Canola Oil

Canola is a cultivar of rapeseed (Brassica napus), a plant that is widely grown for animal feed, vegetable oil, and diesel lubricant. Canola was selectively developed (in Canada) to have a low erucic acid content (an acid that can cause health problems), so successfully that canola oil is probably the healthiest vegetable oil available, with a ratio of 15.7:1 of unsaturated to saturated fats. The name canola stands for “Canadian oil, low acid.”

Corn Oil

Corn oil is extracted from the kernels of corn (technically called maize: Zea mays). Corn oil is a healthful alternative to oils made from animal fats, with a ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats of 6.4 to 1. Corn oil is used to make margarine, cooking oils, and even salad dressings. In general, corn oil is high in vitamins A (if made from yellow corn) and C and the B vitamins, as well as potassium.


Margarine is a catch-all name for a range of butter substitutes, made from a wide variety of both animal and vegetable fats and often mixed with milk and/or butter. Generally, margarine comes in three main forms:

  • Hard, usually colorless, margarine is used for cooking and baking and contains a high percentage of animal fats.
  • So-called traditional margarines, which are used as spreads, are made from either animal or vegetable fats and contain a relatively high percentage of saturated fats.
  • Mono- or polyunsaturated fat margarine, made from safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, or olive oils, are generally considered more healthful than butter or other margarines.

Some of today's table spreads are blends of margarine and butter, providing the taste of butter without the cost or fats.

The history of margarine begins in 1813 when Michel Chevreul discovered what he called margaric acid in animal fats, but in 1853 Wilhelm Heintz realized that margaric acid is really a combination of stearic and palmitic acids found in animal fats. But it was French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mourie´s who first used the name “margarine” when he created oleomargarine in response to Emperor Louis Napoleon III's contest (in the 1860s) to create a butter substitute for soldiers and poor citizens. Mège-Mourie´s made his oleomargarine (sometimes referred to as oleo, but commercially sold as margarine) by extracting the liquid from clarified beef fat and allowing it to solidify, then combining it with water and butyrin (a liquid fat naturally present in butter). By 1873 margarine was being exported from France, and by 1880 margarine was being made in the United States and other countries.

In the United States, the dairy industry quickly lobbied to restrict the sales of margarine. Laws were passed concerning how margarine could be labeled (it had to be made clear that it was not real butter), and by 1885 the federal government levied a sales tax on margarine and required makers or sellers of it to purchase an expensive license. The most effective means of protecting butter, however, was color bans on margarine. Margarine is naturally white or almost white, and by 1900 many states had passed laws banning the use of yellow food coloring in margarine production. Some manufacturers supplied food coloring capsules along with the tubs or blocks of margarine so that it could be colored before serving. These bans, regulations, and taxes were copied in other countries around the world. Both world wars brought an upswing in the consumption of margarine, as butter was difficult to obtain and very expensive, but the restrictions against margarine were not fully lifted until the 1960s. In the United States, margarine still cannot be sold in packages larger than one pound. Yet by the year 2000, U.S. consumption of margarine was about twice that of butter.

Because of the chemical process of hydrogenation (converting unsaturated fatty acids to saturated ones, to make margarines solid at room temperatures), margarines are made of saturated fats. A process called partial hydrogenation yields the formation of trans-fats as well. Although trans-fats are unsaturated, they have been implicated in causing coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis. Some maintain that this makes margarine less healthy than butter; others argue the opposite. Manufacturers have responded by creating new varieties of margarine that have fewer trans-fats, though often these are not able to be made solid enough for baking. In general, the more solid the margarine (or shortening, or oil), the higher the content of saturated fats and the more adverse the effects on health. Liquid, unsolidified margarines and vegetable oils are best for the health.

Usually, however, margarine can be used in all the ways and for all the same purposes as butter.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is one of the few vegetable oils with a recognizable taste and aroma. Composed primarily of monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil is extremely beneficial in preventing cholesterol buildup, helping to maintain high levels of the high-density lipoproteins that carry cholesterol out of the blood and to lower the levels of low-density lipoproteins that deposit cholesterol in the arteries.

Made by pressing ripe olives, olive oil is available as either virgin (from the first pressing) or pure (from the first and second pressings). Additionally, olive oil is graded according to the presence of free oleic acid, which indicates that the molecules of the oil have begun to break apart: virgin (4 percent free oleic acid); fine virgin (3 percent); superfine virgin (1.5 percent); and extra virgin (1 percent).

Sites in Palestine and Syria indicate that the ancients were pressing olives into oil by about 3500 b.c.e., and it was certainly of widespread use among the peoples of the Bible (Exodus 25:6; Numbers 11:8; II Kings 18:32; Zechariah 4:12; etc.). Olive oil was a real luxury among the Greeks, who used it, for example, as an after-bath moisturizer and as an oil for anointing the dead. As time passed, it became more available and took its place in the common home, providing oil for cooking, oil for lamps, and soap for baths. The Romans cooked the fragrant parts of the olive tree (such as the flowers, leaves, or roots), which they then mixed with olive oil to make a scented oil, or perfume. The Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans also believed olive oil capable of restoring health and adding longevity; and we now know that the olive tree does contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin. In ancient Egypt, olive oil was thought to have been used as a lubricant for moving large stones. Throughout the Mediterranean, olive oil helped preserve fish. Today, olive oil is a major staple of Middle Eastern cooking.

Store olive oil in a cool, dark place to prevent it from turning rancid.

