Olive oil is a Good News fat. Consumption is linked to lower risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. It’s a mainstay of the healthy Mediterranean diet and is recommended by most public health organizations. Quality olive oil is expensive. Even the less expensive varieties — blends of oil from several countries — are pricey. Now they’re all about to get more expensive. Olive oil prices could spike 25% in the next few months, thanks to extreme temperatures in European olive-oil producing regions.
One publication — Eating Well — has a list of healthful alternatives. Top of the list is peanut oil. My first thought: did they think peanut oil was less expensive? The last time I bought peanut oil, a 24 oz bottle cost $13! Doing some math, the per-ounce cost for peanut oil at my local grocery store ranged from 54 cents to 65 cents, yet it’s described at “more affordable than olive oil”. Yet a typical moderately priced olive oil was 42 cents per ounce.
The oil alternatives list included sesame, flax, walnut and avocado. Nothing wrong with these as oils, but most are even more expensive than olive or peanut oil. In the case of sesame, flax and walnut, you really don’t want to be cooking with those. They are high in omega-3 fats, which can be ruined at high cooking temperatures. The only good alternative for cooking is avocado oil. Like olive oil, it’s high in monounsatured fat. Avocado oil also has a famously high smoke point, so you can cook with it at high heat. The cost is similar to olive oil. There’s one catch: avocado oil adulteration.
A study published 2 years ago found evidence of widespread rancidity and adulteration of avocado oil. Many were diluted with cheaper soy oil. One researcher noted that some of the “avocado oil” samples tested didn’t contain any avocado oil at all, yet were priced as if they did. What’s a health conscious home cook to do?
Fighting Fat Inflation
As food costs go up, even generic canola, corn and “vegetable” oils are getting pricey. My advice is to buy oils that maximize the health benefits of your grocery purchases. My preferences are:
- Olive oil. It’s still a health bargain. Most grocery stores have a number of options, some more expensive than others. Cost doesn’t always dictate flavor. Some blended oils are fine; just don’t expect the unique flavors you might get from a boutique/single origin olive oil. If you buy in bulk, store unused oil in a cool and dark location. Remember, olive oil (and other high monounsatured oils) partially solidify in the refrigerator. It’s not dangerous; just let the bottle sit out so the oil can warm up for awhile before using.
- Canola oil. Canola is also high in monounsaturated fats, and has a significant omega-3 content (as alpha-linolenic acid). The omega-3 content means canola can go rancid more quickly than other oils, so store in a dark and cool place. If you do not use it frequently, store in the refrigerator to protect your investment! Canola is fine for cooking or use in dressings, but doesn’t have much flavor.
- Peanut oil. This oil is a good choice for cooking at high temperatures. It’s a good choice for stir fry. The monounsatured fat content is a bit lower than olive or canola oils, and omega-3 content is negligible. Typically does not have much flavor, so not a great choice for a salad dressing.
- Speciality oils. Sesame, walnut, flax and other nut oils are highly flavored and are best used as a finish for uncooked (or after-cooked) food. Add a tiny amount of sesame oil to a stir fry, after the cooking is complete. Or add a dash of walnut oil to a salad. Truffle and flax oils are also useful this way — just a tiny amount added to a salad or to a dish that is already done cooking. Keep in mind, some oils, such as flax, have high omega-3 content and might give a “fishy” taste to a food. This isn’t dangerous. It’s healthy! But it might be undesirable.
- Safflower oil. If you can find this speciality oil, it’s also a healthful choice. It’s not widely available, and might be pricey.
- Sunflower oil. As with safflower, sunflower oil is hard to find in pure form. Ukraine was a major global supplier of sunflower oil, which means supplies might be constrained for some time.
Until standardization of avocado oil identity is in place, I just can’t recommend it. Especially as it’s typically sold in dark tinted bottles, so you can’t see what the oil looks like. But if you have a source of reliable avocado oil, take advantage. It’s useful for cooking. Unrefined avocado oil can add a nice flavor to salads or other uncooked foods.
What to buy
If you are cost-conscious, I’d suggest investing in olive oil and canola OR peanut oil for your pantry. This is a versatile combination that covers all possible uses for vegetable oils, although without the flavor boosts you’d get from a nut oil. They both have health benefits and are readily available, without apparent supply chain issues. If you can afford it, buy a less expensive olive oil for general cooking and a small bottle of a single-origin oil for salads or other uses when flavor is important.
At this rate, they’re all going to be more expensive going forward. Might as well buy the oils that give you the most health bang for your grocery buck.