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The Skinny on Specialty Oils

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It’s not your imagination. Grocery store shelves are bulging with cooking oils—and not just vegetable and olive oils. Specialty oils like avocado, almond and even pumpkin are taking up space, too.

You can thank the millennials for some of this growth. The younger demographic is spending more money than older consumers on high-end products like cooking oils, according to the Specialty Food Association. 

Health plays a big part, too. The consumption of olive oil, known for its “good” fat, has tripled in the past two decades, researchers at the University of California, Davis noted in a recent report.

“Oils are essential for our health,” says registered dietitian Marianne Carter, who is the director of the Delaware Center for Health Promotion at Delaware State University. “But some are healthier than others.”

And there’s the rub. How is a consumer supposed to decide which of the myriad of bottles they need in their home kitchens?

The boring part: Know your fats. Here is a guide from the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (polyunsaturated fats) are found in greatest amounts in corn, soybean and cottonseed oils; walnuts; pine nuts; and sesame, pumpkin and flax seeds.
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids (monounsaturated fats) are found in greatest amounts in olive, canola, peanut, sunflower and safflower oils, and in avocados, peanut butter and most nuts.
  • Saturated fatty acids (saturated fats) are found in the greatest amounts in coconut and palm kernel oils, in butter and beef fats, and in palm oil.
  • Trans fatty acids (trans fats) are unsaturated fats found primarily in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and foods containing these oils and in ruminant (animal) fats.

“Monounsaturated fats are the better forms of fat,” says Carter. “With obesity up, we need to be careful of fats in our diets. If we’re going to eat fats, we need to make sure we consume healthier forms of fat.”

When considering which fats to consume, the prestigious Mayo Clinic points to a popular eating plan: “The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil is mainly monounsaturated fat—a type of fat that can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use other types of fat in our cooking and daily lives. Richard Collins, co-owner of Good News Natural Foods stores in Dover, Milford and Rehoboth with his wife, Marcia, and Ray and Sharon Fields, carries a large selection of extra virgin olive oils from Spain and Greece for their purity. (Some Italian olive oils have come under scrutiny recently for being diluted.) He also offers alternative oils in his stores. “People use them for specialty cooking,” he says. 

His inventory includes coconut oil, the new darling of cooking oils. But Collins says most of his customers buy it to use on their hair and skin. The oil has a lot of fans, but it hasn’t passed muster on the healthy eating front in some circles.

“Coconut oil is all the rage, but it’s so highly saturated,” dietitian Carter says. “It’s solid white and is 90 percent saturated.”

Whatever oil you choose, you need to determine if it’s suited to cooking over heat or better used for dressing your salad or making a smoothie. 

“Take a look at the smoke point,” says Theresa Piane Taylor, a certified health coach in Wilmington who is the owner of Light Up Your Health. She’s referring to the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke and break down. 

“When cooking oil starts to smoke, it can lose some of its nutritional value and can give food an unpleasant taste,” says registered dietitian Katherine Zeratsky on Mayo Clinic’s website. Oils like corn, soybean, peanut and sesame are good for frying and stir-frying, she says. 

Karen Igou, founder of the Delaware Local Food Exchange in Trolley Square, points out that while olive oil is a great fat,  it shouldn’t be used at high heat. “You can use grapeseed at a high heat, especially for stir-fry.”

For salad dressings, Igou recommends flaxseed oil, an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

It’s not just heat you have to keep in mind when considering oils. Dolores Waddell, owner of Fusions Taster’s Choice in Talleyville, an olive oil and balsamic vinegar store that specializes in certified products, offers tips for keeping oils in prime condition.

“Olive oils are good fats that we all need in our body,” she says. “They should be kept in a dark environment, out of sunlight and not on a stove.” Health coach Taylor agrees. “Keep them in a cool, dry place.”

Taylor is a fan of coconut oil, grass-fed butter and ghee (a form of clarified butter) in the kitchen. Despite their fat content, she points out, “Everything should be used in moderation. It’s the quality you use.”  


GOURMET OILS

Here’s how to use them.

Hazelnut oil

What to look for: A light golden color
Flavor profile: Toasty, smooth and delicate
Uses: Great on sliced pears and Brie, or drizzled over butternut squash with brown sugar. Can be used in place of vegetable oil in most vinaigrettes.

Roasted peanut oil

What to look for: Label should read “roasted” or “toasted” peanut oil. It will be darker and more flavorful than plain peanut oil, which is made from steamed peanuts, which results in a mild flavor.
Flavor profile: Strong peanut flavor
Uses: Drizzle over grilled shrimp or fish, toss with roasted asparagus, or brush over grilled pineapple and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Walnut oil

What to look for: A light golden color, darker than vegetable oil
Flavor profile: Full-bodied, pleasing aroma
Uses: Blend with cream cheese and honey to make a delicious spread for a slice of quick bread. Like hazelnut oil, it’s a great addition to most vinaigrettes.

Pistachio oil 

What to look for: The darker the more flavor; slightly thicker than other nut oils 
Flavor profile: Strong but pleasant, faintly sweet with a lingering finish 
Uses: Sprinkle over fresh mozzarella with balsamic vinegar and cracked black pepper, brush over eggplant slices before grilling, or toss with roasted beets and beet greens.

Avocado oil

How it’s made: Oil is extracted from the flesh (not the seed). The riper the avocado, the darker and more flavorful.
What to look for: Dark green color
Flavor profile: Slightly nutty, full-bodied
Uses: Drizzle over gazpacho, add to salsas, drizzle over toasted bread and top with chopped tomatoes; whisk with soy sauce and wasabi powder for a flavorful sushi dipping sauce. This oil has a higher smoking point than nut oils so it can be used to grill, sauté or stir-fry.

Truffle oil

How it’s made: A truffle is a highly prized mushroom that grows underground. Truffle oil is not pressed from the truffle; rather the truffle infuses the oil, most commonly olive oil or grapeseed oil.
What to look for: There are no good visual cues to help select fine quality truffle oil. Price seems to be the better guide, and it is pricey. If stored for long periods, even high-quality truffle oil will lose its aroma and flavor, so buy in small quantities. Black and white truffle oils are the most common. White truffle oil is slightly milder.
Flavor profile: Intense earthy flavor, pungent aroma
Uses: Use sparingly—a little goes a long way. Drizzle over pasta; stir into mushroom soup.

—Information from cookinglight.com

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