February 24, 2021 8 min read
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Growing up, I only remember having two kinds of oil at the ready for cooking: Olive oil, for light frying, and canola oil, for baking or anything that required deeper frying. Those two alone did the heavy lifting for virtually every meal in my household — and probably a lot of other American households, too.
Twenty years ago, or maybe even just ten years ago, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that vegetable oils would become a rapidly growing and diversifying category on the market. Of course, most of us have probably been eating a wider variety of vegetable oils than we even realized, considering that these oils are commonly used as components in different premade and processed foods (as well as non-food items).
The oil market is huge, and growing
This brings us to another important point: because vegetable oils are purchased directly by consumers and used in industrial food production, the market is big and diverse. It’s estimated that 200 metric tons of vegetable oils are now consumed every year, worldwide, and the global market is expected to keep growing at a rate of 5.14% between now and 2025.
Even the average grocery shopper has probably taken notice: These days, whether you shop at a high-end health food store or a discount club store, you’re likely to be faced with more choices than just olive and canola/vegetable oil. Peanut, avocado, coconut, and other oils seem to be popping up more and more, often boasting different claims regarding health benefits. This relates to a major part of the reason for this growth and diversity: different oils have different uses and qualities, making them better for some situations, and people, than others.
If you’re a prolific cook, you already know that different oils have different smoke points and flavors, not to mention price points — hence, why you wouldn’t use a fancy walnut oil to deep fry tater tots, or cheap bulk canola oil to make a delicate vinaigrette. You may also know that serious ethical issues surrounding sustainability and labor practices are at play, particularly with palm oil. While it’s currently the single most consumed type of vegetable oil globally, it actually saw a decrease between the years of 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
So, given all the creative and practical considerations — not to mention dietary concerns like saturated versus unsaturated fat content, the presence of antioxidants and other nutrients, and consumers’ allergies — it makes sense that the vegetable oil market is so fragmented by different brands and products. It’s an exciting category to be in right now, and some brands are going above and beyond with their products.
You’re oil I need
Coconut oil is as hot as the tropics right now, seemingly popping up everywhere. Its distinctive and versatile taste makes it a flavorful pick for all manner of both sweet and savory dishes, and it’s even used as a moisturizer for hair and skin. Nutiva is one brand of coconut oil that’s earned high marks both for its nutritional properties and its provenance. Women’s Health rated it a high-quality, dietician-approved product, and The Good Trade praised it for being organic, fair trade, and non-GMO.
Avocado oil — only the latest hit from the mild, creamy fruit keeping millennials from buying houses — is still a relatively nascent category. For that reason it’s operating without much oversight, making it possible for cash-grabbing companies to put out low-quality products at a high markup without being discovered. Chosen Foods 100% Pure Avocado Oil and Marianne’s Avocado Oil, however, stand out for their purity and freshness. In a study published in the journal Food Control, scientists at UC Davis identified these two brands as the only ones in their sample set to pass muster. Their avocado oil was fresh, not expired, and proved to be the most pure, unlike other brands which contained significant amounts of other vegetable oils and sometimes no avocado oil at all. If your recipe or diet calls for avocado oil, Chosen Foods and Marianne’s are the ones you can trust to get you the real thing.
At the intersection of coconut and avocado oils, you’ll find — perhaps surprisingly — vegan ghee. Traditionally, ghee is a clarified butter used primarily in Indian cooking. Nutvia sells their own flavorful vegan ghee made of a blend of avocado and coconut oils, plus turmeric and other natural ingredients to create a buttery flavor without the dairy, perfect for those hoping to create authentic and delicious meals at home while avoiding dairy and all its nutritional and environmental pitfalls.
And while the category is still primarily led by neutral flavored oils that work well in processed foods, home cooks are getting more and more access to interesting, flavorful oils that make all the difference in their salad and sautées. Artisanal brands like Ulli’s Oil Mill are making small batches of oils that are not only organic and locally sourced, but culinarily unique and high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Ulli’s, which is based in New York City, makes rapeseed (canola) oil, as well as the more uncommon camelina oil, sunflower-chili oil, hemp oil, and their award-winning Austrian-style pumpkin seed oil.
Macadamia oil might be the hottest new thing on the scene. The company Milkadamia, originally known for their macadamia nut milk, is now making macadamia oil-based cooking sprays, in both pure, unflavored and umami-seasoned varieties. Apart from being in a convenient spray bottle, the oils have a high smoke point, making them good choices for cooking. And health nuts (pun intended) will be pleased to learn that macadamia boasts the highest content of monounsaturated fat, and lowest percent of omega 6 out of any nut or seed.
Hemp, it seems, is evergreen as far as trends go. While the wellness world is bubbling over CBD this and that, a different, non-psychoactive use of the plant might be headed to a pantry near you. Hemp seed oil is one of the latest vegetable oil options, thanks to brands like Manitoba Harvest. According to Manitoba, their oil is not only non-GMO, but contains 12g of omega-3 and -6 per tablespoon. They don’t recommend heating it over 300 F, so as to avoid damaging the nutrients, so this nutty-tasting oil is probably best used for salad dressings and other cold dishes. And of course, it’s not just Manitoba. The aforementioned Nutiva, too, sells hempseed oil which is also non-GMO and organic; as does Mountain Rose Herbs.
Even EVOO, the OG, is adapting with the changing market. Bono, a Sicilian olive oil producer, has announced its resource-saving initiatives to make this and future years’ harvests more sustainable. The company has invested in new machinery that they expect will save 1 million liters of water, annually. In addition, both of the company’s warehouses are now fully powered by solar electricity. And there’s OLEAMEA, an organic Turkish olive oil brand. Founded by siblings, Merve and Mert Aydin, whose family has been producing olive oil in Turkey for generations, OLEAMEA uses Memecik olives that thrive in the Turkish climate and produces flavorful oils. The founders take pride in not only supporting the traditional agricultural practices of the land, but investing in them to improve the lives of the local communities through education. And by mid-2021, they expect their entire facility, including production, will be running on solar energy.
Fats are having a big moment right now, both in the culinary and wellness worlds, probably due at least in part to the popularity of keto and other diets that emphasize healthy fats. And while the wild world of vegetable oils will probably never provide a single, superior oil to end all others, that diversity is what makes the category so interesting from both a flavor and nutritional standpoint. But regardless of which veggie oils you’re stocking up on — even if it’s just old reliable, EVOO — this moment could be viewed as a slight but significant shift in our food culture. The more familiarity and access consumers have to different vegetable oils will mean less reliance on animal fats for cooking, like butter, less dietary cholesterol, and more variety. Oil isn’t usually the most exciting part of a dish, but maybe it should be.