Most of us are well aware that we should avoid 'bad' fats such as those found in meat and dairy, and that some fats, such as olive oil, are good for us. But there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, not to mention trendy new oils which are all the rage such as avocado oil, hemp seed oil, and coconut oil. What are the health benefits or down sides of the various oils on the market? We explore the facts.
The importance of good fats
We all need to consume some fat every day as it allows us to absorb key fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K. It’s thought that good fats also help us absorb lycopene and antioxidants more effectively, as well as containing essential fatty acids which the body needs to function properly.
Essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6 and 9) help us reduce cholesterol and maintain heart health, joint mobility and brain function. All of which are very necessary for runners to stay healthy. For more on good sources of fats for runners, click here
Using and storing oils
Obviously we should be careful to choose the right kind of fats, but it’s also important to store and use them properly. Vegetable and especially nut oils should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard, as too much heat or light can alter their state.
It’s also important to know the smoke points of the oils you keep in your store cupboard, as, if you heat them to above their smoke point, you’re essentially altering the chemical make-up of the oil. Not to mention releasing a whole lot of toxins into the air in the smoke.
Good old olive oil is, for many of us, our go-to oil for any frying or salad dressings. However, it's not always the best choice.
Cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil has a grassy green taste and is very rich in antioxidants. It also helps lower LDL or 'bad' cholesterol. However it has a low smoke point of 160°C. When you use it at medium to high temperatures it loses its flavour and its health benefits. So it’s best used in salad dressings, or drizzled cold on grilled vegetables, pasta, risotto or any raw or cooked dishes as a finishing touch for the strong flavour it gives.
Light olive oil is a more refined olive oil with fewer health benefits. It has a paler colour, a less strong flavour, and a higher smoke point, around 240°C. This means it can be used for general cooking, for anything except frying at a very high temperature.
Extracted from the flesh of the avocado, as well as being delicate in flavour, this oil is high in vitamin E and omega 9, rich in mono-unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. With a smoke point of 271°C, it’s safe to use for even the hottest of frying.
This makes it an ideal choice for searing meats or wok frying. Keep it in a dark place as it will oxidise in bright light, losing its flavour and healthy properties. If you're an avocado fan, try our ultimate guacamole recipe!
Touted as the British version of olive oil, this bright yellow crop can be seen all over the UK in early summer. It contains about half the amount of saturated fat found in olive oil. Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fernley Whittingstall are both fans of this UK-produced oil.
Rapeseed oil is high in omega 3, 6 and 9, which is great news, and is lower in saturated fat than most other oils at 6 per cent. It contains more vitamin E than olive oil and has a higher smoke point, so the health benefits aren’t lost as easily during cooking.
Hemp seed oil
This is perhaps the most nutritionally balanced oil, with the most complete range of essential fatty acids. Containing omega-3 and anti-inflammatory omega-6, it is also intensely flavoured and works well in salads. However its low smoke point of 165°C means it can’t be used for cooking, as its nutrients will be destroyed.
Extracted from coconut flesh, coconut oil contains lots of essential fatty acids. And although it’s high in saturated fat, studies have shown that because it comes from lauric acid, it’s not the bad kind of saturated fat. As long as you are using virgin coconut oil, that is, not the much cheaper RDB (refined-deodorised bleached) coconut oil which has very little flavour. Coconut oil's smoke point is fairly low at 177°C.
It’s not as healthy as olive oil which is mostly made up of unsaturated fat and therefore lowers LDL (bad saturated fat) and increases HDL (good saturated fat). You can cook with it at medium temperatures, for its deliciously coconutty taste, but it's probably best not to use it on a daily basis.
Dark sesame oil is extracted from toasted sesame seeds and has a distinctive flavour that's great in Asian stir fries and drizzled on vegetables. It has a smoke point of 210°C, although tends to lose its strong flavour when heated.
A neutral, slightly nutty tasting oil, grapeseed oil is a by-product of the wine industry. However, it is extracted from grape seeds using a chemical process. Although it doesn’t have as many benefits as some oils, it’s low in saturated fats, so not too unhealthy. With and a high smoke point of 210°C, grapeseed oil is a good one for higher temperature cooking.
It’s also great option for those looking to cut back on fat, as it creates a film more easily, thus requiring less to cover the same surface area. Worth having in your store cupboard to use for stir frying.
With a delicate, nutty flavour, walnut oil is great in salads. It’s smoke point is 160°C, so it’s not a good oil to cook with. Light, heat and oxygen can make it go rancid pretty quickly. This one is best kept in the fridge.
Pumpkin seed oil
A gorgeous dark green colour, pumpkin seed oil is an anti-inflammatory. As well as tasting deliciously nutty, it is reported to help reduce cholesterol levels, encourage prostate health and ease irritable bowel syndrome.
None of these health benefits are retained after heating, however, so it is best drizzled sparingly over salads, risottos, or as a treat with bread.