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They’re the first step in creating a culinary marvel or the finishing touch on your signature dish. cooking oils are used for frying, baking, stir-fries, salads and marinades. However, choosing the most sustainable – and healthiest – option is no easy task.
Supermarket shelves are crammed with more varieties than we know what to do with. From Mediterranean favourite olive to Asian specialist peanut and new kid on the block coconut, there’s an oil for every cook’s persuasion. Choose the right oils and the benefits are twofold: you’ll reduce your eco-footprint and improve your health. Now, that’s gastronomic excellence.
A field of choice
Cooking oils are purified plant fats that add flavour and texture to your culinary creations. Extracted and processed from various types of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, oils are principally used for human consumption but are also used in animal feed, for medicinal purposes and in industry.
Raw materials are husked, cleaned, crushed and conditioned then undergo extraction, which is usually mechanical. Fruits are boiled and the oil is skimmed; oil of nuts and seeds is filtered after they are pressed. The oil is then bottled, packaged and trucked to your local supermarket or farmer’s market. Australia is a relatively small producer of oil seeds, typically producing between two and three million tonnes each year.
Vibrant sunflowers are native to the US and one of the five largest oilseed crops in the world, comprising up to nine per cent of world oilseed production between 1999 to 2009. Oil-type sunflower seeds contain 35 to 55 per cent oil, and the crop is tolerant of dry conditions.
Its prolific, yellow-flowered cousin, canola (also known as rapeseed) was the third most produced vegetable oil globally in 2008/9, and is the biggest oilseed crop in Australia. In the last year 2,161,000 tonnes of canola was produced locally.
The oil content of canola crops in Australia varies from less than 35 per cent to more than 45 per cent, depending on the season and growing area. The meal by-product is a high protein product used in the poultry and pig industries.
Like sunflower and canola oil, peanut oil is produced from an annual crop grown specifically for use in oil and other food products. Approximately 29 million tonnes of peanuts are grown annually worldwide, mostly in China, India and the US.
Most of the ubiquitous olive oil that forms the core of the Mediterranean diet is grown and processed in Italy, Spain and Greece, although the local contribution to the market is increasing. Australia produces in excess of 5,000 tonnes of olive oil annually – which equates to 3 per cent of the world market – and more than half is exported.
Extra virgin olive oil – extracted without the use of chemicals or excessive heat – is a more popular option than refined olive oil. It requires less processing, which also makes it more eco-friendly, and has a fresher taste. Research conducted by consumer association, Choice, found many extra virgin olive oils sold in Australia don’t meet the International Olive Council trade standard, but new rules are set to regulate claims on packaging.
“Not all extra virgin olive oils are extra virgin by the time you use them, in particular the ones coming from overseas because of the length of time from picking to plate,” says Ingrid Just from Choice. “What we found was that of 28 brands of extra virgin olive oil sold in Australian supermarkets, half didn’t meet the international standard for extra virgin olive oil. The majority of those came from Italy and Spain.”
While the popular players we’ve mentioned dominate supermarket shelves, there are lots of smaller players on offer if you take the time to look. Grapeseed oil is an abundant by-product of wine production that limits waste produced by the viticulture industry, while avocado oil is produced from a small proportion of the 40,000 tonnes of fruit grown each year in Australia.
Virgin coconut oil is obtained from the fresh and mature kernel of the coconut by processes that don’t lead
to chemical alteration of the oil. It is a greener (and healthier) choice than hydrogenated coconut oil, which undergoes an intensive production process that creates trans fats.
Rice bran oil is extracted from the inner husk of rice. More than 90 per cent of the world’s rice is produced in Asia, which is responsible for some methane gas emissions. Derived from the seeds of the flax plant, flaxseed oil is cold pressed at low temperatures with no vigorous filtering or pumping. Similarly, hemp oil is made from a low-impact crop that also has thousands of non-culinary uses, but much of the harvest is shipped from China.
Palm oil – derived from the fruit of the oil palm – is a cheap, high yielding crop that’s primarily produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s found in 50 per cent of all packaged supermarket products but is often labelled under the broad category of vegetable oil. Approximately 32 million tonnes were produced in 2009 at the expense of considerable natural resources.
The WWF says, “palm oil cultivation, particularly by large companies, is responsible for increased fire, pollution, use of chemical pesticides, clear cutting of tropical hardwoods, biodiversity loss, and thus habitat destruction for several endangered species including the orangutan, tiger and elephant.”
Following palm oil, coconut and avocado oil report the highest yield (litres of oil produced per hectare of crop grown). Olive, canola, peanut, sunflower and rice also achieve solid returns.
Of course, as oil is a type of fat, choosing the best cooking oil for your health is just as important as selecting an eco-winner.
Fats play a valuable role in the body, transporting fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Along with proteins and carbohydrates, the body needs the nutritional benefits of fats to survive.
Good fats, such as healthy oils that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are important for cell connections, heart function and the immune system, but some kinds of fats can be dangerous.
Accredited practising dietitian Daniella Di-Benedetto says we should consume minimal amounts of saturated and trans fats, which increase ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
“Each oil has a mixture of good and bad fats making up their composition and it’s the ratio of these properties that determine the health benefits, or lack thereof, of the oil,” she says.
Choice lists vitamin E-rich grapeseed and cholesterol-reducing sunflower oil as versatile all-rounders. Peanut oil is perfect for stir-fries, while olive oil is well suited to low heat cooking and salad dressings.
According to Di-Benedetto, canola oil has the lowest saturated fat content of all oils at 8 per cent, while avocado oil is packed with vitamins and low in polyunsaturated fat. Rice bran oil is high in saturated fat but free of trans fats.
Rich in omega-3, flaxseed oil helps boost heart health, improves brain function and fights disease. However,
it should never be heated – drizzle over roast vegies or use in place of butter on toast. Likewise, hemp oil should not be heated, but make the most of its high omega-3, 6 and 9 count in salads.
Refined coconut oil contains as much as 91 per cent saturated fat, but virgin varieties are a much healthier option, as they do not contains trans fat. Palm oil contains 50 per cent saturated fat, making it a decidedly poor option.
So which oil should you use in tonight’s dinner? For maximum eco points – and the healthy tick of approval – choose Australian grapeseed oil. It makes good use of leftovers from wine making and earns top billing in Choice’s health test.
Locally produced canola oil is a very versatile cook’s companion – it’s plentiful, cheap and great for sautéing, baking and roasting. Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is bursting with health-giving antioxidants. Plus, it requires less processing than refined varieties, earning you green points. Steer clear of palm oil unless you’re sure it’s the certified sustainable variety.
Nutritionists advise that 20 to 35 of our total energy intake should come from fats, so monitor your portion control as well and you’ll use less oil, which can only mean good things for your health and that of the environment. Bon appetit!