Peanut Oil

Peanut oil is extracted from peanuts (Arachis hypogaea), which are technically a legume but are consumed as nuts. Unlike other nuts, the peanut pods grow below the ground and must be pulled up and dried before consumption. Also known as goobers, ground peas, ground nuts, earth nuts, and monkey nuts, peanuts are an annual plant native to South America, perhaps Brazil or Peru. Depictions of peanuts have been found on Chimu pottery dating from the 14th century c.e., and either the Chimu or the Incas (who conquered the Chimu in the 15th century) first cultivated peanuts. Christopher Columbus found peanuts in Haiti, and Herna´n Corte´s found them in Mexico. The peanut's entry into the United States is not documented, but Thomas Jefferson records having grown them, and they quickly became a popular crop. George Washington Carver discovered more than three hundred uses for the peanut, creating peanut soup, peanut-flour bread, peanut oil dressing, peanut ice cream, peanut cookies and candy, and even peanut “coffee.” But peanut butter became the most common of its uses in the United States, followed by roasted, dried, or salted peanuts eaten as a snack food and dried peanuts used to make candy. Peanut agriculture has spread throughout the rest of the world: in the 16th century the Spanish brought peanuts to Malaysia, from where they spread to China and other parts of Asia, and the Portuguese brought them to Africa from Brazil in the 17th century. The peoples outside the United States have many other uses for peanuts: they are eaten like other dried legumes and beans; they are pressed to make peanut oil; they are ground into flour. Roasted under pressure in safflower or sunflower oil, peanuts can also be defatted.

In the United States, commercial peanuts fall into three main types:

  • Runners, grown in the U.S. South and Southwest, are usually used to make peanut butter.
  • Virginia peanuts are usually sold roasted in the shell.
  • Spanish peanuts, which are round with reddish skin, are generally used in candy and are salted as a snack.

Probably because they are legumes, peanuts have more protein than any other nut. They are moderately fatty but are high in dietary fiber. They also provide large amounts of folacin, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, and thiamin and significant amounts of vitamins B6 and E, copper, iron, manganese, potassium, and zinc.

Peanut oil is generally neutral in flavor, which makes it ideal for cooking dishes that need no flavor competition. It is popularly used to make salad dressings, to fry meats and vegetables, and even to lubricate pasta and rice dishes. It is worth noting that many people who suffer allergic reactions to peanuts do not exhibit the same symptoms after having consumed peanut oil, possibly because peanut oil contains very little peanut protein. Peanut oil is found in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern pastries.

Sesame Oil (Sesame Seed Oil)

Sesame seed oil is extracted from the seeds of the sesame plant (Sesamum indicum). This oil is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and has a ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats of 4.4 to 1. Sesame oil is used to make margarine, cooking oils, and salad dressings and is a healthful alternative to oils made from animal fats. Remarkably, in both India and China, sesame oil is used as fuel in oil-burning lamps. Sesame oil is the key ingredient in halvah, the Middle Eastern confection, and is the base for tahini.

Sunflower Oil

Sunflower oil is derived from black-shelled seeds of the sunflower (Helianthus annuus). The gray-and-white shelled seeds are those generally used for snacking and cooking purposes. Sunflower oil is high in vitamins B6 and E, copper, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, and zinc. It is also rich in calories, but in terms of its ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats, it is the third best oil to use, behind canola and safflower oils.

The sunflower is an annual plant that can reach heights of 10 feet, with flowers reaching a foot in diameter. The name “sunflower” originates in its ability to turn and face the sun, a behavior known as heliotropism. This ability is also recorded in the French and Italian names, tournesol and girasole, respectively.

Native to the Americas, sunflowers were domesticated sometime about 1000 b.c.e. They did not make their way to Europe, where they are now grown in great abundance, until the 16th century c.e.

What gardeners generally call the flower is actually a composite flower, also known as a head—that is, numerous flowers crowded together. On the outside of the head are yellow, maroon, or orange ray florets, which are sterile. Inside the ray florets are the disc florets, which produce the seeds. Remarkably, the disc florets are arranged in such a way that a pattern of spirals is formed, with one system of spirals going clockwise and an interlacing system going counterclockwise.

Sunflower oil is now a standard ingredient in Middle Eastern recipes.

Vegetable Oil

Many types of vegetable oils are available. The most common are canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, olive, peanut, sesame seed, cottonseed, palm kernel, and coconut, in order of their ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats (canola having the best ratio). In general, vegetable oils contain less saturated fatty acids than animal oils and are a healthful substitute for them; but it is important to be aware of how a particular vegetable oil compares. For example, coconut oil has a higher percentage of saturated fat than animal oils, while corn oil has a lower percentage. Vegetable oils have a wide variety of uses and have become essential ingredients in salad dressings, in stir-fries, and in cakes and brownies.

Vegetable Shortening

Vegetable shortening is hydrogenated vegetable oil that is solid at room temperature. Hydrogenation is the process whereby unsaturated fatty acids are changed to saturated fatty acids, resulting in the solidification of the oil. Many vegetable shortenings are only partially hydrogenated, but all are 100 percent fat. Shortening gets its name from its ability to inhibit the formation of long wheat strands in wheat-based doughs, thus giving them a short texture. Vegetable shortening has become important in the kitchen, used in making pie crusts and shortbread cookies, in particular. The most popular shortening, Crisco, was first produced in 1911. As one might imagine, vegetable shortening is greatly used in Middle Eastern cooking, particularly in breads and cakes and in meat dishes.

Walnut Oil

See walnut.