Many oils get bad press. So how does one choose the right one?

Bangalore: Unless you’re a diet junkie, an essential item in your food is oil. Although it is used in almost all our daily dishes, including salads, not many give a thought to choosing the right oil.

Nutritionists say oils are a part of the food guide in India as they provide essential nutrients to help maintain body functions. At nine grams per calorie, oils are the most efficient energy nutrients you can consume. Oils help build healthy cell membranes and assist the nervous system in sending messages to the brain. They help your intestines absorb vitamins A, D, E and K, and store them in your body fat. Oils assist in regulating hormones, lubricating skin and cushioning organs. Above all, oils add taste and texture to food.

But the choice of oil should be made carefully as it can make a huge difference to your health. The healthiest oil to cook with is one that is composed primarily of monounsaturated fat. Processed oils containing a high degree of saturated fats are considered the least healthy by most doctors.

Nutritionist K.C. Raghu says most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated (PUFA) or monounsaturated (MUFA) fats. Oils are the major source of MUFAs and PUFAs in the diet. PUFAs contain some fatty acids that are necessary for health called “essential fatty acids,” he says.

“While oil is essential for health, it also contains calories. In fact, oils and solid fats both contain about 120 calories per tablespoon. Therefore, the amount of oil consumed needs to be limited to balance your total calorie intake. The nutrition facts label on the product provides information to help you make smart choices,” Mr. Raghu explains.

Body’s requirement

Oil that provides nine calories per gram is more than double the calorie provided by other two energy-giving nutrients — protein and carbohydrates: each of these two nutrients provides four calories per gram. Mr. Raghu explains that we need 30 grams of oil per day (two tablespoons) as added or visible oil. “In terms of energy, of about 2,000 calorie that a person needs per day, a minimum of 15 per cent and a maximum of 30 per cent can come from oil. Apart from added 30 gram, we get oil naturally through cereals, pulses and oilseeds.”

Fatty acids

Dietician H.S. Prema says the quality of oil depends on links of fatty acids, especially the essential omega 6 and omega 3 that can be obtained only through food.

Both these experts say that the other fatty acids can be produced by our body enzymes using even sugars. But we lack enzymes to make these two essential fatty acids (omega 6 and omega 3). Oils rich in these fatty acids are considered healthy, says Ms. Prema.

“As omega 6 is abundantly available, excessive consumption can have a negative impact on health. Omega 3 is low in our diet. Omega 3-rich oils are mustard, soya and flaxseed. However, omega 3 does not need to come only through oil: it can also come through greens, fenugreek, seeds like walnut and fish.”

To each his own

Explaining that the quality of oil should be judged on the basis of cuisine, climate and culture, Mr. Raghu says: “Although coconut oil lacks essential fatty acids, it fits in well in the context of coastal cuisine, with fish as part of the diet. All traditional oils like mustard, groundnut, safflower, til (sesame) are good in their varied fatty acids composition. In fact groundnut is no way inferior to the much-acclaimed olive oil.”

V.N. Dalmia, president of the Indian Olive Association, says olive oil is considered to be the healthiest because it provides a mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. “It can also be obtained in a pure form (extra virgin — which is the juice of the fruit and is suitable only for raw consumption). Olive pomace, the other variety, is the one which is suitable for Indian cooking,” he says. “One should look for oils that are minimally processed because the more processed the oil, the less healthy it is.”