In Indian households, food is not merely sustenance; it's a celebration of life, culture, and heritage. As parents, we cannot wait to introduce our little ones to the vibrant and flavorful world of Indian cuisine.
Fats and oils play a pivotal role in our culinary traditions; they influence the taste, texture, and nutritional value of our dishes. Oil and ghee are known to be good sources of healthy fats (polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) and monounsaturated fat (MUFA)) and antioxidants (Vitamin E). But, not all fats and oils are good for your baby’s health.
Today, let’s explore the world of healthy fats and oils so you can choose the right ones to nourish your baby’s health and palate!
Why Fats and Oils Are Important for Babies?
Brain development: The first 3 years of a baby's life are critical for brain development. During this period, fat, particularly Omega-3 fatty acids, plays a pivotal role in nurturing your baby's cognitive growth.
A dense source of energy: Fats provide a concentrated source of energy, ensuring that your baby has the fuel they need for their rapid growth and boundless activities. The American Academy of Pediatrics and various health organizations recommend not restricting fat intake for children under the age of 2.
Nutrient absorption: Fat is essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are crucial for your baby's overall health, including healthy cell formation.
First, let’s explore ghee, known as an Ayurvedic superfood, and later the various types of oils you can choose to cook with.
Ghee: A Traditional Favorite
In Indian households, there's a special place for ghee – that golden, buttery delight that's now becoming popular in other countries due to its nutrient-rich profile.
Ghee has been a staple in Indian kitchens for generations, and it’s particularly preferred while making a baby’s food. Its rich, distinct flavor complements Indian cuisine well.
Let's see why ghee is an excellent choice for your little one and the rest of your family.
Health benefits: Ghee has plenty of saturated fats, which is also the main fat type found in breast milk. It’s a natural source of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamin A and E), which help boost your baby's vision, immune system, and overall health. Ghee also has favorable Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, crucial for brain development and overall growth.
High smoke point: Ghee has a high smoke point and can be used for all kinds of cooking methods (frying, sautéing, slow cooking). It’s versatile enough to be used for both everyday cooking and special occasions.
How to use ghee for your baby: Use ghee while cooking your family’s meals or your baby’s food. Alternatively, a small dollop of ghee can be added on top of cooked food just before serving your baby (on top of khichdi or porridge). This not only enhances the flavor but also provides a nutritional boost.
Refined Oil v/s Cold-Pressed Oil
Indian cuisine is so diverse that even the oils and fats used differ from region to region. Since different oils have distinct flavor and nutritional profiles, they can enhance a variety of Indian dishes. There are some regional favorites, traditionally speaking: coconut oil is extensively used in South India, while sesame oil is preferred in Rajasthan. Groundnut oil is commonly used in Western and Central India, and mustard oil is the preferred choice in North and East India.
There are two main categories of oil. One is refined oil, examples of which include sunflower, safflower, soybean, rice bran oil, which are the newer varieties of oil available nowadays. Then there are cold-pressed oils (known as kacchi dhani, crude, or virgin oils), examples of which include coconut, groundnut, sesame, and mustard oil. In fact, coconut, groundnut/peanut, sesame, mustard oils are available in both refined and cold-pressed forms in India.
Let’s look at the differences between refined and cold-pressed oils.
1. Cold-Pressed Oil
Process: Cold-pressed oils undergo the least amount of processing. They are obtained naturally by crushing oil seeds at room temperature, without using additional heat or chemicals. This gentle extraction method helps retain the natural flavors, colors, and nutritional properties of the oil.
At the same time, some plant matter also gets extracted with the oil. Some of this matter contains useful antioxidants, while a lot of them don’t add any value. The compounds that get extracted with the oil are reactive to heat, moisture, metals, and oxygen. Hence, cold-pressed oils turn rancid or get spoilt faster than refined oils, when exposed to moisture or sunlight.
Cold-pressed oil also tends to burn at very high temperatures. Once the oil burns, the fat in them becomes unstable.
Examples of cold-pressed oils available in India include coconut, groundnut, sesame, and mustard. Each has its own distinct flavor and benefit.
Use in cooking: While cold-pressed oils are seen as a healthier option, they are not suitable for cooking done at higher temperatures or slow/long duration cooking (they burn easily at higher temperature).
Choose your oil based on the recipe and cooking method you’re using. Cold-pressed oils are great for everyday cooking and sauteing (at lower or medium temperatures) but not for high-temperature cooking (above 200 degrees Celcius or for longer time like high temperature baking or frying). If cold-pressed oil is heated to beyond their recommended smoke point, harmful substances are produced which will seep into the food.
Shorter shelf life: Due to their minimal processing, they also have a shorter shelf life (typically around 3-4 months). It’s best to store cold-pressed oils in a cool, dark place away from heat, sunlight, and moisture (storage tips are discussed at the end of this article).
