Free acidity and smoke point are key parameters in assessing the quality of cooking oil. Learning about them will help you better understand the cooking oils you use.
The attribute denotes the percentage of free fatty acids (FFA) present in the oil. FFA is primarily produced by hydrolysing triglyceride (fats in oil) molecules, usually during oil production. The other factors that can accelerate FFA in oils include the storage conditions, such as exposure to light, heat, and air and the storage containers.
High FFA means the oil is more susceptible to oxidation and can become rancid more quickly, significantly altering the flavour and taste. Rancid oil may only affect the taste and aroma of your food and does not make you sick. However, limited evidence cautions that consuming rancid oil frequently may increase the risk of inflammatory diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and even cancer.
Summary: Free acidity refers to the amount of free fatty acids present in an oil, which can increase as the oil ages or is exposed to heat, light, or oxygen. High levels of free acidity can result in a rancid taste, unpleasant odour, and potentially harmful compounds in the oil. Therefore, oils with low free acidity levels are generally preferred for cooking.
A lot of fuss is behind cooking oils’ smoke points! Most of us think using oils beyond the smoke point is potentially harmful. Using oil beyond the smoke point is not quite dangerous. But repeated use of heated oils is potentially harmful as they may contain carcinogens and other toxins.
The smoking point, very simply, is the temperature at which you can see smoke visible from the oil in the pan. Technically, it is the temperature at which the fats undergo several chemical and physical reactions. The chemical reactions include oxidisation, hydrolysis, cyclisation, isomerisation, and polymerisation.
Oil heated beyond the smoke point results in the breaking of fats present in the oil. Further it continues to produce more free fatty acids and can also break down the beneficial polyphenol antioxidants.
So heating oil beyond the smoke point loses the healthy fats and antioxidants and produces free radicals. So here, you do lose the goodness of oil, but it is not harmful to your health yet.
What is really dangerous is repeatedly using heated oil, which produces byproducts, including aldehydes, ketones, and alcohol. Acrolein and acrylamide, potential carcinogens, are some examples. So, using the oil at high temperatures for a prolonged period is wrong.
Briefly, you use oil for frying, then store it for your next use. And you use the same oil at high temperatures. Such repeated use of oil produces a lot of toxins that are harmful to your health.
Also, exposure to oil fumes may cause certain cancers. For home cooks, inhaling smoke is not an issue. But for line cooks exposed to fumes for a longer period, it is potentially unhealthy.
Using cooking oil beyond smoke point takes away the health benefits you get from the oil, say the healthy fats and antioxidants. However, repeatedly using the same oil several times for frying or baking produces harmful toxins and carcinogens. This increases the risk of chronic ailments such as Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, etc.
The smoke point of oils depends on the following:
- Refining – Refined oils undergo processes that remove aromatic impurities and free fatty acids and thus have high smoking points compared to virgin or less-processed cooking oils.
- Fatty acid profile – Oils like flaxseed with polyunsaturated fats have a lower smoke point. Oils with monounsaturated fats, like olive and avocado, have medium smoke points. Oils like coconut oil, high in saturated fats, have the highest smoke point.
- Age – As the oil ages, exposure to light, heat, and air produces more free fatty acids, lowering its smoke point.
Summary: The smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke and break down, ruining the beneficial compounds. When heated for more time, it produces harmful compounds such as acrolein and acrylamide. So, cooking with oil that has exceeded its smoke point can not only affect the taste and quality of the food but may also pose health risks. Thus, choosing oils with high smoke points is important for high-temperature cooking methods such as deep-frying or stir-frying.
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The bottom line
Free acidity and smoke point are two important properties of cooking oils that can affect their suitability for different cooking methods.
It’s important to note that the free acidity and smoke point of cooking oils can vary depending on the type of oil and its processing and storage conditions. For example, refined oils typically have lower free acidity and higher smoke points than unrefined oils. Furthermore, the type of oil and its suitability for a particular cooking method may also depend on personal preferences, as some oils, such as olive oil, may impart a distinct flavour to the food.
In summary, understanding the free acidity and smoke point of cooking oils can help you make informed decisions about which oils to use for different cooking methods. Choosing oils with low free acidity and high smoke points can help ensure the quality, safety, and flavour of your cooking.