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Breaking down cooking oils

Article by Michele Henry published on September 28, 2015, in the Toronto Star (Canada).

Now that fat’s back in vogue — it’s vital for building cell walls, making hormones, absorbing vitamins, etc. — it’s time to explore our greasy options.

Palm oil — from controversy to ecoconscious consumers

It’s rich, earthy and lends frying foods a satisfying nuttiness; not to mention a brilliant ochre hue.

And red palm oil is slowly cropping up on commercial shelves — even though it remains tinged with controversy.

Artisanal cousin to the beleaguered commercial palm oil, which is often found in chips, cookies and “processed foods,” this solid cooking grease sets off alarm bells for some who fear it’s full of moral corruption, responsible for clear cutting of forests in far-flung countries and killing off native orangutans.
But quietly, sustainable versions of this solid, scarlet oil, which has a neutral if slightly nutty flavour, are making an appearance on local shelves.

That’s because, nutritionally it’s a good grease. Red palm oil is high in monounsaturated “good” fats, says registered dietitian Melissa Baker, adding that although it is also high in saturated fats — those are now considered more “neutral” than evil. Additionally, palm oil is rife with vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant and has a sky-high 450 F smoke point, which makes it ideal for everyday cooking, even at higher heats.

According to Hiroko Shimizu, a public policy analyst and research fellow at Europe’s Institut Économique Molinari and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma, the ecological concerns about red palm oil are “overblown.”

Shimizu, who spent a year investigating the global palm oil situation, says the truth is that palm oil, in part, is grown and processed on existing plantations formerly devoted to the production of other crops, such as coconuts and natural rubber. The switchover is because palm oil is a more efficient oil to produce than crops, including soy beans. It requires far less energy, fewer herbicides and less land.

It also travels well across long distances.

Sadly, Shimizu says, deforestation is a reality in poorer nations — and affects a lot of industries, not just palm oil production. Where people struggle to feed themselves and their children, they don’t have the time, money or resources to think about forests or orangutans.

But supporting their efforts to earn money — especially with a healthy product, Shimizu says, will enable those populations to not only provide for themselves and their families, but turn their attention to the bigger issues.

“Once they can send their kids to school and improve housing,” she says, “then they can leave nature alone.”

Grease guide

Since frying over a red hot burner won’t serve your body — or your ingredients — most cooking oils are interchangeable when you’re cooking over a medium flame, says Baker.

Still, when it comes to lubricating your pan, there’s much to consider, she says: Extra virgin oils may be healthier because they’re less processed, she says, and, it’s important to match cooking oil with cooking temperature:

8 cooking oils to consider

Each grease has a unique smoke point (heat your oil beyond its magic number and expect the fire alarm to sound). Then there’s cost, and, lastly, you’ll want to consider flavour: anyone for coconut-oil fried steak?

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

This green-tinged serum is viewed as an “all purpose” cooking oil, but with a 350 F smoke point, it’s really only good for frying over low to medium heat or drizzling over salads.

Canola oil

With a 400 to 420 F smoke point — good for medium-high heat frying — there’s a reason this clear, neutral oil is the old standby.

Coconut oil

Hailed as a panacea for all types of frying, this solid oil’s smoke point is 350 F, so, like its liquid cousin EVOO, choose it for lower-heat cooking. And, mind the distinct coconutty taste.

Avocado oil

With a smoke point of 500 to 510 F and a nutty, sweet aroma, it’s ideal for high heat cooking, but it’s costly, making it a poor choice for everyday stirfrys.

Sesame oil

This full flavour oil has a 410 F smoke point, so it’s good for medium-high heat frying — but only if you don’t mind the powerful, distinctive flavour and can afford to burn through a lot.

Peanut oil

Vilified during the days when the “low-fat” diet was king, peanut oil is a great, all-purpose choice for lubricating the pan. With a smoke point of 450 F, perfect for medium-high heat cooking, it’s teeming with vitamin E, has a mild, earthy flavour that won’t overpower your food and it’s priced just right.

Hazelnut oil

High in monounsaturated fats trumpeted by the Mediterranean Diet and a smoke point of 410 to 430 F make this nutty grease good for medium-high heat. But, the bold taste and high price tag keep it firmly in the “flavouring oil” category.

Grapeseed oil

This neutral oil’s smoke point is 400 to 420 F, so it’s perfect as an all-purpose medium-high heat frying oil. It may contain a higher than average Omega 6 fat concentration — the kind of fats often found in processed foods, says Baker. But if you limit your fast food and fried products, the small amount of grapeseed oil in your pan won’t tip the healthy balance in your body.

L’Institut économique Molinari

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