2. Refined Oil
Process: Refined oils undergo a thorough processing, which includes heating, filtration, and chemical treatment. While chemical solvents are used in the process, studies suggest that the residual amount is minimal and unlikely to cause harm. Due to extensive processing, refined oils lose a significant portion of their original nutrients. In some cases, the processing may lead to the production of harmful trans fats.
Examples of refined oils in India include sunflower, safflower, soybean, and rice bran oil. In India, refined oils are legally required to be fortified with fat-soluble vitamins A and D. We highly recommend opting for local or regional varieties of oil that are available to you!
Use in cooking: Refined oils can withstand high to very high temperatures and hence are easily suitable for frying, baking, and slow cooking.
Longer shelf life: Due to higher amounts of processing, they have a longer shelf life compared to cold-pressed oil.
Which Oil Should You Use?
We recommend you opt for a combination of oils. Switch between refined and cold-pressed oils depending on the recipe or style of cooking you’re doing. For example, for recipes that require high-temperature cooking, frying, slow-cooking, or baking, opt for refined oils. When you’re cooking or baking at lower temperatures, sauteing, or stir-frying, go for cold-pressed oils. You can also try different types of oils traditionally used in India (discussed in the next section) for different dishes. For example, if you’re cooking a South Indian recipe, use coconut oil if the recipe calls for it.
Alternating between oils will add variety not just in flavor but also in terms of nutritional profile to the food cooked in your home. Also, whenever possible, choose locally available oils that differ from region to region.
Traditional Indian Oils You Can Choose From
Let’s look at the traditionally used and commonly available oils in India. We recommend using these oils thanks to their richer nutritional profile and easy availability. The following oils are found in both refined and cold-pressed versions.
- Contains Omega-3 fatty acids, excellent for baby's brain development.
- The only oil in cold-pressed form that has a higher smoke point (250 degrees Celsius), making it suitable for high-heat cooking.
- Rich in mono and unsaturated fatty acids; has anti-bacterial and digestive properties.
- Only drawback: Pungent smell and taste may not be suitable for all recipes.
- Widely used in South Indian food preparations.
- Contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are beneficial fats, as well as good amounts of saturated fats.
- Has antibacterial properties, thus supporting your baby’s immune health.
- Cold-pressed coconut oil has a low smoke point; hence, it’s not advisable for high-temperature cooking.
- Refined coconut oil is suitable for high-heat cooking.
Groundnut (Peanut) Oil
- Common in the western and central parts of India.
- Has an excellent fatty acid profile.
- Good source of Vitamin E and B3.
- Contains resveratrol, beneficial for heart health.
- Cold-pressed groundnut oil has a low smoke point (170 degrees Celsius), not suitable for high-temperature cooking.
- Avoid using cold-pressed groundnut oil if any family member has a peanut allergy, as the cold-pressed version may contain some plant matter too.
Sesame (Til) Oil
- Common in Rajasthan and southern parts of India.
- The oldest oil used in India.
- Great for heart health.
- Cold pressed version has a lower smoke point, compared to the refined version
- Rich in mono and saturated fatty acids and Vitamin E, which helps support immune and neurological development in babies.
- Because olive oil is not traditionally used in Indian cooking, its flavor may not suit all recipes.
- Tends to be more expensive than other oils due to production outside India.
There are various varieties of olive oil available: extra virgin (similar to cold-pressed), virgin, light, etc.
- Extra virgin olive oil: low smoke point makes it suitable for drizzling on prepared foods like porridge, khichdi, noodles, pasta, or hummus.
- Virgin olive oil: moderate smoke point (200 degrees Celsius) makes it suitable for light cooking and baking but not high-temperature cooking.
Vanaspati: Always Avoid This!
Vanaspati (a common brand in India is Dalda) is a hydrogenated vegetable cooking oil that has traditionally found its way into Indian households as a cheaper alternative to ghee. But its harmful effects on our health are well established.
Vanaspati is created by hydrogenating vegetable oil, and this process creates trans fats. These trans fats are extremely harmful for babies and adults.
Storage Tips for Oil
Properly storing your cooking oils is important to maintain their quality and ensure a longer shelf life.
- Keep away from sunlight, moisture, and heat: Avoid the temptation of keeping oil on the kitchen countertop next to the stove or on an open shelf. Sunlight, warm temperatures, air, and moisture can break down the fats in oils, particularly cold-pressed varieties, leading to a decline in oil quality. Store your oils in a dark, dry location away from direct sunlight. This storage tip is most applicable for all cold-pressed oils due to their shorter shelf life.
- Choose tinted containers: When purchasing oils, opt for products in dark, tinted containers. These containers act as a barrier, preventing direct light from reaching the oil and thereby enhancing its shelf life and maintaining its quality.
- Say no to plastic: Avoid using plastic containers for oil storage. Chemicals from plastic can leach into the oil, potentially affecting its purity and safety. Instead, consider switching to glass or stainless steel jars or bottles.
Glass is non-reactive, ensuring your oil remains fresh for an extended period. Stainless steel offers a durable, eco-friendly, and budget-friendly alternative, with the added advantage of being less prone to breakage.