Despite the popularity of adding EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) to a frying pan every time a burner is ignited on some popular cooking show, olive oil is not always the best choice for cooking.

Yes, olive oil does boast major health benefits such as the antioxidant oleocanthol, an anti-inflammatory. Olive oil is also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been shown to decrease total and LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind), while increasing HDL, “good” cholesterol, thereby exhibiting protective effects in the body, relatively speaking. Too much of any type of fat is not necessarily healthy, though.

You do need some fat in your diet to help with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins. You also need essential fatty acids such as those from the omega-6 linoleic acid and the omega-3 linolenic acid to make things like hormones and strong cell membranes, as well as to promote or reduce blood clotting and inflammatory pathways.

The key is to get enough “good” fats to facilitate the right pathways while not putting your health at risk. At least 3 percent of your calories should come from the essential fatty acids in order to prevent essential fatty acid deficiencies including delayed growth, impaired reproduction, skin lesions, kidney and liver disease and neurological and vision problems. We also know the repercussions of ingesting too much fat: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers and, at the forefront, obesity.

So the goal is to consume the right fats from the best sources while employing optimal preparation techniques. Using the example of the Mediterranean diet, approximately 25-35 percent of your calories should come from fat, mostly unsaturated fats like those in fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetable oils.

Now, getting back to the point, which oils are best and when should they be added to the diet?

The best oils for overall health are flax and fish oil although neither one should ever be heated. These oils are highest in omega-3 fats, a class of essential fatty acids which we need to increase in the diet. Flax oil has a nutty flavor and works well in salad dressings or pesto. Fish oils often have added lemon flavor making them an ideal addition to salad dressings, dips and cold sauces. I add both types of oils to fruit-based protein shakes.

Canola oil is a good choice for most recipes because it’s higher in omega-3 fats than most other cooking oils although its omega-3 content has nothing on fish and flax oils. Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and is therefore more appropriate for medium to high heat sautéing and baking. The smoke point is literally the point when the oil starts to smoke. All oils have varying smoke points making them less than ideal for certain cooking methods. Olive oil is best cold or at low to medium temperatures for short cooking durations. The longer oil is heated, the more potential for carcinogens to form. For olive oil, some of the beneficial anti-inflammatory agents are also lost.

To choose the best oil, start by selecting “organic” oils. Toxins and pesticides are easily stored in fat. Not just in your oils but in your body as well. Use small amounts of organic oils on fresh vegetables to facilitate nutrient absorption and meet essential fatty acid needs.

Next you need to decipher these terms: expeller-pressed, cold-pressed or solvent-extracted. Solvent-pressed is a processing method that involves harsh chemicals and high heat resulting in bland-tasting, low-nutrient oils. Expeller-pressed is a chemical-free process where the oil is forced out of the nut or seed mechanically. Some friction is involved. So the oil may be heated. When cold-pressed is used, the oils are still expeller-pressed but under cooler, controlled temperatures. Buy cold-pressed when available.

Sometimes oils need to be refined in order to make them safer for high heat cooking as with high-heat canola or safflower oil. Look for naturally refined oils using natural agents like citric acid.

For a complete oil buying guide, see this chart adapted from Spectrum Organics.

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