Before getting started, you can review Part 1 and Part 2 of the series with the links attached. One of my Twitter followers, Hemant Bhanoo, wanted me to start the article by first stating which cooking oil is best for Indian cooking and then adding all my lengthy analysis and explanations :).
So, here we go…
- Use unrefined versions of sesame, coconut or peanut oils purchased from a trusted retailer (no contamination, no adulterations) for your tadkas, greasing your idli plates, using it for mixing with idli podi and many other such uses for everyday cooking.
- You can use ghee, mustard oil (argemone free) or Extra Virgin Olive oil (EVOO) for 1-time frying. Yes, you heard that right – high quality EVOO and I have given explanations on this in Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.
- For repeated frying (which you should try and do in a very limited manner), use refined oils. Even in the refined oils, refined saturated or refined MUFA rich oils like refined coconut oil or refined sesame, refined peanut oil seems to be better options than going for refined PUFA rich oils like cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, etc.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into some recommendations while buying oil:
- Avoid refined oils having TBHQ:
Already, we know that refined oil has gone through so many steps (degumming, alkali neutralization, dewaxing, bleaching, deodorization, etc) to become shelf stable. On top of that, if a company feels the need to add a preservative to further extend the shelf life, then it is worrisome.
What is TBHQ? TBHQ is Tertiary butylhydroquinone, and studies on rats have shown increased consumption linked to increase incidence of tumors, liver enlargement, neurotoxic effects, etc.
2. Buy and store oils (especially the cold pressed oils) in dark, solid containers
Packaging oils in clear, transparent plastic bottles is usually done to get the consumer’s attention. You may think it is pure because it looks clear. But in the case of fats and oils, constant light exposure can make your oil rancid over time.
So, companies that really care cover up their product.
3. Avoid getting fooled by clever marketing jargons like ‘cholesterol free‘
This ‘no cholesterol’ label annoys me. Here’s the deal: Plant foods do not contain cholesterol, only animal foods can contain cholesterol. If it came from a plant, it will be, by definition, be cholesterol-free even if the oil was cottonseed oil, corn oil, palm oil, rice bran oil, etc…. you get the idea.
Similarly, all refined vegetable oils can claim to be “trans fat free”. All they are taking credit for is that fact that they haven’t subjected the oil to hydrogenation to convert it into a solid or semi-solid fat. However, do note, during cooking, trans fats can be generated in the oil if subjected to repeated frying temperatures.
This touting of being ‘cholesterol free’ or ‘trans-fat free’ in liquid oils sometimes amuses me. Maybe the graphic designers were all having a brainstorming session – like how can we sell this refined, soybean oil? Anyone, anyone…??? And then some intern in the back, is like “Why don’t we label it as cholesterol free and also ‘add zero trans fats’?” And everyone is like: “Wow, this kid is so clever, give him/her a promotion.”
Since we are on the topic of Soybean oil, ever wonder why soybean oil is so cheap? It is kind of hard to extract the oil out of soybean and also it does not have the high yield per hectare like palm oil. Then, why is it popular and available everywhere now?
Did you know that majority of the soybean produced in the world is for animal feed? The animal feed can go rancid easily if the oils are trapped in the meal. So, the soybean oil is extracted out. So, again, just like cotton seed oil, this is a byproduct of some other main product that gets refined and sold as a ‘vegetable oil’.
It is not like soybean oil was hugely popular in China or Japan as an edible oil in the past. Soybean based food and fermented soy products were hugely popular, no doubt; just not the oil. In fact, they have used lard (animal fat) and sesame oil traditionally for cooking.
4. What’s the deal with the Mustard oil controversy?
Every mustard oil sold in the US and Canada will have a label saying “For external use only.” Indians living in US, Canada will buy it and promptly start using it for cooking :). So, what happened there? There are 2 specific controversies surrounding mustard oil.
- Mustard oil is high in a mono unsaturated fat called erucic acid, which had a role in developing heart disease in animal experiments. However, this has not been proven in human studies. In fact, the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) came out with a study that “mustard oil lower the risk of developing ischemic heart disease by almost half.” So, I will leave the decision to the reader to decide what to do with this conflicting information.
- Mustard oil also seems to attract a lot of deliberate contamination. Often the mustard seeds are contaminated with a similar looking seed called argemone. (This seems very similar to the masoor dal- keshari dal problem).
