Sunday, November 8, 2015

Oils and Fats for Good Health





No good kitchen is complete without a good selection of cooking oils or fats. But, there are so many to choose from and the information out there on which are the best is confusing. Hope this note would help the reader in making a better selection

THREE FACTORS THAT DETERMINE CHOICE OF COOKING OIL OR FAT

The three factors that decide which oil or fat to use in which recipe depends on:

  1. Health
  2. Cost
  3. Taste

While good health cannot be sacrificed neither can good taste of food we consume. Cost of oil used also  matters for most except the very rich.

TRADITION VS SCIENCE IN SELECTION

A human uses traditional practices prevalent in one’s area in selecting the best cooking oils. Aside from this, humans are also influenced by various recommendations from scientific bodies or health organizations that are put out from time to time.

My own personal decision in this regard is to value traditional knowledge more than scientific knowledge or advisories in deciding what goes inside my body. A human body is precious and deserves our best care and attention. I myself am a scientist from a different discipline (heat and fluid flow) and that has helped me place scientific findings on food on a lower priority as compared to traditional knowledge. The reason is that from my own discipline, I have realized that when it comes to even simple machines like an automobile engine, research findings are tentative and subject to revision with more work. Therefore, when it comes to a human body that is far more complex, it is difficult for me to believe that many findings can be final except for the broadest and most obvious issues. I do not mind risking ruining my car engine with the wrong fuel but would hate to do that to my body.

Thus, as a doctoral student in Canada in the seventies, when reports began to come out on how cholesterol is bad for you and things like butter must be avoided, I discarded that finding in the trash can because traditional information of centuries had told me that butter is good for health. With time, scientists too have revised their findings. They said later there is good and bad cholesterol, that the body needs saturated fats too for good health and later that it is not saturated fats that are bad but trans fats are bad etc.  The scientists can take their time in making up their mind, I will just listen to what my grandma or that hermit in the Himalayas instead when it comes to food.

As regards advisories of health bodies and organizations such as the FDA, the less said the better. It seems FDA had to be taken to court to make them admit that trans-fats are bad and their classifications lists cannabis as more dangerous than opium and alcohol when in fact even imbecile persons know that truth is quite the reverse.

There is another reason aside from the one stated, why tradition has been a better guide for me in food than science or health advisories – Influence of greed and commercial interests.  Even scientific studies are influenced by commercial interests in various direct and indirect ways. As regards the FDA, that revolving door on Wall Street may just let the drool flow faster than corpses of dead humans in hospitals from transfat induced cardiac arrests and thousands languishing in prisons because the FDA thinks that cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol.

It is not that scientific studies are not useful. They do lead to good information provided it is used with caution and not blindly. When it contradicts traditional beliefs regarding food,  it must remain suspect.

THE 1-2 -3 OF COOKING OILS AND FATS

Based on the sort of arguments just explained, the choice of cooking oils in my kitchen are presently confined to just six  - one fat from an animal, two from the fields and three from trees

The One from an Animal

The cooking fat of choice for me is clarified butter. Butter is wonderful on toast but when it comes to cooking, some of its components burn and ruin the color and taste of a dish. Moreover it does not have a very long shelf life. When butter is clarified by boiling it in a pan for some minutes, the solids burn out and settle in the pan (salt too if any), the moisture evaporates and then one may drain of clear clarified butter oil or pure ghee from top and store it in jar for long periods (several months) without refrigeration. I do not use lard. During childhood it used to freeze around my mouth while eating and in later years I have shunned violence in procurement of food. Milk and butter produced from cows does not cause violence if the animal is well cared for.  A cow is delighted to share her milk with the owner in return for care and food.

Clarified butter is also known as Ghee or Butter oil in different parts of the world. it is perhaps the healthiest and most pleasant tasting of all cooking oils. However, even if you can afford it, please do not confine yourself to butter and butter oil only. Too much of a good thing becomes bad and a human body needs variety to catch up on numerous nutrients it needs for best health. Moreover, there are things like cold sauces and salad dressings where butter oil is not just right. Select another oil or two from the selection below that come from trees and fields and keep a mix in your diet, selecting the best ones for your different recipes.

Two Oils from the fields

The two oils that come from agricultural produce that I have chosen are

Sesame oil
Mustard Oil

Both have been chosen because of their traditional use and selection by humans over centuries but both have a strong taste that takes some getting used to. In the past, when media reports came for things like the supposedly great PUFA in things like Corn and Sunflower oil, I puffed it away into the garbage can because these oils have not been in traditional use. Just today I came across new studies by Professor Martin Grootveld that have found that these oils on cooking produce dangerous compounds that produce cancer and dementia. See the following link on it (for example see)

Similarly, in the past, when I heard of mustard oil being bad for you, I discarded that finding too. It has been used for centuries regularly and far more frequently than I ever would in the healthiest North-Western parts of India. Recently I had studied the matter again and it seems that bad publicity in the west arose from a study in which its isolated compounds were fed to rats. Since then I have increased use of mustard oils. From natural principles of health foods discussed elsewhere in this blog, isolated compounds are indeed harmful and must be shunned in comparison to a whole food processed and cooked by natural simple methods. There is a traditional tip to remove the least healthy parts of mustard oil though, after pouring it in a pan for cooking, heat to smoking point, the color lightens and the oil is said to be healthier then from traditional wisdom. However, when used for skin or hair massage do not use cooked oil but the fresh virgin oil direct. It must not be used on skin of babies though being too strong for that.

