Alongside canola and olive oil on food-market shelves, you may spot an array of newer oils and cooking fats. Sales of flavored and specialty oils, from foods such as avocados, coconuts and walnuts, jumped at natural-food stores by more than 64 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to the market research firm Mintel. And once-unusual fats — ghee, for example — are now common at stores such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Some are said to have special health benefits. But do they?
Proponents claim that coconut oil can spark weight loss, prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease and lower cholesterol. It’s a widely used topping for salads, vegetables and popcorn, and it’s promoted as a healthful substitute for butter in baked goods.
The lowdown. More than 90 percent of its fat is saturated. (Butter is just more than 60 percent saturated fat.) “Saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels, which has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease,” Maxine Siegel, Consumer Reports’ food-testing manager says. Small studies suggest that coconut oil’s fats may be less unhealthful than other saturated fats, but that’s uncertain. Using it instead of butter, canola or olive oil won’t benefit your health. But a small amount on sauteed vegetables probably won’t hurt.
Avocados are high in fat, but most of that fat is unsaturated, which has been shown to benefit the heart and possibly aid in weight loss when consumed in moderation. They also contain antioxidants, and some believe avocado oil can help to protect against cancer.
The lowdown. Avocado oil, which has a nutritional profile similar to olive oil’s, can be a heart-healthy choice in salad dressings and for grilling, sauteing and searing. “If somebody wants to drizzle a bit of that on their fresh tomatoes and peppers, that would be fine,” advises Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston.
But don’t expect huge health advantages. Yes, avocados contain antioxidants, but, Lichtenstein says, a balanced diet already provides sufficient antioxidants. One drawback to avocado oil is its cost: around $20 for a 16.9-ounce bottle.
Unrefined walnut oil has become widely used as a replacement for olive oil in salad dressings because of its nutty flavor. It’s rated low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat, and because walnuts are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), some researchers say the oil has heart-health benefits.
The lowdown. If you like walnut oil, swap it for olive oil in dressings or in place of vegetable oil in breads and muffins. But “there’s no unique fatty-acid composition that would make it better than some of the more common vegetable oils,” Lichtenstein says.
Ghee, which is often used in Indian cuisine, is made by simmering butter, then skimming off the milk solids. What’s left is the butterfat, which has a rich, nutty flavor. Because the milk solids have been removed, ghee is often promoted for lactose-intolerant people.
The lowdown. People who are lactose-intolerant can usually digest ghee easily. But ghee, a form of butter, is high in saturated fat. “In small quantities I could see using it, but is there a health advantage?” Lichtenstein asks. “To my knowledge, no.” So spread a bit on toast or melt a teaspoon on vegetables, but don’t go overboard.
A healthful diet must include fat to help with vitamin absorption and brain function. “Where people can get into trouble health-wise is by eating too much fat, especially too much of the wrong kinds,” Consumer Reports’ Siegel says. U.S. dietary guidelines for adults say fat should account for 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories. (Just 10 percent should come from saturated fat.) For a person on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 22 grams daily, the amount in about two tablespoons of coconut oil or a little more than 2.5 tablespoons of ghee.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.