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Is your cooking oil healthy?

By Rohini Cardoso e Diniz
Last updated on: February 21, 2006 15:38 IST
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With so much variety and so many brands flooding the market today, buying the right cooking oil can prove a tough task.

As you enter a department store, you behold an array of cooking oils sporting all types of jargon on the packaging -- saturated fats, unsaturated fats, refined, filtered, ricebran oil, vanaspati, etc. Confused already?

Not to worry. Yesterday, we introduced you to healthy cooking methods where we mentioned that the best cooking practice is to try and cut down on the amount of cooking oil you use, altogether. Today, we will give you enough information to help you choose the right cooking oil. 

Jargon demystified

First, let's find out the meanings of common words associated with oil.

Cholesterol: A soft substance found among the fats in the bloodstream and the body cells. Cholesterol is essential for the body's functioning, and there are two basic types; low-density lipoprotein or 'bad' cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein or 'good' cholesterol. Elevated levels of blood cholesterol are an important risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease.

Also, remember that oil does not contain cholesterol but helps to promote the formation of it in the body. Most cholesterol is not of a dietary nature ie it is formed within the body. It is only found in foods from animal sources such as eat, poultry, shellfish, eggs, dairy products, lard and butter.

Monosaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA): This refers to a healthy fatty acid, which lowers the levels of bad cholesterol  and triglycerides without lowering good cholesterol levels.

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA): This lowers the levels of good and bad cholesterol. This is not beneficial as low good cholesterol increases the risk of developing heart disease.

Saturated fats: When consumed in excess, it increases the levels of both the total as well as the bad cholesterol in the blood, thereby allowing fat to be deposited on the walls of the blood vessels. This promotes the formation of blood clots and heart disease.

Unsaturated fats: These are considered good for health as they do not increase the levels of bad cholesterol.

Refined oil: This type of oil has been purified with chemicals to remove any suspended particles, toxic substances, flavour components, colour and odour, thereby leaving behind a clear and bland oil.

Filtered oil: Obtained by the traditional cold pressing method, this is filtered once or twice to remove suspended particles.

Oil combinations

In order to derive maximum benefits from oil, it is beneficial to consume a mix of oils in order to maintain a balance between the three fatty acids.

As using a combination of two oils may not be a practical thing to do, today a number of blended oils are available in the market. For instance, blends of ricebran and sunflower oils (brand names include Sunrice, Sundrop Heart, etc) are the best buys and are suitable even for frying.

You could also have two or more different kinds of oils in your kitchen that you could use for different purposes. For example, you could use olive oil for salads, groundnut oil for frying and soyabean oil for other cooking purposes. This will let you take advantage of the health benefits offered by each oil.

Healthy cooking oils

Groundnut oil/ peanut oil

These are the most commonly consumed oils in India, particularly in the rural areas. They contain heart-friendly MUFA that lower the levels of bad cholesterol in our body without lowering the levels of good cholesterol.

In the market, it is available in refined form as well as filtered form.

Although the filtered oils are nutritionally superior, they often contain toxic compounds or adulterants.

Hence, it is better to buy refined groundnut oils of reputed brands. This oil is suitable for all types of cooking -- frying, grilling, seasoning (bagar), etc

Olive oil

Although more expensive than other oils, olive oil has many health benefits. It has mono-unsaturated fat and is the preferred cooking oil in Mediterranean countries.

Studies have found that consumption of olive oil can lower the risk of coronary heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol levels and blood clot formation.

Research has also found that olive oil may influence body fat distribution, with less fat stored around the stomach.

Olive oil is thought to offer a number of other health benefits, including reduced risk of some cancers (such as breast cancer), reduced risk of diabetes and, possibly, a delayed onset of complications in established diabetes.

It also contains many antioxidant phytochemicals that have many health benefits.

This oil is extracted by pressing or crushing olives and comes in different varieties, depending on the amount of processing involved. Varieties include:

~ Extra virgin: Considered the best, this oil comes from the first pressing of the olives.

~ Virgin: Comes from the second pressing. 

