Vegetable Oils: a quick guide

Today as consumers we have the possibility to choose among many vegetable oils: Olive Oil, Sunflower Oil, Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Peanut Oil and many others. 

What is the best vegetable oil? Is olive oil better than other ones? What are their differences?

Here you can find a  brief description of the main characteristics, known to date, of the various vegetable oils starting from our beloved super-tasty extra virgin olive oil to the seed oils, much appreciated for their “lightness” and delicacy, passing through the most recent products such as avocado or coconut oil.

To answer the main questions “what is the best olive oil” there are many considerations to make: where do the ingredients used to make the oils come from? How are the oils extracted? How can they be used in the kitchen and how do they behave during cooking? How high is their smoke point (the point where the oils release toxic substances in cooking)? What is the specific nutritional information for each product? What are their nutraceutical and healthy abilities on our body?

Extravirgin olive oil

Let’s start with extra virgin olive oil. We have already highlighted in our other articles its organoleptic and nutraceutical qualities, olive oil calories, the production methods (which we remember are mechanical, and not chemical) and how to best use olive oil in your recipes.

Nowadays there are many scientific works that underline the role of EVO oil as a powerful ally for our health: it has anti-inflammatory activities, decreases heart risk and reduces the possibility of developing some cancers. The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has also attributed a health claim to olive oil, rich in polyphenols. In a comparative study it was seen how olive oil can also be used to counteract aging processes and how its activity is better than sunflower oil.

In your recipes, especially in frying, it is one of the cooking oils which releases the least amount of toxic and dangerous substances for our body, having a smoke point of about 390°F.

Olive oil is the main “fat” of the Mediterranean diet: in Italy, Spain and Greece its use is predominant compared to other vegetable oils or fats of animal origin. Extending our analysis to Europe the situation changes drastically: sunflower oil is the most widely used among vegetable oils. Why, considering that quality EVO oils are the healthiest of all?

Rapeseed and Canola Oil

Rapeseed oil is the third most used vegetable oil in the world, after soybean oil and palm oil. It is particularly used in the food industry.

It is chemically extracted, which is why it is considered of low quality from a nutritional point of view, and it has a neutral taste (so it “adds” only the “fat” component to the recipe, without adding any flavor).

Several scientific studies have highlighted the presence of erucic acid in rapeseed oil. This has been seen to increase the risk of heart disease, so much so that a maximum daily consumption limit has been put in place in several countries, both EU and non-EU.

Canola oil is one of its “evolutions”: it is rapeseed oil without erucic acid. It is created “artificially” by stimulating a spontaneous mutation by UV rays on the product. Being rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, scientific studies have shown the potential positive effect of canola oil on health.

Sunflower oil

Sunflower oil is the fourth most produced vegetable oil in the world. By learning to read the labels of the main commercial products, we realize how widespread the industrial use of sunflower oil is: from biscuits to chocolate or sweet spreads, vegetable milks.

It is highly valued for its neutral flavor, its high smoke point, the presence of vitamin E and the good amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids. As for the smoke point, however, it was also found that compared to other vegetable oils it produces a greater amount of toxic substances when it is reached.
Most of the benefits described for sunflower oils take into account those rich in oleic acid. However, it is rich in omega 6: these, if consumed in excess, can cause inflammation in the body.

It can be produced both by chemical extraction with solvent and by cold extraction (higher quality).

Coconut oil

Consumption of coconut oil is growing rapidly in markets around the world. It is essentially composed of saturated fats (about 90% of its fats are saturated), which are not properly indicated for our health: they increase LDL cholesterol and the associated heart risk such as stroke or heart attack.
Coconut oil is extracted from dried and chemically refined pulp or, if defined as virgin, from coconut milk or fresh pulp.

Avocado oil

Avocado oil is an oil whose consumption has grown a lot in recent years: it has a slightly “thicker” consistency than other oils. It is perhaps the closest vegetable oil to EVOO, in terms of nutritional properties and extraction methods (virgin avocado oil, green and thick, is extracted from the pulp mechanically, without chemical extraction, similarly to olive oil).
To date, however, the ones we can find on the market are the refined ones, which also have a higher smoke point than virgin products (about 200 ° C for virgins, 270 ° C for refined ones). You recognize them easily because the refined ones are yellow and more liquid. In nutritional terms, avocado oil has a high presence of monounsaturated fatty acids (potentially useful for preventing cardiovascular disease and inflammation) and vitamin E: it is therefore the closest to extra virgin olive oil also in these nutritional values.
The problem is that currently there are no international standards for the classification of avocado oils (there are no authoritative certifications that protect against the potential adulterability of the product).