Note: Mustard oil and rapeseed are two names for the same oil. See:
http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/wrep/wrep0143.pdf
Canola oil is somewhat different. It is from a plant developed from the Mustard plant to change its chemical composition to what some scientists believe to be healthier. It has not been proved to be necessarily healthier by long term human use as mustard oil. This author avoids it.




Sesame in Panchkhal Valley, Nepal by Krish Dulal
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sesame#/media/File:Sesamum_indicum_NP.jpg

The reader may also wish to check out this detailed link on the many benefits of sesame oil. Agricultural fields of both mustard and sesame delight the soul because of their profuse flowering. The young leaves of both sesame and mustard are edible especially before flowering has begun. They are a healthy green food. The cream of mustard leaves dish is just heavenly with garlic bread or buttered nans provided one knows the recipe.  The best recipes for this in the world come from Punjab (a dish called Saron da Saag)The accompaniments for this meal are a salad of sliced raw onions and radishes and a drink of butter milk. It is a completely balanced meal that rural Sikhs of Punjab have almost daily for lunch during the mustard season. They become robust and healthy as a result of it for the full year.

I had used peanut oil earlier because it has a mild flavor that blends with many foods and peanuts are healthy but because it has not found much traditional use, I did have my doubts. Recently, I came across a study that showed some possible harm from it (here) and have decided to stop its use too. I am not against making use of scientific information if it is supported by traditional knowledge. However, peanuts are still recommended as a great food because, firstly a whole food has a different effect from extracts and secondly one does not use as much of it as part of a peanut. Often a good thing becomes harmful in excess when it comes to food.

Oils like almonds, sunflower and peanut although great for health when present in their original seed my be too potent for good when used in cooking.

Three oils from the trees

The three tree oils of choice in my kitchen are

Coconut Oil
Olive Oil
Palm Oil

Do note that while fresh palm oil is healthy, oxidized palm oil is not. Therefore it is is not a good idea to save palm oil if used for deep frying (see this) There is concern that palm oil plantations are ruining the environment but they need not if bio-diverse plantations are mandated as described in an earlier post of this blog.

WHICH OIL TO USE WHEN

Which particular oil to use when, depends upon the recipe. Once health issues are taken care of by a proper selection, the two other considerations that remain are taste and cost. Cost of various oils and fats including the six selected here vary from country to country, depending on production and it remains an important issue in most kitchens. Following are my choices briefly

Deep Frying:

While clarified butter and coconut oil is great for deep frying, both are costly where I live. Deep frying involves using large amounts. Therefore the choice here is one of the two oils from the fields – sesame or mustard – or palm oil. Personally I detest taste that olive oil develops in deep frying and do not recommend its use for that. Besides, it is more expensive than palm oil or mustard oil in most parts of the world.

Other Cooking:

Some recipes require much browning of onions in oil as in the most delicious curry recipes of South Asia as well as some sauces elsewhere. This does not come out well with most oils because of their differing smoke points etc. South Asian curries come out best with mustard oil or clarified butter but since mustard oil imparts its own strong flavor, the choice depends on the specific dish. As a rule, spicier dishes come out better with mustard oil and less spicy ones with clarified butter. Stir fried recipes on the other hand do not come out so well with mustard oil most times as with the other oils. Olive oil is not recommended here because its taste seems to spoils on cooking. However, if one must use olive oil for cooking than prefer light oil rather than the virgin variety.

Adding to hot foods:

Some times an oil or fat is added on top after cooking such as on hot spaghetti and both butter and olive oil are great for that for both taste and good health

Cold foods:

When it comes to salad dressings and cold sauces like mayonnaise the choice narrows down to olive oil if available, because the other oils and even clarified butter, are just not right for taste and texture here. However sesame or mixtures of olive and sesame oils or even coconut oil may be used as a replacement.

Do note that both coconut oil and clarified butter freeze and solidify in cold.


THE MIX

Of the six oils suggested here, clarified butter, olive oil and coconut oil appear to be the healthiest and it is possible for a person to design all of one’s cooking around the three if one can afford it, because they are also the most expensive ones in most countries, while reserving the other three for deep frying and a few other recipes only. There are also some wise mothers who you use an oil that is twice as expensive such as butter but only half as much in their cooking and end up with a family that is twice as healthy with the same expense.

One may also consume other edible oils outside this list every now and then provided food is not deep fried, that is where some oils can do most harm. In any case deep fried foods must not be frequent. They are not the best thing for health and personally I keep it to less than once a week. Persons over fifty, when the body is less agile need to avoid them even more. The choice of edible oils eventually depends upon one’s taste but it is good to keep variety in. As with carbohydrates, the obese and the overweight must minimize use of oils and fats in food but they must not be eliminated completely, rather consumed sparingly.

The question arises -  what to do with all the corn oil and other oil the world produces?  The answer is – they make great carbon neutral biofuels.

Dear reader, hope you have found this information useful. It is not the final word on the subject but merely my experience that I share with readers wishing them good health and joyous meals. If you have any other information on the topic, I would love to hear of it as a comment to this note. 

May we end with a new nursery rhyme

Ba Ba black sheep
would you note the oils please
One from the cow
two from the fields
Lovely three are from the trees

No comments: