Expeller-pressed. High oleic. Unrefined. These unfamiliar terms, along with mentions of smoke points, murky sustainability issues and the potential inclusion of genetically modified organisms, make it easy to see why the cooking oil section draws frequent customer questions. Many qualifiers on oil labels can baffle shoppers just looking for healthy options.
Here, a retail expert, nutritionist and manufacturer answer nine common consumer questions about cooking oil. In addition to using this information to prepare staff, you can post these questions and answers in your store to guide customers and, ultimately, boost sales.
Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, which offers an extensive cooking education program
Q: Which cooking oils do you suggest for everyday use?
A: Cooking oil should be selected for intended use, nutritional value and taste. For cooking at high temperatures, I advocate traditional, time-tested fats, such as ghee (clarified butter), which has been used for millennia. Another option is heat-tolerant oils, such as almond or avocado oil. Tell shoppers to look for products labeled high oleic or designated for high-heat cooking, such as high-oleic safflower or sunflower oil. For baking, coconut oil substitutes well for butter. For low-temperature cooking, choose coconut oil or organic, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil.
Q: I’ve heard canola oil is toxic. Is this true?
A: Typically, canola oil is extracted from genetically modified rapeseed. Some of the concerns about canola oil stem from small bits of truth, while other charges have no connection to reality. For instance, erucic acid, which naturally occurs in high percentages in non-hybrid rapeseed, was believed to be especially toxic to humans. For many years, the plant was not grown in the United States, then Canada successfully hybridized the plant to be low in erucic acid. The hybrid plant was renamed canola (for Canada) and is technically known as low erucic acid rape. Recent studies, which seem to be widely accepted, show that erucic acid at the original high levels was likely not a hazard to health as once believed.
Q: Is all canola oil genetically modified?
A:More than 90 percent of the U.S. canola crop is altered using genetic manipulation. PCC Natural Markets agrees with consumers who choose to avoid GM canola by purchasing certified-organic canola oil. As a rule, certified-organic foods never contain genetically modified organisms.
Q: Which oils are most likely genetically modified unless certified organic?
A: Cottonseed, soy, canola and corn oils.
Ashley Koff, RD, coauthor of Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged (Hay House, 2011)
Q: Is coconut oil really good for me? What about the saturated fat?
A: I highly recommend organic coconut oil. Contrary to earlier assumptions, studies show that coconut oil may not elevate blood cholesterol and may have heart-healthy properties—even though it’s a saturated oil. Coconut oil also contains lauric acid, a type of fat being studied for its potential antiviral and antibacterial properties. Lauric acid also may help stabilize blood sugar and lower diabetes risk. Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids, not the long-chain fatty acids found in many of the hard-seed oils linked to heart disease.
Q: What is a smoke point? Does it matter if I heat an oil above its smoke point?
A: An oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which the oil breaks down and becomes damaged. If an oil breaks down, it will oxidize, which, if consumed, increases the risk of diseases such as cancer. When cooking at a high temperature, a high smoke–point oil should be used. If an oil or fat smokes in the pan, the temperature is too high for that oil. It’s safest to discard it, clean the pan and start over at a lower temperature or with a different oil.
Q: What are the differences between refined and unrefined oils?
A:Unrefined oils remain in their natural states. They are more nutrient dense but also more sensitive to heat than refined oils, which means they have a lower smoke point. Although refined oils can be made with natural processing, many are extracted with toxic solvents, such as hexane, before undergoing harsh treatments to remove the solvent. More chemicals, very high heat and straining are used to deodorize and bleach the oils. I recommend unrefined oils whenever possible, but when selecting a refined oil, shoppers should look for expeller-pressed options that don’t use chemicals for processing.
Hillary Kallaway, training manager for Spectrum Organic Products, a Boulder, Colo.-based vegetable oil manufacturer
Q: Do I really need to refrigerate my cooking oils? What happens if oil isn’t stored properly?
A:Certain oils are very stable, while others require special care. Solid fats, such as coconut and palm oils, are fine at room temperature and can be kept in the pantry long-term. Extra-virgin olive oil, on the other hand, is very sensitive to light and air. If not stored properly, it will lose characteristic flavor and oxidize—which will create rancid, “off” flavors and increase free radicals. As a general rule, I recommend storing all cooking oils in an airtight container in a cool, dark location for no longer than
12 weeks after opening.
Q: What are some of the sustainability issues surrounding tropical oils?
A:The ever-increasing demand for palm oil has put a lot of pressure on the ecosystems where palm trees are grown. Palm oil grows on industrial plantations primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia, necessitating the clearing of rainforest land. Deforestation and forest fires are just some of the issues associated with unsustainable palm oil plantations.