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Healthy oils

From soaps to super oil

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Can't afford olive oil? Try desi rice bran oil instead. Once used for making soaps, it's now got a thumbs up from health experts.

Tall and lean glass bottles with thick, greengold olive oil line the shelves of Modern Bazaar in Vasant Vihar, an upmarket New Delhi colony. These beauties scream good health and make the plain white plastic jars sitting alongside look almost tacky. But at least two customers daily pick the latter over their classy counterparts.

The jars contain rice bran oil, the new "wonder oil" that has caught the attention of the fitness conscious due to its myriad health benefits. "We have seen a growing demand for rice bran oil over the past six months, " says Kunal Kumar, owner of Modern Bazaar.

Expressed from the husk of rice, which is usually discarded or fed to cattle, rice bran oil (RBO) is free of trans fat and has a ratio of good fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated) and the notso-good-but-still-needed saturated fats which is very close to the level recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But the jewel in RBO's crown is oryzanol. It is the only vegetable oil that contains this antioxidant which has been scientifically proven to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. This means the oil has the potential to protect one against heart disease, which causes a fifth of the deaths in India. A study in Japan also showed that oryzanol relieves hot flashes and other menipause symptoms.

While Indians are just discovering the pale reddish-yellow oil's glowing properties, it has been very popular in Japan for over 50 years. In recent years, it has also become a rage in the US and UK where people are popping rice bran and germ oil capsules to get their fix of monounsaturated fats.

Mumbai resident Usha Singh (68) switched to rice bran oil six months ago after her family doctor mentioned it is "as healthy as olive oil". The fitness conscious north Indian now uses RBO, not mustard oil, for nearly all her cooking. "I keep trying new oils, but I like rice bran a lot. It does not have the strong flavor of mustard, " she says. Singh opts for olive oil when making pastas or salads but finds RBO best for her "rajma chawal and sabzis".

It seems she has made a wise decision. Ongoing research has found rice bran oil rich in antioxidants that can protect one against cancer and infections. It also contains squalene which improves skin tone and delays wrinkle formation. "Rice bran oil is definitely a good option for those who want a healthy cooking medium but can't afford to use olive oil for all their food, " says macrobiotic nutritionist Shonali Sabherwal. While one has to fork out anywhere between Rs 350 and 600 for olive oil, RBO costs just Rs 80 to Rs 120.

"I would still recommend olive oil or rather sesame oil, which is equally healthy, for cooking Indian food because their saturated fat content is even lower, " says Sabherwal. RBO contains around 24 per cent saturated fat compared to olive or sesame oils which have 14 to 16 per cent. RBO promoters point out that its saturated fat level is closer to the ideal set by the National Institute of Nutrition in India. But Sabherwal worries that the higher fat content may have an effect over the long term. There is a debate on several other properties of these "healthy oils", too. Nutritionist Ishi Khosla gives one point extra to rice bran because it contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which are almost negligible in olive oil. "But olive oil has some benefits that RBO doesn't, so one can't say which is superior, " she adds. RBO is being marketed as a good cooking medium for Indian homes because we fry a lot. The oil has a higher smoking point - the point at which it starts breaking down to glycerol and free fatty acids - at 490 degree fahrenheit compared to most other oils and is also absorbed less by food. A lot of the snacks served at Khosla's Whole Foods stalls across Delhi are made with rice bran oil. Deez Biryani, a popular restaurant and delivery service in Delhi, too, started using RBO two years ago. The menu proudly claims that the biryanis are made in the "world's healthiest oil". "We used to use refined oil earlier, " says owner Bhuvan Singh. He adds that heart-healthy oil is the cooking medium at his home, too, and that the cholesterol levels in his family had dipped after they started using it. In 2008, Pepsico had started making Lay's, Kurkure and Cheetos in RBO and put a 'snack smart' logo on packs. But the company quietly switched to the cheaper palm oil to cut costs recently. Considering palm oil's high trans fat content, the move has been criticised by health activists.

Another reason to shift to RBO is that it is indigenously produced, not imported like olive oil or canola. "Just one per cent of people can afford olive oil. Rice bran oil is great and locally produced. We should encourage its use, " says Kholsa.
Vegetable oils are among the top five commodities on which foreign exchange outgo is the highest. India imports nine million tonnes of edible oils worth Rs 40, 000 crore every year and about 6. 5 million tonnes of this is the controversial palm oil.

Considering India is the second largest producer of paddy after China, the country has the potential to produce 14 lakh tonnes of rice bran oil. "Currently, we produce around 8. 5-9 lakh tones, " says Dr BV Mehta, executive director, The Solvent Extractors' Association of India. Rice bran oil has been in the closet for a long time in India. Till the early 1990s it was only used for non-edible purposes like the manufacturing of soap because it gives a creamy quality to the products at a low cost. It was only after 1995 that people started using it for cooking. "But even now most of the RBO produced is used in the making of vanaspati or blended with other oils and sold under different brand names. We hope people start using 100 per cent rice bran oil, " says Mehta. But here's a word of caution for those who think they can insure their heart by picking the "right oil". Dr Vijay Surase, an interventional cardiologist attached to Thane's Jupiter Hospital, says even the best oil can only make a small difference.

"If you are a couch potato, any oil is bad for you. Some people proudly claim they use XYZ double filtered oil, but still undergo angioplasty multiple times. This is because they become obese due to excess consumption and no exercise, " he says. Dr Surase adds that a zero-oil diet is not healthy either as oil is essential for the body's vital functions, metabolism and vitamin D synthesis.

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