Specialty Culinary Oils Add Antioxidants to Your Diet
For nuanced flavor and health rewards, drizzle and sizzle with specialty oils
Specialty oils offer unusual and sometimes surprising flavors for cooking, dipping, sautéing, drizzling and even stirring into morning smoothies. These oils add natural plant compounds (like antioxidants) and other health benefits to your diet. Nutritionists say that for optimal well-being these good-for-you oils (low in saturated fats) should make up between 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories. Healthy fats help your heart beat stronger, your immune system work better and your skin stay moist and dewy. Plus they can add not-so-subtle sophistication to your menu.
Where to start? Here’s help deciphering what’s good in the growing selection of oil products. From allergy-friendly health perks to flavor nuance, these oils are our top picks.
Origin Taken from the pulp that surrounds the pit of the avocado fruit.
Taste Test Avocado oil is blessed with a buttery texture and full-bodied nutty flavor.
Health Benefits Like olive oil, ber-avocado oil is rich in vitamin E and cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat (72 percent of calories come from this heart-friendly fat). Interestingly, Ohio State University researchers showed that adding avocado oil to salad improves absorption of fat-soluble antioxidants, such as beta-carotene and eye-protecting lutein, found in salad vegetables. Another good reason to banish those bland fat-free dressings.
How to Use This oil has a higher smoking point than most oils (it can go beyond 500 degrees F), so it’s perfect for the grill, oven and stove-top. Also, try mixing it into salsa and using it as a flavorful garnish for fresh fruit, shrimp, pizza, roasted squash, sliced tomatoes and toasted gluten-free bread.
Origin A fruit oil gleaned from the olive tree’s fruit. The vast majority of the 750 million olive trees cultivated for olive oil production are found in the Mediterranean region, mainly Spain, Greece and Italy.
Taste Test The flavor is influenced by the type of olive tree and where it is growing. Often, the best olive oil is kissed with a peppery edge or fruity tones.
Health Benefits An abundance of polyphenols, monounsaturated fat and vitamin E makes olive oil one of the heart-healthiest options in the oil department. An impressive 75 percent of calories come from monounsaturated fat, which confers heart protection by lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while simultaneously raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. The polyphenols in olive oil—its potent antioxidant plant compounds—have been shown to reduce bone loss, improve cholesterol levels, decrease blood pressure, stymie the spread of cancerous cells, reduce inflammation and prevent the bunching together of blood platelets, which protects against stroke and heart attacks. Portuguese researchers found that one major antioxidant in olive oil called DHPEA-EDA is particularly effective in protecting red blood cells from oxidative damage by menacing free radicals. Consider splurging on more flavorful virgin and extra-virgin varieties, as a recent Annals of Internal Medicine study determined that these are best for heart health. Minimal processing during extraction leaves more antioxidants, making extra-virgin extra healthy.
How to Use Extra-virgin olive oil is best enjoyed unheated. If cost is a worry, Chef Hinnerk von Bargen, associate professor at The Culinary Institute of America, suggests using more heat stable and less pricey refined (often called “light” or “pure”) olive oil for cooking. Von Bargen recommends you save the made-with-love artisan virgin oil for high-impact flavor, such as brushing over grilled steak, dipping for fresh baked gluten-free bread or drizzling over quinoa and roasted seasonal vegetables.
Origin Coconut oil, also known as coconut butter, is obtained from coconut copra, the dried meat of the coconut. It’s separated from the coconut hull and then dried and pressed to extract the oil.
Taste Test Not surprisingly, most coconut oil (particularly the “virgin” variety) has a coconut taste and smell. Refined “non-virgin” coconut oil has a more neutral flavor, a better choice for those who don’t care for coconut.
Health Benefits It’s true that this wrongly maligned tropical oil is loaded with saturated fat (about 12 grams per tablespoon), but most of this is in the form of lauric acid—a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). Because of a unique structure, MCTs are more likely to be burned for energy in our bodies rather than stored as body fat. In fact, a 2008 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study that administered four to five teaspoons of MCT oil or olive oil daily to subjects for four months found that those consuming MCT oil lost more body weight and fat mass than those ingesting the olive variety. Lauric acid also has antibacterial properties and, unlike animal-origin saturated fat, may reduce harmful LDL cholesterol while increasing beneficial HDL levels.
How to Use Because it’s highly saturated, coconut oil has a very high smoke point, making it ideal for high-heat cooking like stir-frying. If you want to add more to your diet, try it in protein shakes and baked goods, as a sandwich spread or on roasted vegetables. For baked goods, von Bargen says you can experiment with ¾ cup coconut oil in place of each cup of butter or vegetable shortening used.
Origin Flax oil is extracted from the seeds of the Linum utilitatissimum plant.
Taste Test Your palate will immediately notice a robust nutty flavor that’s not to everyone’s liking.
Health Benefits Flaxseed is the best source of the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) of all the dietary oils. ALA helps quell inflammation, a trigger for several chronic diseases. Japanese scientists reported that increased ALA intake can boost levels of adiponectin, a hormone that exerts anti-diabetic and heart-protective functions. A 2009 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that omega-3s can help regulate heart rate, which may be one reason why there’s an inverse relationship between ALA intake and heart attack risk. With its high omega-3 content, adding flaxseed oil to your diet can help correct fatty acid ratios, recommended for disease prevention.
How to Use Sensitive to heat, it’s best to keep flaxseed oil out of the frying pan. It adds rich texture to smoothies and is nice drizzled onto oatmeal, yogurt and cottage cheese. Because it is very delicate, you’ll find it in the refrigerated section of grocery and natural food stores. Once home, do the same and keep it in the fridge to prevent rancidity.
Grape Seed Oil
Origin Grape seed oil is pressed from, you guessed it, grape seeds. It’s largely a by-product of winemaking.
Taste Test Slightly nutty with a hint of fruity sweetness, it usually has a light, nondescript flavor.
Health Benefits Grape seed oil is an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as beneficial monounsaturated fats, including oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid that researchers from the University of California, Irvine found can suppress food cravings between meals. During digestion, oleic acid is converted into oleoylethanolamide (OEA), a hunger-fighting hormone that stimulates cellsthat tell your brain that you’re full. Further, adding grape seed oil to high glycemic index foods, like refined breads, white rice and potatoes, can slow the rise in blood sugar levels. Fast-rising blood sugar triggers your pancreas to release a flood of insulin, a hormone that lowers blood sugar but also signals your body to store fat. A caveat: The nasty chemical hexane is often used to extract the oil from the grape seeds, so look for organic or expeller-pressed varieties.
How to Use Its high smoke point (the temperature at which oil begins to smolder) makes grape seed oil ideal for hot food preparation, including stir-frying and grilling. “Grape seed oil emulsifies very well. Use it for making mayonnaise and creamy dressings so they won’t separate when chilled,” says von Bargen. He adds that some chefs use grape seed oil in marinades and salad dressings because its unobtrusive taste doesn’t dominate other flavors.
Origin Hemp oil is pressed from the seeds of the hemp plant. Industrial hemp used to make this oil is a varietal of the Cannabis plant but it contains none of the psychoactive substance (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) found in marijuana.
Taste Test Expect an earthy flavor with nutty overtones and a brilliant green hue that is sure to wow even the most staunch olive oil devotee.
Health Benefits Verdant hemp oil abounds with essential omega-6 and omega-3 fats. What’s more, these fats are present in a 3:1 ratio in hemp oil—exactly what many health experts say is the best ratio for well-being. Because of increased reliance on processed foods and restaurant grub that are largely prepared with low-grade vegetable oils such as soybean and corn that are omega-6-rich, most Americans consume a ratio that is closer to 10:1 or higher. This skewed ratio promotes inflammation that can spiral into heart disease and diabetes. Hemp is also one of the very few food sources of the omega-6 fat, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). A 2008 animal study conducted at the University of Manitoba, Canada, suggests that GLA reduces blood platelet clumping, which may help prevent dangerous blood clotting. Other studies hint that GLA is capable of halting the growth of cancerous cells.
Being a hardy, um, weed that’s naturally resistant to most pests, hemp grown for food production does not have to be bathed in chemical pesticides and herbicides. This resiliency allows hemp to flourish in a variety of climatic conditions, promoting better land and water usage. A green choice, indeed.
How to Use Hemp oil is not suitable for cooking because of its low smoking point, and it doesn’t have an overly long shelf life before turning rancid. Therefore, use it regularly and store it in the fridge. Try hemp oil raw in dressings, smoothies, pesto and hummus or for accenting soups, baked potatoes and steamed veggies.
Pumpkin Seed Oil
Origin Made from squeezing the seeds of the pumpkin squash.
Taste Test Pumpkin seed oil has a distinctive and rich nutty flavor and light green color.
Health Benefits Besides being high in healthful polyunsaturated fat, pumpkin oil is loaded with vitamin E, a potent anti-oxidant that research suggests reduces inflammation and slashes lung and prostate cancer risk. Antioxidants like vitamin E protect our cells against the harmful effects of free radicals. Several studies suggest that pumpkin seed oil can help shrink an enlarged prostate.
How to Use With its low burning point, this oil is not recommended for cooking. Try it as a garnish on grilled fish, potato salad, soups, popcorn, brown rice and steamed leafy greens. Pumpkin seed oil is also wonderful as a replacement for olive oil in pesto and salad dressing.
Origin Safflower oil is produced from the seeds of the thistle-like safflower, an annual plant native to Mediterranean countries.
Taste Test Generally, safflower oil is colorless without much flavor.
Health Benefits Like many other vegetable oils, safflower oil is brimming with heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids. A 2009 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that consuming some safflower oil with a meal can reduce hunger and may prevent overeating during subsequent meals. It appears that unsaturated fats stimulate the release of the hormone cholecystokinin, which promotes satiety. There are two types of safflower oil on the market. One is high in monounsaturated fat oleic acid (this is the most common type of safflower oil out there) and the other is high in polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid. Health benefits vary depending on the variety you choose.
How to Use High-oleic monounsaturated types of safflower oil can really handle the heat, so try them for frying and baking. High-linoleic polyunsaturated safflower oil is less heat stable and best enjoyed cold. It resists solidification when chilled and works nicely in make-ahead salad dressings.
Tea Seed Oil
Origin Pressed from the seeds of the same Camillia sinensis evergreen plant that makes up your morning cup of tea. Who knew?
Taste Test Light in color with slight notes of lemon.
Health Benefits Tea oil is very high in monounsaturated fat. Recently, Danish researchers discovered that overweight subjects who consumed a diet rich in this fat for six months improved blood sugar levels, possibly offering protection from diabetes and further weight gain. A Korean study found when mice consumed high-fat diets for 85 days made up of either shortening or green tea seed oil, those eating the latter gained less weight. The scientists surmised that perhaps properties in tea oil interfere with compounds responsible for the expansion of body fat cells.
How to Use Like avocado and coconut, tea seed oil can handle the heat, making it useful for sautéing meats and vegetables. For a fresh flavor, toss it into pasta, marinades and dips.