Almost everyone says that organic, cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil is best for salads and for cooking. But almost everyone is wrong.
Of course, you could do a lot worse. Some oils are high in trans fats. Some may be contaminated with pesticides. Some knowledgeable people even have serious doubts about canola oil.
"Canola oil is a poisonous substance, an industrial oil that does not belong in the body," write Sally Fallow and Mary G. Enig, PhD, in "The Great Con-ola."
The problem with olive oil is that it has an unfavorable omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. It has about 12 or 13 times as much omega 6 fats as omega 3.
High oleic sunflower oil has an even worse omega 6 to omega 3 ratio -- 19 to 1 (regular sunflower oil is 200 to 1), according to a valuable table in Susan Allport's book The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them. Corn and palm oil each have a 46 to 1 ratio.
Two of the better oils, walnut and soybean, have 5 to 1 and 7 to 1 ratios respectively. The worst are safflower oil, which has no omega 3 at all, and cottonseed oil, 259 to 1.
With all the publicity about the importance of omega 3 oils for our health, we are eating more fatty fish like sardines and salmon and taking fish oil or krill oil capsules. That helps to improve our omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. But it leaves out the other side of the equation -- the need almost all of us have to reduce how much omega 6 oil we use.
Whether we have diabetes or enjoy perfect health, we can do our bodies a great favor when we concentrate on reducing our omega 6 intake. We can reduce our risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. A lower omega 6 to omega 3 ratio also reduces inflammation.
By reducing and eventually eliminating junk food from our diet we can improve that ratio the most. But even a so-called healthy diet is out of balance.
"The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the typical American today stands at more than 10 to 1," writes Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food. "Before the widespread introduction of seed oils at the turn of the last century, the ratio was closer to 3 to 1."
Our paleolithic ancestors may have had an even closer ratio. "The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats in Paleo diets was about 2 to 1," writes Loren Cordain in his book, The Paleo Diet.
Professor Cordain writes that, "For the Paleo Diet, you should try to achieve an overall balance of dietary fats from all foods, in which the omega 6 to omega 3 fat ratio is less than about 3 to 1, preferably closer to 2 to 1."
"The best way to do this is to eat fish and seafood regularly and to use good kinds of oils," he continues. "Flaxseed oil is, hands down, the best oil for you. It contains a very low omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 0.24."
Certainly, flaxseed oil is the best oil for salad dressing. I like my own flaxseed vinaigrette dressing better than any store-bought dressing I ever found. It's absolutely worth the extra two to three minutes it takes.
For starters, I use a garlic press to mash a clove of garlic. Then I add a little salt, a dollop of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard, and rub them together with a spoon. I use a double splash of the best vinegar that I can find. My current favorite is B.R. Cohn's Raspberry Champagne Vinegar, which some Whole Foods stores carry. Then, I add a double splash of flaxseed oil and mix them up. While the traditional proportion of oil to vinegar is 3 to 1, I have come to prefer a ratio of about 1 to 1. Finally, I add some freshly ground pepper. Wonderful!
But flaxseed oil isn't perfect. The better known problem is that it quickly goes rancid. That's why stores usually sell it from refrigerated cases.
The second problem tripped me up. I baked my fish with it. Bad idea. Several websites wised me up.
So, what's the best oil to use in cooking?
After flaxseed oil, the oil with the best omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is perilla oil. Until I read about it in Professor Cordain's book, I had never heard of it.
"Perilla oil (made from the Asian Beefsteak plant) has a healthful omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 0.27," he writes. "But is rarely found in the United States except for stores specializing in Korean and Chinese foods. Get if if you can."
I can't. My local Asian store is currently out of perilla oil. The only Internet sources that I've found sell it in capsule form.
If I ever find perilla oil, I wonder how much I'll like its taste. "In parts of Asia, perilla oil is used as an edible oil that is valued more for its medicinal benefit than its flavor," Wikipedia says.
Meanwhile, I cook with a great tasting oil that I discovered thanks to Regina Wilshire's "Weight of the Evidence" blog. She has a great post about how much omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are in a food or oil.
That brought macadamia nut oil to my attention. While it has little omega 3 or omega 6 oil, its ratio is just fine -- 1 to 1. I now use it on fish when I bake it.