Move beyond olive oil. (Photo: Getty Images)
Alongside canola and olive oil on food-market shelves you may spot an array of newer oils and cooking fats. Sales of flavored and specialty oils, from foods such as avocados, coconuts, and walnuts, jumped at natural-food stores by more than 64 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to the market-research firm Mintel. And once-unusual fats like ghee are now common at stores such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Some are said to have special health benefits. But do they?
Proponents claim coconut oil can spark weight loss, prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, and lower cholesterol. It’s a widely used topping for salads, vegetables, and popcorn, and it’s promoted as a healthful substitute for butter in baked goods.
The lowdown. More than 90 percent of its fat is saturated. (Butter is just more than 60 percent saturated fat.) “Saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels, which has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Maxine Siegel, R.D., Consumer Reports’ food-testing manager. Small studies suggest that coconut oil’s fats may be less unhealthy than other saturated fats, but that’s uncertain. Swapping it for butter, canola, or olive oil won’t benefit health. But a small amount on sautéed vegetables probably won’t hurt.
Avocados are high in fat, but most of that fat is unsaturated—which has been shown to benefit the heart and possibly aid in weight loss when consumed in moderation. They also contain antioxidants, and some believe avocado oil can help to protect against cancer.
The lowdown. Avocado oil, which has a nutritional profile similar to olive oil’s, can be a heart-healthy choice in salad dressings and for grilling, sautéing, and searing. “If somebody wants to drizzle a bit of that on their fresh tomatoes and peppers, that would be fine,” advises Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston. But don’t expect huge health advantages. Yes, avocados contain antioxidants, but, Lichtenstein says, a balanced diet already provides sufficient antioxidants. One drawback to avocado oil is its cost, around $20 for an 16.9-ounce bottle.
Unrefined walnut oil has become widely used as a replacement for olive oil in salad dressings because of its nutty flavor. It’s low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat, and because walnuts are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), some researchers say the oil has heart-health benefits.
The lowdown. If you like walnut oil, swap it for olive oil in dressings or in place of vegetable oil in breads and muffins. But “there’s no unique fatty-acid composition that would make it better than some of the more common vegetable oils,” Lichtenstein says.
Ghee, which is often used in Indian cuisine, is made by simmering butter, then skimming off the milk solids. What’s left is the butterfat, which has a rich, nutty flavor. Because the milk solids have been removed, ghee is often promoted for lactose-intolerant people.
The lowdown. People who are lactose-intolerant can usually digest ghee easily. But ghee, a form of butter, is high in saturated fat. “In small quantities I could see using it, but is there a health advantage?” Lichtenstein asks. “To my knowledge, no.” So spread a bit on toast or melt a teaspoon on vegetables, but don’t go overboard.