~ Pure: Undergoes some processing, such as filtering and refining

~ Extra light: Undergoes considerable processing and only retains a very mild olive flavour.

When buying olive oil, it is best to select the extra virgin variety. In order to get maximum benefits, olive oil should be used to prepare salad dressings, as a seasoning for soups, for sautéing vegetables or for grilling.

Soyabean oil

Relatively new oil in India, soyabean oil contains PUFA, particularly linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in the right balance, which are essential for human health.

Soyabean oil is suitable for all types of cooking methods except frying; PUFA gets oxidised at frying temperatures to form toxic compounds.

Mustard oil

This oil is traditionally used in West Bengal and is prized for its characteristic flavour (pungent and sharp). It is generally available as filtered oil; refined mustard oils are sold as vegetable oil. Mustard oil has a higher proportion of MUFA and is also a rich source of the PUFA.

However, it also contains erucic acid, a fatty acid that has undesirable effects on health when consumed in large amounts.

Mustard oil is suitable for all types of cooking including frying, but should be used along with other cooking oils to reduce the erucic acid content.

Mustard oil is sometimes adulterated with argemone oil, which is toxic. It is very difficult to tell when this kind of adulteration takes place.

Ricebran oil
It is a relatively new oil that is extracted from ricebran and is gaining popularity in Asian countries like Japan, Korea, China and India.

It is not very expensive.

Ricebran oil is a unique edible oil with many nutritional benefits, as compared to other edible oils. It is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and has cholesterol-lowering properties due to the presence of a minor component called oryzanol. It contains natural vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. It also contains squalene, which is good for the skin.

It is the ideal cooking oil since has good stability (lthis mean that, like other MUFA oils, it does not decompose at high temperatures to form toxic compounds) and is suitable for deep-frying. Studies have shown that snacks prepared in rice bran oil absorb 12-25 per cent less oil than those prepared in groundnut oil.

Sunflower oil

It is a popular cooking oil available under many brand names. This oil is rich in PUFA, particularly linoleic acid that lowers the levels of both good and bad cholesterol. Hence, this oil cannot be used as the only cooking oil; it could also be used along with other cooking oils such as red palm oil or palmolein oil that are low in linoleic acid (you could use sunflower oil on one day and red palm oil the next day).

Safflower/ kardi oil
Available in the market under the brand name of Saffola, it also contains PUFA in the form of linoleic acid. Like sunflower oil, this oil too should be used in combination with red palm oil or palmolein oil.

Palmolein oil

It contains MUFA and is low in linoleic acid, hence it is healthy to use in combination with other oils. 
Coconut oil
Used as a cooking medium in the south Indian states and other Asian countries, there are many misconceptions regarding its use as a cooking medium. Coconut oil contains saturated fats that are different from those present in animal fats. Like other vegetable oils, coconut oil also does not contain cholesterol and hence can be safely consumed as part of a balanced diet, in combination with other cooking oils, particularly sunflower or safflower oils.

Unhealthy cooking oils


It is made from milk fat and contains a high proportion of saturated fats and cholesterol, both of which when consumed in excess are risk factors for developing heart disease. Hence, it is wise to consume less amounts of butter.

Also prepared from milk fat, ghee or clarified butter is an essential item in India cuisine.

According to Indian medical systems, ghee contains several medicinal properties. Nutritionally, like butter, it also contains saturated fats and cholesterol which, when consumed in excess, leads to heart disease. Using small amounts of ghee to season foods is not harmful. Just avoid sweets and other dishes prepared with large quantities of ghee.

It is nothing but a mixture of vegetable oils that have been converted to solid form by the addition of hydrogen. Hydrogenated fat is used as a ghee substitute in cooking as well in the production of bakery products, sweets and snack items.

When vanaspati is made, trans fatty acids are also produced; these increase the risk of heart disease when consumed in excess and are best avoided.

Now, you are all set for your next shopping expedition!

Rohini Cardoso e Diniz is a consultant dietician with Naomi's Fitness Centre and manages a private practice in Goa.  


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Rohini Cardoso e Diniz