Choosing the right cooking oil

With such a range of cooking oils on supermarket shelves, which are better for what purpose?
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05.Jargon buster

Cold-pressed oils No excessive heat is used to extract the oils manufactured this way. As a result, they generally have a stronger flavour and are higher in antioxidants such as vitamin E and polyphenols. They’re also more expensive.

Cholesterol-free All oils are free from cholesterol, as oils are derived from plant sources that naturally have no cholesterol.

Blended vegetable oil refers to a mixture of oils used in the manufacture depending on availability and price. Vegetable oils generally contain a mixture of soybean and canola oil.

Lite/Light/Extra light only means the oil is lighter in flavour and/or colour, not lower in kilojoules. 

Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the first pressing of olives. It yields the best-tasting and lowest acidity oil, and therefore comes with a higher price tag. It’s best suited for cold purposes such as salad dressings, drizzling over cooked pasta or char-grilled vegetables.

Smoke point of an oil refers to the level of heat it can withstand before reaching the point where it begins to smoke. Oils with a high smoke point are ideal for frying. When oils with a low smoke point are taken to high temperatures, breakdown products can form that reverse their heart-friendly benefits and instead increase the risk of heart disease.

High-heat oils generally have a high smoke point, allowing them to reach high temperatures, and can be used for deep-frying, stir-fries and sautéing. Medium-heat oils can be used for sautéing, baking, grilling and roasting. Low-heat oils generally have a low smoke point and shouldn’t be used where heat is involved. They’re best for cold dishes such as salad dressings and dips.

Rancid oil develops a distinct smell akin to crayons, musty paint or paint thinner, whereas fresh oil should be fairly odourless. When heated, rancid oil has a strong and unpleasant smell. Older oil can also become more viscous and stick around the cap of the jar.

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Smoke point defined

Smoke point refers to the temperature at which a cooking fat or oil begins to break down and give off smoke. At this point deterioration of flavor and nutritional quality begin and the oil is more prone to bursting into flame (i.e. its flash point). Not only is the smoke dangerous, but the materials that remain in the liquid, start to affect the flavor of the food being cooked. The NSW Fire Brigade says that more than half of all home fires start in the kitchen, so if the oil begins to smoke, turn the heat down immediately. Remember that while the oil you’re using may be better health wise at room temperature, it can become unhealthy when heated beyond its smoke point.

For cooking, the smoke point determines what the oil can be used for, dictating the maximum useable temperature of the oil. A high smoke point is ideal for deep-fat frying. Some manufacturers indicate on the label if the oil is ideal for high, medium or low temperature cooking, and in some instances indicate the smoke point temperature of the oil. Keep an eye out for this when buying cooking oils.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of oil palm trees – native to West Africa. Commercial palm oil plantations have ballooned in the past two decades - it's a high-yielding crop that is relatively cheap for food producers (Malaysia and Indonesia being the world's largest) to use. Environmentalists say the production and use of palm oil is driving rainforest destruction and threatening the organ-utan and Sumatran tiger species – and if pressures continue these species may become extinct within a decade. Not to mention, that the effects of clearing rainforests is a major contributor to global warming.

Palm oil contains around 50% saturated fat. Because of its high saturated fat content, it remains more stable and solid than many other oils when used in processed food, making it ideal for long-shelf life, packaged food. Palm oil is present in around half our packaged foods, however appears unannounced and often hidden as unspecified ‘vegetable oil’. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute believe there is convincing evidence that palmatic acid (found in palm oil) increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. The National Heart Foundation of Australia also urges consumers to avoid palm oil and coconut oil (contains a staggering 90% saturated fat) due to their high levels of saturated fat. However, it’s difficult to avoid it when food manufacturers aren’t required to label it.

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