What is vegetable oil?
Vegetable oil is the label used to describe the range of oils that are derived from plants, which include olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, etc. However, you’ll also find bottles of “vegetable oil” on the shelves of your local supermarket. This product is a blend of different vegetables oil often predominantly canola oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil. It has light, subtle flavour so it’s often called for in baking as a moistening agent.
Is vegetable oil healthy?
Different vegetable oil have different health ratings. Vegetable oils are generally healthy sources of fat but some experts have highlighted concerns with the high amount of polyunsaturated omega-6 fats found in certain vegetable oils (like canola oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil and rice bran oil) and their effect on human health. Olive oil is often heralded as the best choice of healthy oil as it has high omega-3s and low omega-6s. Be wary of hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are often found in processed foods and takeaway. They are incredibly unhealthy as they contain trans fats, which have been found to contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
What are the best substitutes for vegetable oil?
There are a number of alternatives to vegetable oil, some are best for baking cakes, muffins and brownies while others work better for frying. The main consideration when choosing a vegetable oil substitute is flavour – vegetable has a very mild taste and you don’t want the oil you replace it with to overpower the dish.
1. Canola oil
The vegetable oil you find on shop shelves is usually made up of a high percentage of canola oil so using canola oil instead makes total sense. Canola oil is virtually flavourless so you won't notice the difference in your cooking. Canola oil is derived from rapeseed and contains a decent amount of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and a lower level of saturated fats compared to other oils. However, it is often highly processed which means fewer nutrients overall.
2. Sunflower oil
Sunflower oil is also a major ingredient in most vegetable oils so it makes a suitable, flavourless substitute in any recipe. Sunflower oil is high in vitamin E however it contains a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, which are thought to lead to inflammation in the body.
3. Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is arguably the healthiest substitute for vegetable oil as it's high in good fats and powerful antioxidants. However, it has a robust flavour so it's not ideal in baking. It's best used in frying on a low to medium heat and dressings.
4. Coconut oil
Coconut oil is best used as an alternative to vegetable oil in recipes where a subtle coconut flavour is suitable, like muffins, cakes, cookies and brownies. It is also great for frying as it has a high smoke point. The jury is still out on the health benefits of coconut oil – some experts argue that it's a no-go while others suggest that it can help lower blood cholesterol.
Butter makes a great substitute for vegetable oil, especially when baking cakes, muffins, cookies and brownies. It can be replaced with a one-for-one ratio and it will create crisp and flavourful dishes.
6. Avocado oil
Avocado oil makes a great, healthy substitute for vegetable oil. It is unrefined, high in healthy fat, vitamin E, and it has a higher smoke point, which means it works well for frying. It is also low in flavour so you won't notice the switch. Unfortunately, it does tend to be a bit more expensive.
If vegetable oil is required as a moistening agent in your baking recipe, applesauce can be used as a replacement. It works well for cakes, muffins, cookies and brownies. Use a three quarters of a cup for one cup ratio and slightly reduce the amount of sugar you use as applesauce will bring some sweetness.