For years, we've all accepted the common logic that olive oil is a healthier choice than other oils. But for many of us, that's been the extent of our exploration of and education about oil. The fact is, there are a number of beneficial oils we can use for cooking and dressings and each of my top picks are wonderful in their own right. Also, just like the importance of mixing colors when eating fruits and vegetables to obtain an array of health benefits, the same applies to the different oils. By using an assortment of different oils, and learning which kinds are best for which applications, we can achieve the best taste and the best health benefits. Here are five oils that you should know about:
Avocado Oil. Avocado oil is extracted from the flesh of the avocado, so it's technically a fruit oil not a vegetable oil. The first civilizations to use this precious oil were the Incas, Aztecs and Mayan Indians (1) -- all cultures known for their knowledge of natural power foods.
Avocado is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid. Avocados contain powerful phytonutrients like beta-sitosterol, which has been shown to lower cholesterol, and glutathione, which provides protection against certain types of cancer (2). Avocado oil also contains a powerful vitamin concoction of E, C, K, B6, potassium, and folate (2). Avocado oil is used as an ingredient in many beauty products -- giving skin a healthy glow and hair a smooth and moisturized finish. In recent scientific studies avocado oil has been shown to help prevent stroke and heart attack in diabetic patients by lowering the concentration of bad (LDL) cholesterol and improving overall blood lipids (3).
How to use it: Avocado oil has a mild, nutty flavor that pairs well with many ingredients. Because avocado oil has a natural buttery taste, it's a great substitution for butter or margarine. We love it in salads, salsas, fish marinades and bread dips. Avocado also stands up well to heat, so don't be afraid to use it for grilling or baking veggies.
Sacha Inchi Oil. In the beginning of 2013, I traveled to my homeland, Peru, to research superfoods foods for my latest book project, Peruvian Power Foods. While I was there, I learned a great deal about sacha inchi -- an oil derived from a seeded pod. Originating from the days of the Incas, the sacha inchi's star-shaped seeded pods can be found depicted on pottery found buried in Inca and pre-Inca tombs (1). In Quechua, the Andean dialect, sacha inchi translates to "the people's seeds" and it was greatly prized by the Incas, who used it to spur growth in their children and keep their leaders robust.
Sacha inchi oil has been found to be the most unsaturated vegetable oil at 93 percent omega-3, 6 and 9 (4). In fact, it comes in at 50 percent of these heart healthy omega-3s (5). Research has suggested that foods containing high-powered omega-3s have powerful benefits and can be linked to accelerating brain function, preventing blood clots, regulating blood sugar levels, and assisting with dry skin and hair (6, 7).
How to use it: Sacha Inchi Oil should always be used raw, as heat will cause the omega-3s to break down and lose potency. The taste is grassy and nutty. For that reason, I love using it for salad dressings, smoothies and drizzled on salads. See my recipe below.
Olive Oil. We've known for a long time that the Mediterranean diet is a model for healthy living: high in fish, vegetables and yes, olive oil. Antioxidants present in olive oil, mainly in the form of phenolic compounds and vitamin E, can help reduce inflammation and promote good heart health through improved insulin sensitivity (8). High concentrations of monounsaturated fat in olive oil can lower "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, increase "good" (HDL) cholesterol, and provide sustained blood sugar control. Monounsaturated fats have been linked to providing a number of cardiovascular benefits (8). Additionally, recent research links olive oil consumption to enhanced cognitive function, suggesting that olive oil may have protective benefit in inhibiting cognitive decline associated with aging (9).
How to use it: Olive oil is best used raw, as in dressings, drizzles or dips, but it can also be used at lower cooking temperatures, like to sauté vegetables. Just remember, that the more pure the oil, the less it will withstand heat. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is more pure, and thus, should be cooked at lower temperatures, while refined versions can be used for higher temperature cooking before they smoke and the healthy fats start to break down. The average smoke point of olive oil is somewhere between 365º- 400ºF.
Canola Oil. Canola oil, derived from the canola plant, has the least amount of saturated fat of any common cooking oil. With a high oleic oil content and ability to reduce disease risk factors. Canola oil is regarded as one of the healthiest edible vegetable oils due to its capability of reducing disease-related risk factors and elevating overall health (10). The high oleic oil components in canola oil, means the oil is naturally high in monounsaturated fat. Epidemiological evidence suggest dietary monounsaturated fatty acids are beneficial in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and possibly cancer (10).
