Before sunflower oil flooded the shopping aisles as a one-oil-for-all-purposes solution, most of our oils were extracted from locally grown oil seeds. Gingelly oil (from sesame seeds), coconut oil and peanut oil are quite popular while mahwa oil (Tamil: Iluppai, Malayalam: Irippa, Kannada: Hippegida, Telugu: Ippa puvvu) is almost forgotten today. After decades of decrying these oils, health articles today advocate healthy and wholesome oils in addition to butter and ghee. However, moderation is key.
South Indians use oil for various purposes when it comes to cooking: tempering, sautéing, stir frying, deep frying, preserving, marinating and pickling. Until a couple of generations ago, it was a regular and common practice to consume raw castor oil. Pickles are steeped in fragrant, golden coloured gingelly oil and our snacks are deep fried in peanut oil or coconut oil. Our daily vegetable sides are stir fried or sautéed in a variety of oils. Today, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing cooking oils. We have access to olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, rice bran oil etc. But there are a few factors one has to keep in mind while choosing cooking oils.
How to pick the oil for the dish
The most important factor in choosing the right oil for your cooking style is the smoke point. Heat changes the characteristics of oil. Oils that are healthy at room temperature turn rancid when heated beyond certain temperatures. The temperature at which an oil starts to disintegrate is known as its smoke point. So, oils with higher smoke points are used for deep frying while those with lower smoke points are used for baking and stir frying.
Dr. Sindhu Kalyanaraman, resident doctor at the Madras Medical College, Chennai, breaks it down: "Stick to indigenous oils. Gingelly oil and coconut oil are very healthy and are meant for South Indian cooking styles. Peanut oil is indigenous but it has to be consumed minimally. Refined oils are preferred in most homes today because it’s easy to buy them from supermarkets and online stores. But our traditional unprocessed, filtered oils (from ghani/chekku) are the healthier options. It is important to understand that an adult should not be consuming more than 3-4 teaspoons of oil per day."
Is olive oil the best you can get?
Olive oil is marketed as a very healthy oil. And this is not untrue. However, it is not suitable for most Indian kitchens. The healthiest grade of olive oil, ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ (EVOO) cannot be heated. It has a very low smoke point. So, you can drizzle it on salads or cooked pastas. The other grades of olive oil are also not very high heat friendly.
Several Indians have started using Olive Pomace Oil because the bottle clearly mentions that it can be used at high temperatures. It’s a lot cheaper than EVOO, Virgin Olive Oil and other refined variants. What is conveniently not mentioned is that olive pomace oil is made with leftover olive pulp, stem and seeds after EVOO and other better grade oils are extracted. To extract oil from this residue, chemical additives are added to draw out all the oil.
Nevertheless, olive oil when consumed raw, has great health benefits. It’s rich in Mono Unsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA), Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. That translates to better cardiovascular health. So, have that salad with a splash of EVOO for that much needed dose of healthy Mono Unsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA).
Health benefits of traditional oils
Shraddha Ravi, a fitness coach from Bengaluru reiterates the doctor’s words. More often than not, we consume more oil than we should be consuming. She encourages clients to shift to organic coconut oil, butter and ghee. Anything refined and processed, like commercially produced refined sunflower oil, has to be slowly phased out of our diet, says Shraddha.
Unlike most other oils we use, coconut oil is a great source of saturated fats. Since it is saturated fat, it does not disintegrate easily. You can use it to sauté, stir fry and temper your food. The versatile coconut oil clearly seems to be the healthier choice in a South Indian kitchen. It helps build immunity, aids weight loss and keeps hair/skin healthy.
And since it's locally grown and produced, the oil is also cost effective. The demand of coconut oil has increased in The West where health nuts drink their breakfast smoothies laced with coconut oil. Studies reveal that coconut oil helps prevent Alzheimer's. Lauric acid present in coconut oil improves levels of good 'HDL' (High Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol.
Gingelly oil is the darker coloured variant of sesame oil. It does not have a high smoke point, it is generally used to grease idli plates and make gravies. This fragrant oil is used for most cooking purposes other than deep frying. But because of its low smoke point and distinct fragrance, gingelly oil is not used to cook vegetables. Traditionally, pickles are steeped in gingelly oil to preserve them for months together.
When you dissect the health benefits of cooking oils, the ubiquitous yellow pouch of refined sunflower oil in our kitchen is not even a contender. It doesn't have the nutritional value of other oils and may not be most suited for the dish that you are making. Choosing the right oil is a slippery slope but think about your choices before you let the aggressive advertising decide for you.