The problem is that argemone oil can cause a severe health problem called epidemic dropsy. This starts off as with GI symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, continued use leading to respiratory and cardiac problems potentially leading to death. In 1998, there was a case of deliberate contamination with 30% argemone oil that resulted in over 50 deaths. So, please ensure that the brand of mustard oil, if you choose to buy it, is from a reputable source and “Free from argemone”.
5. Why this kolaveri (anger) against Palm oil?
Ok, hear me out. Palm oil’s rise in popularity accelerated right as the USA started requirements for trans fat labeling (2006). So, companies chose the naturally solid palm oil rather than using artificially hydrogenated fats like margarine, dalda, etc. Isn’t that a good thing?
Ok, I can sense many of you are mad at me coz you think I do not care about the environmental impact of Palm oil cultivation. Yes, the orangutans are dying and the slave labor reporting are all terrible, I agree. Which is why, I think India should encourage its farmers to grow Palm oil. Just look at the yields per hectare here. I mean, Palm oil has amazing yields!!
You are probably mad at me again, because you think I want Indians to consume more Palm oil. Nope, that’s not my intention. Fried foods taste better when fried in saturated oils. We have a few choices for saturated fat rich oils – Palm, coconut, shea butter, cocoa butter, hydrogenated crap oils, etc.
India needs to reduce its consumption of oil as a whole. Don’t demonically go after Palm oil. Even if it gets banned (which it won’t), do you think vendors are going to stop frying snacks? There will be a mad rush for the next cheapest oil.
Palm is the easiest to cultivate. And by itself, it is not a terrible oil. In fact, crude Palm fruit oil is a rich source of caretenoids and retinol, sometimes even considered as a promising treatment for Vitamin A deficiency. Why not become a world leader for selling virgin red Palm fruit oil, which by the way is much, much more expensive than double fractionated, ultra-refined Palm oil?? Go figure!!
So, don’t thrown away the baby with the bathwater.
6. Please try and limit repeated heating of cooking oils (RCO)
Final point, please try and reduce your consumption of foods that use repeated heating of refined vegetable oils, be it at home, or outside with vendors. Studies have shown:
“Repeatedly heated cooking oils (RCO) can generate varieties of compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), some of which have been reported as carcinogenic.”Pubmed
Repeated consumption of RCO has been linked with prostate, breast, colorectal, and lung cancers.
And if you think, that places like McDonalds, KFC’s are all great, I am sorry to say that they use anti-foaming agents like Dimethylpolysiloxane in their oil to extend using their oils as long as possible. This is the picture of the oil box that an employee of McDonalds showed me that they use for frying their French fries.
Ok, my oil saga is done. Here are the conclusions from this post.
- Avoid refined oils having TBHQ
- Buy and store oils (especially the cold pressed oils) in dark, solid containers
- Avoid getting fooled by clever marketing jargons like ‘cholesterol free’
- Mustard oil – You have to decide for yourself if you wish to use it. If you do, look for argemone free oil.
- Palm oil is not as bad as you think, if used correctly
- Please try and limit repeated heating of cooking oils
If you want to review Part 2 and Part 1 , click on the links attached. Other oil-related hot topics on the blog include Indian Pickle reviews and Indian Fried Snacks reviews.
Do post your thoughts on this post below. Was it useful to you?
Thank you. Good write-up again 🙏 and that twitter suggestion was good too 👍
Thank you!! 😀🙏
L R NAGASUBRAMANYA
Write up is excellent and your recommendation if possible for best brands or sources of cold pressed oils and for overall good health of diabetic patients
Easach L S
Nice write-up. It was really good.
Kasturba medical college
Thank you for outting together all this information. I tried researching about oils but was confused by so many conflicting results and the chemistry of fats. You made my life easier.
Thank you Aditi!! Very happy to hear that!!
Semma blog ka
What do we do with oils with over 50 percent of polyunsaturated fats? I know from your article that it is not the best for cooking, but can it be used for salad, drippings etc?
You can use them. But try to stock your kitchen pantry with more mono-unsaturated and good saturated fats.
Thank you so much for such a great article on Cooking Oils. I am more motivated towards selecting healthy oil now.
Great to hear that, Bino!
Excellent presentation, opened science of oil extraction to me. It is a pity I happened to see your write up so late. Still the message to Indian consumer, perticularly south Indian regaring the choice of oils is not very clear, at least to me, may be
Thanks MSP Rao!!
Nice post, and detailed review on indian cooking oils.