My mother used dripping from the frequent roasts and grilled lamb chops for nearly all her cooking needs: frying, sautéing, baking; occassionally butter was used. She did have a bottle of olive oil in the pantry for making salad and fried rice but that was about it. I recall eating the cold dripping when it had lots of juicy bits left in it and I still do sometimes. These days, though, there are dozens of cooking oils to choose from, from the trendy superfood varieties like coconut to the old standby of canola (even packed conveniently as a spray!)
There’s lots of information about the various health benefits of different cooking oils. But before you get bogged down with monounsaturated and trans fats, take a step back and consider the environmental impact of an oil’s production and use in the kitchen. Here, we give you the lowdown on five popular oils and how to best cook with them so you shop more consciously.
OLIVE OIL: High demand for olive oil has led to soil erosion and water shortages caused by irrigation in the European Union, where three-quarters of the world’s olives come from. Traditionally managed and organic groves, however, use ground covers, minimal pesticides, and no-till practices in order to promote biodiversity and protect the soil.
COCONUT OIL: According to a 2014 statement from nonprofit group Fair Trade USA, coconut’s recent renaissance hasn’t benefited growers in the Philippines and Indonesia. Many still live in extreme poverty despite the high prices on coconut products in the United States and other developed countries. In addition, coconut trees produce less as they age, meaning more farmland will be needed as demand for coconut products increases. Look for certified fair trade and organic on labels to ensure the manufacturer uses best practices.
VEGETABLE OIL: Navigating the effect of vegetable oil on the planet is a bit tricky because different manufacturers use different blends. Almost all soybean oil, unfortunately, comes from GMO crops, which stunt genetic diversity and require increased pesticide use. On the other hand, according to the National Sunflower Association, sunflower seeds are all GMO-free due to fear of cross-pollination with the wild population and the strict ban on GMOs in Europe, one of the word’s top producers. As for safflower oil, while currently non-GMO, new field tests of GMO safflower crops began in 2015, according to Virginia Tech’s Information Systems For Biotechnology database. The bottom line: Choose organic soybean, sunflower, or safflower oil whenever you can.
CANOLA OIL: Fun fact: Canola oil gets its name from Canada, the country where it was first produced in the years after World War II. It actually stands for Canadian Oil, Low Acid. Sadly, 96 percent of canola produced in Canada is GMO, and the number is similar for the United States. That said, organic is available, and it’s definitely worth the higher price tag.
PALM OIL: In 2015, the United Nations reported that deforestation of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests by the palm oil industry is driving orangutans to extinction and threatening many other species. Avoid palm oil when possible (go with sunflower, safflower, or butter instead), and check the Palm Oil Innovation Group’s website to find out which manufactures source it responsibly.