How to use it: Because Canola Oil won't break down at high temperatures, it's a great choice for all your cooking needs. Besides using it to grill veggies or as a butter substitute in recipes, you can use it to brown meat or other heat intensive modes of cooking. Canola oil won't break down at high heat, giving the oil a high smoke point of about 425°F - 475°F
Coconut Oil. Derived from the flesh of coconut meat, coconut oil has long been used in many civilizations not only for dietary purposes, but also to moisturize skin and hair. Coconut oil contains a high percentage of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) called lauric acid, while most oils contain high long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). This attribute of coconut oil is beneficial because the body metabolizes MCTs differently by transporting them directly from the intestines to the liver (11). This biological mechanism allows MCTs to be used directly as fuel, and therefore only slightly elevating metabolic rate. The unique digestion of MCTs means less fat is deposited in the tissues, which researcher believe might lead to weight loss (11). Current research also reveals that coconut oil raises good (HDL) cholesterol, and reduces total cholesterol. Additionally, coconut oil contains the powerful antioxidants vitamin E and polyphenols, which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress and combat free radical damage (12).
How to use it: Coconut oil carries a natural sweetness so it's a great choice for desserts that require oil. Plus, it is safe for cooking, so it makes a great choice for baked goods that might benefit from a coconut flavor. Think about using coconut oil to replace butter in your sweet bread recipes. Incorporate it into cereals, like granola, power bars or cookie recipes. Or, try it as a marinade for chicken, fish or vegetables for a slightly tropical island flavor.
Try adding a variety of oils to your diet to boost health and vitality. Keep in mind not all oils are made equal and each use be used according to their cooking methods listed above. Remember, there is no one miracle oil. By adding a variety of nutrient-rich oils to a smart diet of whole grains, fresh fruits, and lean meats, you can jump start your health and increase your longevity.
I love making homemade dressings so here one of my favorites:
Zesty Cilantro Dressing
Get all the omega benefits of sacha inchi in a salad dressing just bursting with tangy flavor. You can also drizzle it over roasted veggies, baked chicken or a baked potato.
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup lime juice
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
½ cup sacha inchi oil
½ cup non-fat Greek yogurt
Combine garlic, lime juice, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Slowly whisk oil into lime juice mixture until thickened. Whisk Greek yogurt into mixture.
Refrigerate for 15 minutes, or overnight.
Photo by Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD
1. Clausener, A. (2005). From avocados to yogurt: 15 super foods for super health. International Journal of Humanities and Peace. 21(1), 85.
2. Avocado oil: The 'olive oil of the Americas'?. (2012). Energy Weekly News. 222.
3. Unlu, N. , Bohn, T. , Clinton, S. , & Schwartz, S. (2005). Carotenoid absorption of the health promoting antioxidant carotenoids. The Journal of Nutrition. 135(3), 431.
4. Beccaria, M., Cacciola, F., Dacha, M., Dugo, L., Dugo, P., Fanali, C., Mondello, L. (2011). Chemical characterization of sacha inchi (plukenetia volubilis l.) oil. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, Volume 59.
5. Guillén, M. D., Ruiz, A., Cabo, N., Chirinos, R., & Pascual, G. (2003). Characterization Of Sacha Inchi (Plukenetia Volubilis L.) Oil By FTIR Spectroscopy And 1H NMR. Comparison With Linseed Oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, 80(8), 755-762.
6. Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain Foods: The Effects Of Nutrients On Brain Function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(7), 568-578.
7. Curb, D., Rodriguez, B., Willcox, B. (2008). Antioxidants in cardiovascular health and disease: key lessons from epidemiologic studies. The American Journal of Cardiology, Volume 10
8. Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., et al. (2013). Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. The New England journal of medicine In New England Journal of Medicine,.Vol. 368, No. 14. pp. 1279-1290
9. Lunn, J. Monounsaturates In The Diet. Nutrition Bulletin 32.4 (2007): 378-391. Print. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-3010.2007.00669.x
10. Harland, J. I. (2009). An Assessment Of The Economic And Heart Health Benefits Of Replacing Saturated Fat In The Diet With Monounsaturates In The Form Of Rapeseed (canola) Oil. Nutrition Bulletin. 34.2: 174-184.
11. David., S. (2012). Coconut Oil. Nutrition Action Health Letter. 39.5: 10.
12. Nevin, K.G., Rajamohan, T. (2004). Beneficial effects of virgin coconut oil on lipid parameters and in vitro LDL oxidation. Clinical Biochemistry. 37(9): 830-5
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program, co-founder of Eat Mentor and author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good and his latest book Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes.