I have heard of blended whiskeys. But this was the first time I was hearing of blended oils.The packet claimed that it's an olive oil and then when I looked closely, it read blended oil. In another case, the photo on the oil bottle shows peanuts and it says peanut oil, and then in a small font in a corner it says that it has sunflower oil too. It's all becoming utterly confusing and with newer oils slipping onto grocery shelves, how on earth does one decide what to pick up.
In India, since time immemorial, the oil you use in your kitchen is largely dependent on where you come from. In Kerala, it's coconut oil, in Andhra and Rajasthan, it's sesame oil, in the east and north they use mustard oil and in central India and Gujarat groundnut oil is used. Different cultures eat differently and the type of oil fits beautifully into the food landscape of that region.
But all that changed in the 80's with the scare of cholesterol and heart disease. Overnight ghee got a bad name and we were told that we should avoid trans-fats and sunflower oil became popular. That was in the 90's.But today it's an altogether different story. You have new types of oil spilling across the grocery shelves from around the world and each new bottle label brings with it a new health hope.
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One of the most important things to keep in mind is - that oil behaves differently when heated, it changes texture, color, taste as well as it's nutritional properties. When the oil reaches its smoking point, a lot of the nutrients are destroyed and it can sometimes potentially form harmful compounds. Also, different oils have varying amounts of fats - Polyunsaturated, Monounsaturated and Saturated fats.
When I asked India's leading nutritionist, Dr. Shikha Sharma how much oil should we consume, she said that the total quantity of oil consumption should not cross 2 teaspoons per person per day. That's as far as quantity goes, but what about the quality. Here's a look at various oils and why they are not created equal.
The oil extracted from the seeds of sunflowers is known as sunflower oil. It has a high quantity of vitamin E, which makes it excellent for being used in and cosmetic products. Sunflower oil is a mixture of monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fatty acids. It has a high smoking point, which means that sunflower oil holds onto its nutritional content at higher temperatures, which is probably why this oil is widely used in deep frying chips, samosas and vegetables.
People with diabetes may need to be careful about sunflower oil as it may lead to the possibility of increasing sugar levels.
This oil is full of saturated fat. Studies suggest that diets high in coconut oil do raise total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Coconut oil also seems to raise HDL (good) cholesterol and it has the advantage that it behaves very well at high temperatures.
Groundnut oil or peanut oil is got a good combination of fats, and has the good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and is low in bad saturated fats. It's a good all-purpose oil for cooking and I think it works particularly well for Asian foods that are prepared in the wok.
Has a near ideal fat composition but not very good as it contains high amounts of erucic acid ranging from 35 to 48%. It is recommended that you don't use mustard oil as the sole cooking medium. It has a high smoking point so it's very good for deep frying.
A recent entrant into the Indian market, Canola is flying off the shelves. Canola oil, which is made from the crushed seeds of the canola plant, is said to be amongst the healthiest of cooking oils. It has the lowest saturated fat content of any oil. It's seen as a healthy alternative as its rich in monounsaturated fats and is high in Omega 3. It has a medium smoking point and is an oil that works well for fries, baking, sautéing etc. I use it liberally in Indian food, which it seems to embrace quite well.
If you use Olive oil regularly, you are consuming monounsaturated fats that will help you lower your risk of heart disease and breast cancer, and that's possibly because of its high monounsaturated fat content, which lowers cholesterol. I find olive oil brilliant for any Mediterranean dish, brilliant with pastas and risottos, and it's my top pick for breakfasts, works like a dream with eggs, pancakes, you name it.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This oil is a hot favorite, it's derived from the first pressing of olives and if full of antioxidants as well as polyphenyls, that are both considered good for heart health. It's a darker color and has less acidity than olive oil. I use it largely in salads, cold dishes and over pastas.
Rice Bran Oil
A fairly new kid on the block and a fast rising favourite amongst the manufacturers, rice bran oil is made from the outer layer (bran) of the grain of rice. Health experts claim that it's the healthiest oil on the planet. While I cannot vouch for that, I do know that while trying it out on my food show series, called Guilt Free, the taste did not clash with Indian food and it worked pretty well in cookies and cakes.
Apparently, rice bran oil has a chemical called oryzanol which is good for your cholesterol. It is high in monounsaturated fats and has a fair amount of polyunsaturated fats too, both the good type of fats. Since it has a high smoking point, it works well for deep frying chips and all.
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It has a mildly nutty, is very rich in monounsaturated fats and is a good way to get Vitamin E in our diets. It glides on very well in a dressing, in mayonnaise, vinaigrette and I find it adds tremendous panache to a simple grilled fish. The only downside is the price as well as availability in India. It's one of those oils that can be kept as an add-on oil. Just remember to store it right, as it can spoil easily.
Sesame oil comes in two colors. The lighter one is used in India and the Middle East, and is pressed from untoasted seeds. It has a mild flavour and a high smoking point. The darker variety has a distinct nutty aroma and taste and works very well in Asian food as a marinade or in stir fries.
Both types of oils are high in polyunsaturated fat but they should never be heated for too long. Sesame oil also contains magnesium, copper, calcium, iron and vitamin B6.
Grapeseed oil is pressed from grape seeds left over from wine making. It is believed to have very little saturated fat, is filled with good fat, has a very mild taste. It is considered good for cooking and frying, but am afraid I have had little experience with it.
According to leading health expert Dr. Shikha Sharma, "changing or rotating oils is healthy as it gives the body the different essential fatty acids which it needs. Normally, no single oil has all the essential fatty acids and the fatty acids ratio which the body needs. For example we need a judicious combination of mono-unsaturates, poly unsaturates and saturated fatty acids."
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How does one decide on what is the optimal ratio of these fats, I ask? Shikha says, "a personal thumb rule is 20% saturated 30% poly unsaturated and 50% mono unsaturated but this also includes the nuts and oil seeds as a source of natural oils."
As far mixing of oils go, I seem to be following the doctor's orders. What works is olive for breakfast, pastas and salads, sunflower for deep frying, sesame for Asian, and I alternate between Rice bran and Canola for Indian. Take your pick.