You have undoubtedly heard that olive oil is generally considered the healthier cooking oil alternative (even if you are following the Mediterranean Diet). But with many baking products and cooking techniques (frying, barbequing, sauteing, baking, etc.) calling for vegetable fat, is olive oil really any healthier? And if so, would using olive oil be a better choice, as opposed to, say, vegetable shortening or corn oil?
Olive oil, by law, has very high saturated fat content–and, as such, health benefits associated with its consumption are limited. The main health benefit associated with this oil is its ability to improve flavor and texture. Extra virgin olive oil has high saturated fat, which makes it an excellent cooking medium, but it also has a low solubility, which means that it can form molecules of its own and float away on the water. This does not help the cooking process at all, and can even cause damage to food during storage.
The next question to ask is what canola oil, cottonseed oil, peanuts oil, and sesame oil have in store for us when we decide to substitute them for other vegetable oils? It seems reasonable to think that canola oil and peanut oil (and, to a lesser extent, cottonseed oil and sesame oil) will boost our health benefits somewhat. At the very least, they will not make our baked goods taste earthy and bland. At best, they will provide a bit of flavor and texture, at most, a little seasoning, and some extra health benefits.
In terms of flavor and texture, extra virgin olive oil scores big. Extra virgin means “without impurities,” which means that the substance has not been heated or refined. Refined olive oil has been treated with a variety of chemical processes, all of which alter the chemical makeup of the oil. This process weakens the olive oil’s antioxidant content and causes it to deplete its monounsaturated fats (vitamin E). As a result, the antioxidant status of extra virgin olive oil slumps, and it is more difficult to protect the body from free radicals.
This weakness causes a number of health problems. One problem is that extra virgin olive oil may reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol–but it does so by reducing the rate that LDL cholesterol is oxidized, so it does not affect heart health. Another problem is that monounsaturated fats can increase LDL cholesterol and reduce HDL cholesterol, while increasing the rate that calories are burned through carbohydrate consumption. As it turns out, the main problem with refined cooking oils is that they are high in calories and low in nutrients!
Extra virgin olive oil scores particularly high on the antioxidant scale. It is the best choice for cooking oils, because it is a natural product that contains very little toxicity. If you are going to choose between olive oil vs. vegetable oil in terms of its health benefits, make no mistake–you want extra virgin olive oil.