Good Oils - Ask a Nutritionist

August 17, 2023

Not all oils are created equally. Virgin, extra virgin, cold pressed, organic, pure, light. So which one is right for you? Tune into this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist with Monica to learn all about which oils you should avoid and which you should using.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

MONICA: Welcome to our Dishing of Nutrition's midweek segment called Ask a Nutritionist. I'm Monica Hoss. I'm a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. On today's show, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness, we will be talking all about oils. This question was asked by one of our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners: “Which oils are good to use and which should I avoid? I've heard that olive oil will become rancid at high heat, but for years I've been using it to roast my veggies because I thought it was the healthy choice. Please help me understand which oils I should use and for which purposes.” So let's dive into everything you need to know about oils, both from a culinary perspective and a nutritional standpoint.

What to look for when choosing olive oil

And since this listener was specifically asking about olive oil, let's start there. I bet if you're listening, you have been at the grocery store with olive oil on your list only to get to the correct aisle and find there are so many shelves of different choices. We've got virgin, extra virgin, cold pressed, organic, pure, light, and the list goes on. There are so many olive oils to choose from. So how do you know which one to choose?

When looking for olive oil, and really this goes for other types of oils as well, we're looking for the words extra virgin or cold pressed. According to the American Olive Oil Producers Association, olive oil that's labeled just plain olive oil means it is likely a lesser quality olive oil. It's probably been refined through degumming, neutralization, bleaching, and/or deodorization processes. Then it's blended with about five to 15% extra virgin or virgin olive oil. So you're probably not getting that olive oil that you think you're getting.

Also, according to the American Olive Oil Producers Association, pure and/or light olive oil are marketing terms used for olive oil that has been refined and mixed with a small amount of extra virgin or virgin olive oil. Light or extra light olive oil are lighter in their flavor, their aroma, and many times the color more so than extra virgin olive oil. But it's important to note that it doesn't mean that it's less calories because of the word light. So you might think the word light means less calories, but here it's really referring to the taste, the color, and the aroma.

What does expeller pressed mean?

So beyond olive oil, maybe on a different ingredient label, you've seen expeller pressed oils. What does expeller pressed mean? Well, this oil extraction method is exactly as it sounds: physically pressing the fruit, nuts or seeds to separate the oil rather than using a chemical process. During the process, it can heat up to above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. So technically, this is not cold pressed and you can lose some of its nutrients in this process.

Best choice is cold pressed or extra virgin

In terms of good, better, best, expeller pressed is better than say a heavily processed oil that's usually found in a lot of processed junk foods, but it's not the best. The best would really be a cold pressed or extra virgin oil. Let's talk more about cold pressed oils. Cold pressed oils cannot exceed 122 degrees Fahrenheit during the extraction process. So this means that when we're comparing it to expeller pressed, a cold pressed oil extraction method allows for the natural enzymes to stay intact, and this will maintain a higher level of nutrients. This is why from a nutritional standpoint, we recommend cold pressed oils because it keeps the natural nutrients of the oil intact during its minimal processing.

What does virgin and extra virgin mean?

Virgin and extra virgin oils are another way that you might see oils categorized. Especially when it comes to olive and coconut oil, a lot of times you'll see it's say virgin coconut oil or extra virgin coconut oil. So let's talk about what that means. Virgin and extra virgin oils are going to be cold pressed oils, which is good because by definition they cannot be extracted using heat.

Because they're in their more natural form, they'll have a stronger flavor and odor than the more heavily processed refined oils. Extra virgin means that the oil is from the very first press of the fruit, nut or seed, whereas virgin oils are from the second press of the oil. Virgin will leave a fully intact fat, but with a less strong smell and flavor than extra virgin.

Why are cold pressed and extra virgin healthy choices?

As with cold pressed, virgin and extra virgin oils are healthy choices because for the most part, the nutrients remain intact in the oils much more than a heavily processed refined oil would.

More considerations when choosing olive oil

Now let's move on to other things to consider. Another important factor to look for in choosing an oil is what kind of bottle it's packaged in. Olive oil is a delicate oil that is really sensitive to heat and light, so you want to make sure it's in an opaque bottle, preferably glass, as opposed to a clear plastic bottle. And you want to store it in a cool, dark place like in your pantry away from the sunlight.

So we want to protect it from that light. Because it's such delicate oil, we like to use olive oil for purposes that don't require a lot of heat, such as salad dressings, dips, maybe garnishing a meat after it's cooked. You can heat it up to a low heat before it becomes damaged, and really that should be no higher than 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heating oil to a smoke point damages it

Now, no matter what oil you're cooking with in a pan, if you see it start to smoke or boil, it has become damaged. If it comes to that point, my advice is to toss out the oil and start over with fresh. I know you might feel bad throwing it away in that moment because of food waste, but remember, for our health, we really don't want to be consuming any oils that have been burnt, much like you wouldn't want to eat any food that has been burnt.

Which oils tolerate high heat?

But don't worry, there are oils that can tolerate high heat, which are better suited for cooking. So let's talk about what some of those healthy oils would be for that higher heat and why. First, let's explain how we decide which oils can be heated to high levels and which we prefer to stay unheated. Every oil has a smoke point, which means the point at which it burns and becomes a damaged oil.

Not only does burning an oil ruin the flavor, but at that point it becomes toxic to our health and even potentially carcinogenic when it's consumed over time. Like I mentioned before, for reference, extra virgin olive oil can handle a maximum of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and extra virgin coconut oil have smoke points in a similar range. So again, these are oils to be used in a low to medium low heat cooking.

In comparison, avocado oil can reach up to 450 or 500 degrees without burning. For this reason, avocado oil is a great option for that high heat cooking. In fact, I keep a dark glass bottle of avocado oil close to my stove so that it's easy to reach because it really is my preferred cooking oil, especially when I've got that burner turned up a little bit higher.

Another option for high smoke point cooking oil is ghee or clarified butter, and this is different than just regular butter. Ghee or clarified butter, what this means is that the butter is heated to separate the milk fat from the liquid, and then they scrape that fat off. The solid fat part is called clarified butter or ghee. Because the liquid and the other milk solids have been removed, the fat remaining has a much higher smoke point, not to mention a great flavor.

Tip: heat pan before adding oil

Here's another tip. When you're cooking: you want to wait for the pan to heat up before you add any oil. This may be new information to you to wait for the pan to heat up, but it's important. And the reason this matters is if you add oil to a pan before it heats up, you're giving the oil more time to break down and oxidize before you add the food, which can then become a burnt damaged oil. So always let the pan heat up a little bit first, and then when it's ready to go, you can add the oil.

So to summarize, low or no heat oils are going to be your olive oil, coconut oil and butter. While higher heat oils are avocado oil and ghee. And while there are many other cooking oils on the market, these are really the ones that we recommend as the best quality from a nutritional standpoint. Thanks for listening today, and we hope you found this podcast helpful. If you'd like to suggest a topic for a future podcast episode, find us on Facebook by searching up Dishing Up Nutrition.

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