The skinny on cooking oils

This is written by INDRA BALARATNAM.

WITH so much focus on eating healthy and obesity nowadays, fat has unfortunately gotten a bad reputation. The general perception is there’s no room for fat in your diet if you want to be thin. 

It is this perception that I see as a huge obstacle to people wanting to even begin making dietary changes when told to do so by their doctor to manage their health condition. They assume the foods they’ll have to eat will be hard, tasteless and downright excruciating to swallow.

The fat we eat — which we get naturally from meat, nuts, seeds, cooking oil, butter, margarine and dairy — helps our intestines to absorb Vitamins A, D, E and K, and antioxidants found naturally in our foods. 

These vitamins and compounds are soluble in fat, which then become the vehicle to enhance their absorption.

Fat is also needed for the healthy function of hormones and brain cells. Foods with fat are tasty and more appetising. A fat-laden meal takes longer to empty from the stomach during digestion and keeps you feeling satiated longer.

Cooking oil is one of the main contributors of fat in our daily diet as we use oil to cook and flavour our foods. Different dishes — depending on their cooking method — require varying amounts of oil. 

For example, a piece of deep fried fish would have more fat in it than when it is steamed. With such a dizzying array of cooking oils available, you would sometimes get a little confused about which to use.

Cooking oils are processed from raw oils extracted from oily seeds and fruits. Depending on culture and cuisine, different oils are preferred as it adds to the taste and aroma. 

Every type of cooking oil has varying percentages of saturated, poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fatty acids in them as part of the molecular structure of a triglyceride. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. In fact, you may have noticed these words when you read the labels of your cooking oil.

It is very common for cooking oils to be referred by the largest percentage of fatty acid it contains. 

For example, olive oil is a mono-unsaturated oil because the percentage of mono-unsaturated fatty acid is the highest compared to the saturated and poly-unsaturated kind. But that does not mean that if you chose olive oil, it does not have saturated and poly-unsaturated fat as part of its make up.

The different amounts of fatty acids in the cooking oil determine their heat tolerance and therefore, suitability of cooking methods. 

An oil that has more saturated fat is more stable and therefore ideal for stir-fry and deep-fry. 

Saturated oils such as coconut and palm cooking oil also have a longer shelf life.

Sunflower, corn and canola oils that are predominantly poly-unsaturated are not as stable as saturated and mono-unsaturated oils. 

They are prone to turning rancid after being exposed to heat, light and oxygen. So, these oils should be served cold as salad dressing.

Due to their delicate structure, sunflower, corn and canola oils are recommended in salad dressings or for quick, low heat cooking. 

The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 2010 recommends that fat intake make up less than 30 per cent of our daily calorie requirements. That works out to be 67g for an averagely active person who consumes 2,000 calories per day. 

A tablespoon of any type of cooking oil has 135 calories and 15g of fat. Oil is rich in calories and fat. So whatever type of cooking oil you use, it can make your dish high in calories .

So if you want to watch your overall fat consumption, choose your foods and cooking methods wisely. If most of your meals are deep-fried or laden with cream, your fat intake will definitely exceed what your body requires for healthy function. 

Do try different styles of cooking such as steaming, blanching, braising, and have a mix of cooked or raw vegetables such as salads and ulam. You may also consider making soup and lightly pan-fry your meals.

Here's a nifty tip. If you are going to have a heavy breakfast, then account for it and eat sparingly for lunch. Strike that smart balance!