I must admit that when I was a younger man, I was fairly ignorant about the world of vegetable-based oils, aside from the ever-common and generic vegetable or canola oils. I knew that olive oil was good for light sautéing but bad for frying and that some “fancy” restaurants would put some out with their bread. But that was about the depth of my knowledge. Imagine my shock and amazement when I learned about such exotic oils as: avocado, hazelnut and pumpkin. Here at the Co-op we offer quite the range of oils and, to be honest, if you’re not familiar with them already, it can be both confusing and intimidating. I’m hoping to shed some light on these more unique offerings both in regards to nutrition and culinary use.
Broadly speaking, vegetable oils come from either the seed or the nut of various plants. There are some oils like olive or coconut that come from the fruit but these are the exception. Vegetable oils can be produced by a couple different methods. Mechanical extraction (pressing, or crushing the seeds/nuts/fruits) is both the more traditional method and considered the healthier choice. Oils can also be produced through the use of chemical solvents. This process is much quicker and more efficient than mechanical extraction. That said, the most common solvent used in the industry is hexane, an EPA suspected carcinogen, which raises some health and safety concerns.
The most common vegetable oil in the world is palm oil. It was reported in 2008 that the entire world consumed more than 41 million metric tons of it. While palm oil is the most popular oil in the world, it is not an oil that the Co-op currently carries. It’s true that palm oil is the most common oil in the world and new research indicates that it may be a healthier oil than originally thought. However, it comes at a significant price. Production of palm oil has been clearly documented as a cause of substantial and often irreversible damage to our environment. The environmental impacts include significant deforestation, which in turn has increased habitat loss for critically endangered species like orangutans and some species of tigers. It has also been documented as a substantial contributor to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Not to overshadow the environmental costs of producing this oil, some of its largest producers have also been accused of atrocious human-rights violations.
But I digress; on to nut-based oils. For the Co-op this would include such varieties as hazelnut, walnut, almond, and (it wishes it was a nut) peanut oil. Hazelnut oil is fairly high in Omegas-6 and -9 much like olive oil. Unlike olive oil, it can withstand medium to high heat, making it good for both baking and cooking, though not quite ideal for frying. Hazelnut oil also has a fairly strong flavor which can be nice, as a little can go a long way in a salad dressing. Walnut oil is comprised of about 50% Omega-6 fatty acids and also has a significant amount of Omega-3s making it a pretty healthy oil. It does have a delicate nutty flavor. So again, it’s a little better as a salad dressing component than as a sautéing or frying oil. Almond oil can be extracted from either bitter or sweet almonds, although, sweet almonds lend a very strong nutty flavor and are typically only used with skin care products. Edible almond oil can withstand some fairly high cooking temperatures. Unfortunately, like with any oil, the hotter it gets, the more flavor you lose and almond oil is fairly mild to begin with. Last but not least, the nut oil that’s not from a “nut,” peanut oil. This mild-tasting oil is very common in Asian cooking and cuisine, especially roasted varieties. It has a significantly high smoke point (it withstands high temperatures), which makes it popular for frying. It does have some good omega fatty acids, though it is also on the higher end of the spectrum for saturated fats, the less healthy fats.
Seed-based vegetable oils may be a bit more commonplace for some cooks. These would include sesame, safflower, pumpkin, sunflower, and grapeseed oils. Sesame is a popular oil in Indian cooking and is often found in many Asian dishes in general. Light sesame has a somewhat high smoke point, making it ideal for deep frying. Dark sesame oil is produced from roasted sesame seeds and has a significantly lower smoke point, making it better for stir-frying. Regardless of the variety, sesame oil is a good source of Omega-6 and -9 fatty acids. Safflower oil is both flavorless and colorless and has a notably high smoke point. This makes it versatile for cooking and deep-frying. Given its lack of flavor, it’s a good oil to use to add volume to salad dressings. One disadvantage to safflower oil is that it has no Vitamin E content, unlike the vast majority of almost all other vegetable oils. Grapeseed oil comes from—you guessed it—grape seeds and is a common by-product of wine production. Like safflower oil, grapeseed oil has a higher smoke point making it suitable for everything from sautéing and stir-frying to deep frying. Unlike safflower oil, grapeseed oil does have some—albeit light—flavor. It is also a naturally excellent source of Omega-6 fatty acids.
The last two seed-based vegetable oils that the Co-op carries are sunflower and pumpkin seed oil. Luckily for our shoppers, we are able to offer locally produced varieties of both. Sunflower oil is notably high in vitamin E and low in saturated fat. It also has a very high smoke point and a clean. light taste, making it well-suited for pan- or deep-frying. Our locally produced sunflower oil comes from Driftless Organics which is located in Soldiers Field, Wisconsin, between Boscobel and Viroqua. Six years ago, farmer and owner Josh Engel “saw a hole in our local food supply: cooking and salad oil” and decided to fill that niche with his organic sunflower oil, which he likes to call the “olive oil of the Midwest.” Pumpkin seed oil historically originated and is popular in Eastern Europe. It has a notably intense nutty flavor and is rich in omega fatty acids. It is typically used in salad dressing or as an ice cream topping. It’s not as suitable for cooking purposes because heating the oil destroys the omega fatty acids. Our organic pumpkin seed oil comes from Hay River Foods in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin.
Lastly, we have fruit-based oils which include avocado, coconut, and olive oil. Olive oil has a rich history and flavor. It is really worthy of an entire article on its own. It has a much lower smoke point than many of the previously mentioned oils and should only be used for sautéing or as a salad dressing. Olive oil is a very good source of omega-9s and is very low in saturated fat, making it a healthy choice for everyday oil use. Avocado oil has a smooth nutty taste and has high levels of omega fatty acids. It also has a remarkably high smoke point which makes it quite flexible in the variety of ways it can be used in the kitchen.
Coconut oil has become the oil du jour among foodies these days. Unlike nearly all of the other oils I’ve mentioned, coconut oil is rich in saturated fats. Because of its saturated fat content, coconut oil remains solid at room temperature like lard, butter, or ghee. In general, foods with large amounts of saturated fats are considered to be less healthy. They can contribute significantly to one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. While it’s true that coconut oil is predominately made of saturated fat, it’s unique in that it’s comprised of medium-chain triglycerides, rather than long- or short-chain triglycerides which are found in animal or dairy products. Some newer research seems to suggest that coconut oil (and its medium-chain triglycerides) may actually help aide various malabsorption ailments, regulate cholesterol levels, and help with weight management. As far as culinary use goes, it is very heat stable and has a very high smoke point making it very versatile in the kitchen. I know for a fact that it’s delicious when used for popping popcorn.
Whatever you’re cooking or baking oil needs may be, we are confident you will find just the right product at Willy Street Co-op! Be sure to keep a look out for oil tasting opportunities throughout the month of March.