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Delicious Oils to Lower Cholesterol and Boost Immunity

Barbara Levine, RD, PhD, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

We know that olive oil is good for us. In November, 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even allowed olive oil producers to state on their labels that "two tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." But some oils are just as good, offering the same or other health benefits. Here's what other oils can do for you -- all are available in larger supermarkets.

Cooking Oils

Grapeseed oil. When you deep-fry, use grapeseed oil, which can be heated to 485F. Foods fried at high temperatures are crispier and absorb less grease. Like olive oil, grapeseed oil contains phytosterols, which lower bad cholesterol without lowering good cholesterol. The light, mild taste makes grapeseed oil a natural choice in any recipe that calls for "vegetable" oil.

Peanut oil. Peanut oil contains the plant chemical resveratrol -- the substance in red wine that has been linked to a reduction in cardiovascular disease and cancer. Peanut oil also is rich in folic acid, which helps prevent colon cancer and reduces the risk of certain birth defects. With a neutral flavor and a high smoke point of 450F, peanut oil is suitable for all methods of cooking and frying.

Salad Oils

Flaxseed oil. Flaxseed is the richest plant source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. In particular, it is high in alpha-linolenic acid, from which the body manufactures docasahexaenoic acid, a building block of brain, retina and heart tissue. Recent research links omega-3 deficiency to a wide range of health problems, including depression, poor memory, eczema, allergies and arthritis.

You have probably seen flaxseed oil sold as a dietary supplement, but look for the edible table oil (which should not be heated). Some people enjoy the nutty taste -- similar to hazelnuts -- and use flaxseed oil to replace butter on corn on the cob or steamed vegetables. Others find the flavor too sharp on its own and prefer to combine it with applesauce, yogurt or peanut butter. You also can grind up whole flaxseeds in a coffee grinder and sprinkle them on yogurt or hot or cold cereal.

Sesame oil. A study by the American Heart Association found that hypertensive patients who used sesame oil as their only cooking oil -- while taking a calcium channel blocker to treat their condition -- had lower blood pressure and were able to take significantly less medication after 60 days than patients who took the calcium channel blocker alone.

Sesame oil contains phytoestrogens called lignans, which protect the heart and inhibit cancer growth. It also is an excellent source of magnesium, an important mineral in which 80% of the American population is deficient. Magnesium is needed for healthy cell function and can ease the symptoms of Crohn's disease and diabetes. Another substance in sesame oil, syrigic acid, is under review for its role in helping skin cells combat ultraviolet damage.

Sesame oil is less delicate than most seed oils and can be used for stir-frying, but heating lessens its distinctive aroma. The best way to enjoy its flavor is to drizzle a few drops on stir-fries or soups before serving. You get the same benefits by eating tahini (sesame paste), an ingredient in hummus.

Walnut oil. This oil is high in ellagic acid, an antioxidant that inhibits the growth of cancer cells. It also contains saponins, phytochemicals that boost the immune system. The US FDA has said that eating an ounce and a half of walnuts a day can decrease risk of heart disease by lowering levels of triglycerides, the blood fats associated with cardiovascular disease. Walnut oil also is a great source of the antioxidant vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids.
Because it has a relatively low smoke point, walnut oil should not be used for frying. Try using it in salad dressing, or drizzle it on hot chicken or fish dishes just before serving. You also can substitute walnut oil for some of the butter or shortening when baking.
Use in Moderation

Vegetable oil. Most plant oils -- including the soy, corn, sunflower and/or safflower oil that usually is blended as "vegetable oil" -- contain mostly omega-6s, which are essential to a healthy diet but easily supplied. The ideal ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is about 4:1, while the average American diet approaches 25:1 -- meaning that most people need to consume more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s.

Canola oil. Also known as rapeseed oil, canola oil is an economical choice for recipes that call for large quantities of oil, but it does not confer any notable health benefits.

Fats to Avoid

Trans fats. These are prevalent in packaged baked goods and fast food. They are found in margarine, shortening and any vegetable oil labeled "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated." Trans fats have been shown to lower HDL ("good") cholesterol, raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol and harden arteries. They also may contribute to type 2 diabetes.

Saturated fats. These are found in animal sources such as butter, lard and fatty meats, as well as in some plant sources, including coconut oil, cottonseed oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil. They raise both good and bad cholesterol, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.


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