The World of Culinary Oils

What you need to know before your oil hits a hot pan.

Whether your customers are devout foodies or just cooking to sustain themselves, anyone standing behind the stove will likely have a bottle of some kind of oil. Americans spend about six hours per week cooking and in 2015, private label brands of olive oil alone grossed nearly $320 million (1, 2). But, with so many culinary oils, do your customers really know what they are purchasing and why?

The Right Stuff
You may remember from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather that mafia kingpin Vito Corleone started his criminal enterprise in the olive oil business. Well, reality may not be a far cry from Hollywood fiction. Peter Panagotacos, M.D., owner of Lykovouno Olive Oil Company, San Francisco, CA, describes a 60 Minutes report that detailed how the so-called “Agromafia” in Italy has been tampering with olive oils sold to the United States as extra-virgin, an estimated $16-billion industry (3). “Most Greek exported oil is sent to Italy where it is blended with Spanish or other oils and sold to the United States as a ‘product of Italy,’” says Panagotacos.

In contrast, Lykovouno’s extra-virgin olive oil is produced from a single varietal olive on a family farm in Panagotacos’ ancestral village in Sparta, Greece, as well as picked and bottled by his family. As an additional measure, the company maintains complete transparency by posting yearly chemical analyses of its extra-virgin olive oil on its website.

The adulteration of olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), is significant because of the nutritional value. Both refined and extra-virgin olive oils are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, but EVOO retains beneficial plant bioactives and antioxidant polyphenols (4). This is because true EVOO comes exclusively from the first pressing of the olive harvest and does not undergo the same processing as refined olive oil (3). This makes EVOO ideal for salad dressing as it has a robust flavor, while refined olive oil is best for cooking, as it has a higher smoke point, meaning that it maintains stability at high temperatures.

Matthieu Kohlmeyer, CEO and founder of La Tourangelle, Berkley, CA, a producer of artisanal specialty oils, acknowledges that adulteration can be a problem, having witnessed it in other specialty oils. “Consumers are demanding better food and we believe that retailers can also play a major role in questioning the offers that are ‘too good to be true,’” says Kohlmeyer. That means if an extra-virgin olive oil is inexpensive, the “extra-virgin” claim at the very least is questionable. For their part, La Tourangelle takes very personal care in the oils they sell.

Domino Specialty IngredientsKohlmeyer explains that his company presses most of the oils it sells, but the oils they do purchase are sourced from suppliers that share their company values and have been personally visited by him. The company’s EVOO, for example, is pressed in Spain and certified extra-virgin and organic by a third-party certifier, then tested by La Tourangelle’s own lab for acidity, peroxide value, fatty acid composition and sensory evaluation.

If all this talk about adulteration has made you suspicious of other oil brands inhabiting store shelves, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) would like to ease your mind a bit. On its website, the group explains that of the 200 samples it tests yearly, 98% are 100% olive (5).

There are varying degrees of adulteration to consider. As Eryn Balch, executive vice president of NAOOA, Neptune, NJ, explains, “Olive oils could be adulterated with vegetable or seed oils such as soybean, canola or peanut oil, or there could be a lower-grade olive oil or olive-pomace oil labeled as a higher grade.” Testing for the very same standards La Tourangelle does, NAOOA has found that a majority of oils on the U.S. market meet quality standards. However, companies that do adulterate have had to face the consequences.

“When the NAOOA identifies problems, we notify the brand owner who can take corrective action,” says Balch. “In the case of repeated issues, we notify regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and state health departments (four states have detailed olive oil standards in the books—NY, CT, CA and OR).” In fact, in 2013 NAOOA sued Long Island, NY-based Kangadis Foods, marketer of Capatriti brand olive oils, to stop the sale of and pull the products off of store shelves (6). As a result, Kangadis Foods filed for bankruptcy the following year.

Eden FoodsIt’s also likely that oils are bottled in a different country than where the olives were grown. If you want or a customer wants to know exactly where the oil came from, refer to the label on which U.S. regulations require companies to list the origin of the olive oil (5). If someone requires further convincing, some olive oils bear a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or DOPG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) origin seal that guarantees the oil’s origin (5). NAOOA also has its own certification program and seal, which began in 2009 and has a growing list of certified brands.

