From treating infection to promoting youthful skin, oils have always had a rich history of use in natural medicine. But oils are only as good as the active ingredients they contain, which makesquality a key concern when choosing an oil.
It’s all about extraction
There are many different ways to extract oils from plants, all of which have an impact on the purity and effectiveness of the oil. It is generally accepted in herbal medicine — and cooking! — that an extraction method known as cold-pressing produces the most desirable result. In this process, the herb (often flower) is pressed until the oil is literally ‘squeezed out’. The reason it is called ‘cold’ pressing is that this process doesn’t heat up the oil and therefore minimises oxidisation and acidity. However, cold-pressing can be expensive compared to the many chemical extraction methods available.
Although chemical extraction is a popular choice with manufacturers (for obvious cost related issues), it can substantially diminish the purity of the natural ingredients in the oil. So choose carefully, and be aware that, as with any other type of oil, saving a couple of dollars may not be worth it.
Some oils use the term ‘extra virgin’ as synonymous with ‘cold-pressed’, such as olive oil. And if you’ve been to a supermarket lately, you’ll know that there are now many variations of this term. The general rule is that ‘extra virgin’ refers to oil derived from the first cold-pressing. Terms such as semi-fine virgin oil and fine virgin oil indicate that the oil has been extracted from subsequent pressings and is therefore lower in quality.
With the above knowledge about oil extraction, you’re now better prepared to assess the quality of oils. But what type of oil are you looking for?
Oils for healthy cholesterol
Those watching their cholesterol usually focus on cutting fats from the diet. But not all fats are bad for our cholesterol levels! While saturated fats should be avoided, there are types of unsaturated fat known as omega-3 fatty acids that can actually help to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids do this by encouraging the production of high density lipoproteins (HDLs), the cholesterol transporters that don’t allow cholesterol to stick to the walls of the arteries.
Flaxseed oil and fish oil are both rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids and are often recommended for those wanting to maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels. Rich in both lecithin and vitamin E, wheatgerm oil can also help to maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels by increasing the body’s production of HDLs.
Oils for healthy skin
Moisture is the key ingredient to soft and supple skin and natural oils are used by the skin to help retain moisture. That’s why oils can be so beneficial for the complexion.
There are several oils that, applied topically, can help to protect the skin from drying out. Apricot kernel, avocado and jojoba oil can all help to protect the skin from moisture loss and help to smooth wrinkles and prevent the signs of ageing.
Of course, some oils can assist the condition of the skin from both inside and outside. Evening primrose oil does just this. It is one of the richest natural sources of gamma-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that supports healthy skin and helps alleviate the symptoms of minor skin complaints like acne and eczema.
Oils for immunity
Some of the natural oils that support our health come from the most unlikely sources. For example, shark liver oil is a rich source of substances known as alkoxylglycerols, which provide enhanced immunity. These substances are found naturally in mother’s milk for this very purpose. Cod liver oil is another beneficial oil for immunity. It is a rich source of vitamins A, D and C and helps relieve the symptoms of colds, allergies and hayfever.
Garlic oil is another handy addition to the medicine cabinet. It possesses natural antibiotic properties and can help to relieve the mucus congestion associated with colds and flu. The nature of the active ingredient in garlic necessitates a different extraction method from cold pressing. The herb is submerged in water, which is heated to a distilling temperature. The finished product is so concentrated that it is usually diluted with soya bean oil.