Oil Changes: The Final Chapter

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Over the last two weeks (in “Oil Changes: Part 1” and “Part 2”) we’ve explored several different kinds of edible oils and hopefully expanded your horizons a little. I’m going to wrap things up on oils this week with a look at two other oils that you may or may not be familiar with.

Let’s start off with flaxseed oil. Where does this oil come from? The flax plant, of course. Flax is an ancient plant, dating back to the Stone Age. Flax fibers are used to make paper and fabric. Artists use linseed oil, which is derived from flaxseed, in oil paint.

You may have heard or read a lot about flaxseed and its health benefits. Flaxseed oil is rich in an essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA for short. ALA has two other cousins, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These three fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids, which you may know better as fish oils (although ALA isn’t found in fish). Omega-3 fatty acids have heart-health benefits, as they have been shown to help lower triglyceride levels, lower blood pressure, prevent irregular heartbeats, and reduce the risk of heart attack. In addition, they can also help reduce inflammation in the body and therefore help improve symptoms of certain inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in the behavioral and cognitive development of infants and children, too. Unlike omega-3’s, omega-6 fatty acids (found in most vegetable oils) may actually promote inflammation in the body. Therefore, it’s important to get the right balance of omega-3’s and omega-6’s. Nutrition experts recommend we aim for 2–4 times more omega-6’s than omega-3’s. The problem is that the typical American diet contains more like 15–25 times more omega-6’s than omega-3’s.

Back to flaxseed oil, then. This oil has a slightly nutty, sweet flavor. It needs to be kept refrigerated in a dark bottle to prevent it from going rancid, and it’s only good for about six weeks, so buy this oil in small amounts. Also, flaxseed oil can’t be used in cooking, but it can be used on foods after cooking, as a salad dressing, or for dipping bread.

The other oil I wanted to mention briefly is coconut oil. Coconut oil is a mostly saturated fat that comes from the inner flesh of the coconut. Because it’s so saturated, coconut “oil” tends to be found in a solid, rather than liquid, form. It’s frequently used in cosmetics and body- and hair-care products as a moisturizer.

Years ago, the American Heart Association first labeled coconut oil as an unhealthy form of fat due to its saturated fat content and, subsequently, its link to heart disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association advise against using this oil in our diets as well. However, some researchers claim that the saturated fatty acids in this oil are different than the ones found in, say, red meat or cheese, and therefore it’s not as bad as we think. Other researchers claim that coconut oil, in its virgin (nonhydrogenated) state, may actually help people with thyroid disease, HIV, and even those who are trying to lose weight.

Interestingly, one coconut oil Web site from the UK claims that using coconut oil can actually help people with diabetes “stabilize blood sugars” and is the only oil that should be used if you have diabetes. Of course, no research is cited to back up these claims.

The bottom line is that, because there are no good, randomized clinical trials available showing that coconut oil is not harmful or is beneficial in some way, it’s probably a good idea to limit its use until we learn more about it.

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