Oil is certainly a controversial subject, with issues ranging from fat content to smoke point to quality. Each nutritional school of thought seems to offer a different perspective. In honor of Hanukkah, Judaism’s celebration of oil, here is yet another: the holistic point of view.
As a student of traditional Chinese medicine, I love oil. Healthy fats like the oils I’m about to discuss — as well as avocados, nut butters and coconut — don’t stand a chance in my pantry. I roll through them like sufganiyot from a spilled box.
And here’s why that’s okay: All oils contain a certain amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. While omega-6 should be consumed in moderation, our bodies adore omega-3s. I’ve been taught that they strengthen the nervous system, help fight liver disease, improve cognitive health, help reduce inflammation and much, much more. (By the way, I’m not pretending to be a medical professional here — these are holistic guidelines based on my studies; not Western science.)
The problem is that for most of us, our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is way off. This is because farmed fish, supermarket eggs, and cheap oils contain much more omega-6 than omega-3. When the omega-6 count is higher, the oil can act as an inflammatory.
To restore the balance within your body, stick to oils that are in balance.
First, coconut oil. Once considered exotic, this newly popular oil, when virgin and unrefined, is considered in Chinese medicine to have numerous medicinal properties, from helping to burn fat to improving blood cholesterol levels to helping stave off viruses. It’s one of my staple oils for cooking because, in addition to its sweet and creamy flavor, it has a relatively high smoke point. This means that a normal cooking flame won’t turn the oil brown, burn the food or alter its chemical properties in a harmful way.
Which brings me to the next healthy oil, olive oil. This Mediterranean nectar of the gods contains the perfect balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. However, to maintain both the flavor and health benefits, olive oil is best enjoyed raw and should be extra virgin. Cooked over a medium to high flame, it’s thought to lose most of its health benefits.
Sesame oil, on the other hand, makes a delicious cooked dish. It has a strong flavor, but if you like it, it can elevate a simple stir-fry or Hanukkah staple to a whole new level. Plus, in Chinese medicine, its known to be moisturizing when consumed, working its powers from the inside out. Your skin and hair might thank you for preparing Asian-inspired dishes with sesame oil, particularly now, when it’s colder than Antiochus circa 165 BCE.
Still, if you’re looking for an oil that can handle some serious frying, and won’t impart much taste of its own, try safflower oil. It has one of the highest smoke points, contains antioxidants and is usually more affordable than “boutique” oils.
But let me touch on these boutique oils for a slick minute. Pumpkin seed oil, flax-seed oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, truffle oil and hazelnut oil are all fantastic options, particularly raw. Each one packs powerful flavor and allows you to add healthy fat to your dishes. In Chinese medicine, pumpkin seed oil is said to “tonify,” or increase the available energy, of your “Jing,” or essence. The nut-based oils work amazingly in desserts.
Now for the culprits: If you can, avoid vegetable, soybean, canola, grapeseed, corn, cottonseed and sunflower oil. Each of these is disproportionately high in omega-6 fatty acids.
So go ahead and add a little healthful boost to your pantry in the form of a new oil this Hanukkah. Toss it into an olive oil and pumpkin-seed salad or use it to fry up some delicious sesame and coconut oil latkes or hazelnut-oil sufganiyot.
Find Hadas Margulies at HadasMargulies.com.