it is usually considered. In fact, the American Heart Association also now accepts that total fat consumption needs to be higher than the earlier recommended 30% (30-45% is acceptable now) of all calories.
Vegetable oils should be preferred; most Western data indicate positive associations with extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil and soybean oil. Further, refined oils should be avoided, as they are subjected to intense mechanical and chemical processes during refining; these destroy most of their anti-oxidants and generate potentially toxic substances.
Having said that, let’s come down to the practical reality of Indian cooking, the demands being a good shelf life, high smoking point (good for frying) and a good fatty acid composition.
Olive oil has a low smoking point and is therefore not great for Indian cooking (an exception may be the pomace variety, which has a higher smoking point). It is thus best used as a salad dressing.
In contrast, mustard oil has close to ideal fat composition and a high smoking point (but a high erucic acid content, which may be harmful). Rice bran oil has healthy fatty acids, heart healthy oryzanol, and a high smoking point, but unfortunately no studies.
The commonly used coconut oil has data from small Indian studies only, but no hard longterm data to back its benefits, though the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil are believed to be useful despite its high saturated fat content.
All the above mentioned oils are good for the Indian system of cooking as they have high smoking points, and can be used for frying.
In the absence of an ideal oil, blending is done to achieve an optimal fatty acid composition at an affordable cost. Usually, oils rich in MUFA-monounsaturated fatty acids (mustard, canola, olive, rice bran) are blended with oils rich in PUFA-polyunsaturated fatty acids (sunflower, safflower, flax and soya). Or to simplify, one can also alternately use these two types of oils for getting most of the “supposedly healthy” fats. Proprietary vegetable oil blends are thus reasonable alternatives: Saffola Gold (rice bran + saffola in 80:20 ratio), Sundrop Heart (rice bran + sunflower in 80:20 ratio) and flaxseed with canola oil are good examples.
Replacing saturated fats with mono or polyunsaturated fats has been shown to be healthy. But there is no need to get obsessed with different types of fats. Suffice it to say that a moderate consumption of oil is not unhealthy, either with respect to heart condition or diabetes, and may be especially healthy in preventing hemorrhagic strokes.
Another common question is about butter. It increases somewhat the unhealthy LDL cholesterol, but also increases the healthy HDL cholesterol, while lowering unhealthy triglycerides and Lp (a). There is no obvious association with heart attacks, stroke or mortality, while there may be some protection against diabetes. So, while extra-virgin olive or canola oil may be better than butter for daily use, the data on butter is neutral, and a small amount can be consumed a few times every week, keeping in mind that a high consumption would lead to weight gain.
Please note that this clean chit to fats does not include fried stuff like pooris, samosas and kachoris. They are rich in trans-fatty acids which are clearly unhealthy and have shown to increase risk of CVD (cardiovascular diseases). Trans fatty acids are generated during frying, and increasingly form with repeated frying of the same oil, as is the norm in ‘Halwai' shops. Fried foods should be consumed sparingly; the best oils for this are mustard, rice bran, coconut and canola oils. Once consumed, the oil should ideally be discarded (hopefully this will discourage frying).
The healthiest fats come from nuts and seeds; they definitely improve health and lower the risk of lifestyle diseases and should be eaten daily. Another healthy fat is fish oil; one should consider having fish twice a week or eat fish oil (or Krill oil) capsules daily.
In summary, fats are to be preferred over refined grains, cookies and colas; vegetable oils (especially those mentioned above) are to be preferred; use different oils for different types of cooking; refined oils are to be avoided; oil blends are reasonable; butter can be consumed occasionally in modest amounts, frying should be done rarely, with appropriate oils that are discarded later, and nuts, seeds and fish oil are very healthy.
Hope that makes it easier for you to choose what to eat (almost)!
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