Vegetable oil: what is a smart choice?
Should we only consume unrefined, cold-pressed oil?
Let’s talk about oil today. And before you start thinking: *booooring* 🥱 just hear me out.
Our choice of cooking oil is often the result of long established (family) habits. I’m originally from Southern France, so in my kitchen you’ll find olive oil. There’s also that organic unflower oil bottle, that will go into hiding when the family visits. Yes, that’s how emotional things can get about food.
But I only recently wondered what sets different oils apart (olive, sunflower or else)? Should I pick the unrefined one? Should I go for the bottle that looks premium?
So I decided to do some research on the topic, starting with how oil is produced.
From grain to oil
I will spare you the nitty gritty of oil processing. Basically, the standard vegetable oil processing looks like this:
Bear in mind that some level of refining is needed as unrefined oil includes impurities like free radicals, off-flavours, etc., which may prove damaging to our health.
After some packaging and transport, you find the oil in your retail store.
Checking the package: quick tips
While it is interesting to know how oil is processed, you may be wondering what to make of it.
Well, some indications on the packaging helps us understand how the oil was manufactured:
- mentions such as: “cold-pressed”, “cold-beaten”, “virgin”, “extra virgin”, “in its natural state” or “unrefined” indicate that the oil was only mechanically extracted, at low temperature and was not refined afterwards
- organic label (EU): all oils are cold-pressed and can be minimally processed to remove unwanted elements. Solvent extraction and heaving refining for colour or taste is not allowed. And of course, the raw materials were grown organically.
- without those mentions, you can assume the oil was refined and/or extracted with solvents
Which oil should I choose?
If you are like me and are thinking: “Let’s go for the organic cold-pressed oil then”, it is actually a bit more complicated than that.
Cold-pressed and unrefined oil retains important nutrients such as vitamin E, omega-3 and omega-6. However, these nutrients are often not stable at high temperature. There is limited benefit to use those oils for cooking.
Additionally, unrefined oils have a lower smoke point than the same oil that has been refined. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil starts producing visible smoke and releasing harmful compounds.
So while it makes sense to use cold-pressed oil for your salad and quick stir-fry, you will be throwing money away by using it for deep frying or oven baking, in addition to harming your health. What is more, some oils, like flaxseed oil, should not be heated at all.
Ultimately, it’s preferable to choose oil based on the use you want to make of it. The table below shows how much heat can be applied to different oils, based on their level of refining:
As for me, I’ll stick to my virgin olive oil for most purposes, and replace that expensive organic sunflower oil with a refined version for frying. 😅
📌 In a nutshell
If you ran out of time to read the entire post, here are the key takeaways:
- vegetable oil can be produced with minimal processing or undergo many extraction and refining steps (often with chemicals)
- oils labelled as “organic”, “cold-pressed”, “virgin” or “extra virgin” do not go through chemical extraction and only through minimal refining
- however not all unrefined oils are suitable for cooking. Health-wise, you could be better off using a refined oil when cooking at high temperature (see the table in the section above)
🕬 I hear you
I am curious to hear what you think. Share your insights, remarks and even disagreements:
- Which oil(s) do you generally buy?
- Are you planning to make any changes for your next oil purchase?
- Have you been thinking of using a different one but are unsure about it?