Peanut oil

Peanut oils are one of the favorite vegetable oils in cooking: especially in fry, some consider it one of the best oils to make the food crunchy and tasty. Its smoke point is around 230 ° C (with refined peanut oil) otherwise it is 170 ° C. It is produced essentially by chemical refining of its seeds (the clearer it is, the greater its degree of refining): refining also reduces the risk of allergic reactions to these nuts. From a nutritional point of view, peanut oil is rich in oleic and linoleic acids (omega 6) but low in omega 3.
A potential risk involving this and other oils derived from seeds and nuts is the potential contamination by aflatoxins (toxins produced by fungi that are highly toxic and protumoral).

Peanut oil health studies are still few at the moment and need to be confirmed with more in-depth studies.

Flaxseed oil

Flaxseed oil is an oil mainly extracted by the use of chemical solvents. It is rich in omega 3 (as α-linolenic acid), compounds known to be beneficial to health, but has a low smoke point (around 100 ° C). It is therefore suitable for raw dressings. It degrades very quickly even at room temperature, so some recommend keeping it in the fridge. Some studies have found fish oil-like health effects for flaxseed oil (such as antioxidant action and insulin reduction).

Sesame oil

Sesame oil is particularly used in Indian, Oriental and African cuisine and is generally valued for its aromaticity. It is mainly produced by chemical refining and its smoke point is around 170 ° C (in the non refining product). It can be lighter or darker in colour depending on the degree of pre-roasting of the seed.
Some studies have highlighted the anti-inflammatory activity of sesame oil, even if only 3 studies have been carried out directly on humans. On a nutritional level it has a good presence of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E and vitamin K.

Soybean oil

Soybean oil is produced by extraction from soybeans. The extraction involves the use of chemical solvents and the subsequent refining of the oil.

On a nutritional level, soybean oil has a high presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids (with a good ratio between omega 3 and omega 6), which makes it susceptible to rancidity (many also hydrogenate soybean oil to lengthen its shelf life; this however increases the chemical handling of soybean oil and reduces its final quality), but has a low presence of vitamin E. Its smoke point is 230 ° C. Thanks to the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids (in the unrefined product) it is potentially useful for health: it has been seen to reduce cholesterol levels but has not anti-inflammatory effect. However, it has also been shown to stimulate the risk of developing obesity more than other oils.

Palm oil

Palm oil is produced from the fruits of the oil palm, grown mainly in the countries of the tropical belt. It is obtained by squeezing the fruit or the stone by chemical solvents (the latter is called palm kernel). Since the fruit is orange in color, the unrefined oil will be reddish (due to the high presence of beta carotene), but we find it essentially as a chemically refined product on our shelves.
They are oils, both palm and palm kernel, consisting of a high presence of saturated fatty acids, from 50 to 85% (normally indicated as harmful to health), which is why they are solid at room temperature (if not refined). It also has a good amount of oleic acid, however lower than that of olive oil.

The smoke point of fractionated palm oil is around 230 ° C. However, it has a high concentration of palmitic acid to which, many studies, have attributed harmful effects on health, especially on cardiovascular level. Furthermore, it must be said that being an “appreciated” oil by industry, widely used for the production of industrial sweets and creams, the expansion of oil palm cultivation is leading to deforestation and to a high environmental impact.

What is the best vegetable oil?

After all these valuations and briefly summarizing the considerations made, we can say that most of the vegetable oils are highly chemically refined to be made more stable and palatable for consumers.

EFSA has repeatedly stressed the danger and presence of contaminating elements in refined vegetable oils and margarines, such as glycidyl esters of fatty acids (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD) and 2-monochloropropane diol (2 -MCPD). These substances, especially GE, have been found to be carcinogenic when consumed in large quantities.