Olive Oil and Beyond

Health benefits of flaxseed, grapeseed, and hemp oils

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In the contentious fight for edible oil superiority, I have long maintained that all oils?except olive?should drop out of the running. Do the others really stand a chance against a substance that is dubbed with the delightful hyperbole ?extra virgin??

Snazzy grade names aside, olive oil is reported to have seemingly endless health benefits, from slowing the onset of diabetes to preventing heart disease and even certain kinds of cancer. These are only the latest accolades for a substance that since at least the 12th century B.C.E. has been used for purposes as varied as sliding pyramid stones and perfuming the skin.

While olive oil is still the culinary mainstay, other oils are now touted as part of a healthy diet, including canola, flax, and grapeseed oil, as well as less familiar varieties like hemp oil. Their growing popularity mirrors a new understanding of fat and its physical effects. We now know that eating too much ?bad? fat is a recipe for high cholesterol, obesity, and heart disease. But eat too little ?good? fat and you may end up clogged anyway?not to mention moody.

As Orna Izakson reports in E Magazine (March/April 2003), the mono-unsaturated fats in olive, canola, almond, avocado, peanut, sesame, and high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils are now believed to be essential to good health. There?s evidence that they actually ?help undo the heart-blocking effects of saturated fats? found in coconut oil, palm oil, butter, and lard, she adds. (The hardened, hydrogenated oils that are used to make margarine and other products form their own class of nasty fat, and they?re just as hard on the heart.)

The good-fat equation gets trickier when you factor in the so-called polyunsaturated fats, also known as essential fatty acids, or EFAs. These substance are divided into the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Both may help to lower cholesterol, but, as Isakson notes, the critical issue is getting the right balances: The body needs two or three times as much Omega-3s as Omega-6s.

The Omega-3s have been shown to benefit cell membranes and may reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, and heart disease. As an essential component of brain cells, Omega-3s ?may provide a defense against depression,? notes Peter Jaret in Alternative Medicine (March 2003). We tend to get a lot of the Omega-6 fatty acids in our diet, which is why many dieticians now recommend we seek out more Omega-3s. Flaxseed oil is a great Omega-3 source along with certain fish oils like cod, mackerel, and salmon.

Cooking with oil raises its own issues. For instance, Chris Meletis of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine notes that oils heated to the smoke point can ?turn into cancer-causing agents.?

If you must sear at high heat, grapeseed and canola oils are among your best bets. Like olive oil, grapeseed oil is high in vitamin E and other antioxidants but it has a milder taste. Among the oils recommended for high-heat cooking, canola oil is the lowest in saturated fats and the highest in Omega-3s.

Flaxseed and hemp oil are also rich in Omega-3s, though neither should be used in cooking. Heat destroys their efficacy and creates unhealthy derivatives. Hemp has a bold vegetable-like flavor and flax is rich and nutty?and can be used in dipping or dressing salads.

Laine Bergeson is Utne?s research editor.