Diversify Your Oil
Nutrition is optimal when eating a variety of foods that provide a diverse set of nutrients. The same is true of culinary oils. “Each oil has a different fatty acid profile, health benefits and flavors,” says Kohlmeyer. “By rotating oils every day, consumers will enjoy different flavors and make the most of each oil.”

Usual suspects. While the “Agromafia” may be cutting their olive oils with the likes of common, more inexpensive oils such as canola (rapeseed) and sunflower oil, that shouldn’t entirely turn you off to them. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, but canola oil is also abundant in monounsaturated fat (4).

However, canola also has a prevalence of omega-6 fatty acids, which have a bad reputation because of the overabundance of omega-6 in Western diets and a deficiency in omega-3 that has been associated with cardiovascular disease and inflammation. Another thing to consider is that most canola is genetically modified, so look for a Certified Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified seal.

If you’re going to purchase sunflower oil, look for the high-oleic kind. High-oleic sunflower oil compared to linoleic varieties is much higher in monounsaturated fats, even more than canola oil (7).  Having high smoke points, these oils are ideal for frying, sautéing and even baking.

culinary oil

Healthy alternatives. Dave Rosenberg, category manager of NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL says that there are three high- smoke point cooking oils that have been showing growth at the company: avocado, macadamia nut and coconut oil. Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fat like olive oil, as well as naturally occurring vitamin E, has a smooth buttery taste and has low viscosity “causing an ‘umami’ sensations when consumed.”

Macadamia nut oil, says Rosenberg, has as high as 79% monounsaturated fat content and a rich, robust flavor that makes it versatile in both high-heat applications and as finishing oil. Coconut oil is very interesting because unlike other healthy oils, it is rich in saturated fat. While saturated fat has been vilified, the type present in coconut oil offers medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) that interact much differently in the body than the saturated fat one may find in butter or meat.

“The human body is much more precise and sophisticated than is understood by many health professionals,” says Herb Joiner-Bey, ND, medical science consultant for Barlean’s Organic Oils, Ferndale, WA. “The body can distinguish among the fats we consume based on the biochemical structure of the fat.”

Albert's OrganicsRosenberg explains that butter contains short-chain fatty acids and meat-derived animal fats contain long-chain fatty acids. The medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) in coconut oil, he explains, “are not only easier for the body to digest, but provide energy instead of converting into fat.” More specifically, MCFAs are not packaged into lipoproteins that circulate in the bloodstream like other fats but instead go directly to the liver where they are converted into energy. This is similar to carbohydrates, except that MCFAs do not raise blood sugar (8). Therefore, much more coconut oil will be converted to energy than will be stored as fat.

Additionally, says Joiner-Bey, “In combination with omega-3s from flaxseed oil and fish oil, MCTs in coconut oil actually help decrease undesirable serum triglycerides and increase desirable HDL-cholesterol.”

Having a high smoke point, coconut oil also makes for a great frying oil or butter alternative. Palm oil is also high in MCFAs, but Kohlmeyer believes that it is not the best choice over coconut oil because of its high palmitic acid content.

For taste. As useful as oils are in frying, sautéing or baking, many are just as wonderful for dressing food and enhancing flavor. Olive oil (especially EVOO), avocado oil and macadamia nut oil mentioned previously all make great finishing oils. For example, Kohlmeyer says that avocado oil and citrus together work beautifully in a dressing. He also recommends adding pumpkin seed oil to quinoa for a nutty flavor.

Organic Valley

Two very healthy oils your customers may have heard of are flaxseed and hemp oil. Vegans may know flaxseed as an excellent plant-based source of omega-3s and perhaps take it as a supplement. However, it makes a great culinary oil as well. While it has a very low smoke point and should not be heated, adding flaxseed to salad dressings, sauces or just drizzling over food is a great way to enhance flavor while also consuming necessary omega-3s.

Hemp oil, says Kelly Saunderson, manager public affairs at Manitoba Harvest Hemp GFCOFoods, Winnipeg, MB, Canada, “has a slightly nutty taste, with a gourmet buttery texture.” Like flaxseed oil, hemp oil should not be heated and is also rich in omega-3. However, says Joiner-Bey, compared to hemp, “flaxseed oil has four times the content of the plant omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).” While ALA has been long considered an important source of plant-based omega-3, some believe the conversion of ALA into EPA or DHA is not efficient in some poeple.

Saunderson says that hemp oil is rich in both omega-3, including stearidonic acid (SDA) and omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Some research has shown that SDA converts more efficiently to EPA compared to ALA, but not at all to DHA (9). Omega-6 may not be in short supply in the Western diet, but GLA is an anti-inflammatory omega-6, contrary to most sources of the fatty acid (10). Both flaxseed and hemp have their benefits nutritionally, but ultimately, when it comes to culinary oil, taste will be the deciding factor for customers.

It should also be noted that because both oils are cold pressed and unrefined to maintain their nutritional benefits, they need to be refrigerated to maintain freshness. “Insist on brands that ensure freshness by displaying on the label a short interval of time between the date the oil was produces and the expiration date,” says Joiner-Bey. “Any hint of rancidity is a warning sign to avoid that oil product.”

Saunderson echoes this when she explains that on “every [Manitoba] hemp oil bottle you will see lot codes that can be used to track the product back throughout the production process, right to the field where the hemp seed came from.”

nature's legacySomething new. Solazyme, Inc. launched Thrive Culinary Algae Oil in October 2015. According to Mark Brooks, SVP Thrive Algae Oil, San Suzanne's SpecialtiesFrancisco, CA, the algae they use to make the oil “is white in color, and was discovered on the sap of a chestnut tree in Germany over a century ago. We’ve been studying algae for over a decade and after screening over 100,000 microalgae strains, we found…an algae that is already a source of oil and good fats.” The algae is grown in fermenters similar to that of wine, beer and vitamins, where they consume renewable plant sugars to make oil, then expeller pressed much like coconut and seed oils to extract the oil, at which point it is then refined and bottled.

With a smoke point of 485 degrees, higher even than peanut oil, Thrive Algae Oil is useful for any cooking application. “It has a neutral flavor, which allows the natural flavors of ingredients to shine through,” explains Brooks. “The light taste also eliminates the greasiness typical of other cooking oils.”

With a 90% monounsaturated fatty acid content — higher than any other oil — one tablespoon is equivalent to a whole avocado, making Thrive a heart healthy oil that challenges even olive oil. Besides its nutritional value, the oil is also highly sustainable, with the most oil produced per acre, giving it a smaller carbon and water footprint than other oils. WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine March 2016


1. “Number of hours spent cooking per week among consumers worldwide as of June 2014, by country.”
420719/time-spent-cooking-per-week-among-consumers-by-country/ . Accessed 1/25/2016.
2. “State of the Industry Almanac 2015.” Grocery Headquarters. 81(4): 92. 2015.
3. “Don’t Fall Victim to Olive Oil Fraud.”
olive-oil-fraud/. Accessed 1/26/2016.
4. “How to choose your culinary oil.” http://www. Accessed 1/26/2016.
5. “What is ‘fake’ olive oil?” http://blog.aboutoliveoil.
org/what-is-a-fake-olive-oil. Accessed 1/26/2016.
6. M. Koba. “Popular olive oil brands hit with lawsuits accusing them of ‘fraud.’” http://fortune.
com/2015/06/24/olive-oil-brands-lawsuits/. Accessed 1/25/2016.
7. “Sunflower Oil: Types of Fat & Their Profile.”
Accessed 1/25/2016
8. B. Fife. The Coconut Oil Miracle. Avery. NY. 2004.
9. A.R. Sherry. “Spotlight on Stearidonic Acid — Learn More About This Alternative Omega-3 Fatty Acid.” Accessed 1/29/2016.
10. “Gamma Linolenic Acid.” Accessed 1/29/2016.