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A field of linseed at Flax Farm in West Sussex

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Our top three alternatives to olive oil

Laura Sevier

23rd April, 2010

Hemp, flax and rapeseed - not a sexy sounding trio compared to olive oil's Mediterranean aura - but storecupboard essentials if you want homegrown oil

As the sun comes out, so do the salads. Before you reach for the olive oil and start drizzling it's worth considering these oily alternatives - most of which can be grown in the UK.

It's true, good extra virgin olive oil does have an unbeatable peppery, fruity flavour synonymous with summer, and in some cases no other oil will do. But produced on an industrial scale it has a heavy environmental footprint.

While there are sustainable olive oils worth paying for, a good selection of other oils can enhance your cooking and could even be grown on a farm near you. Our top three picks (below) are also fantastically good for you, providing, amongst other things, a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids - 'good fats' which, taken in the right amount and ratio, are essential for health.

TOP THREE PICKS

Flax (also known as linseed) oil

Whether you call it 'flaxseed' or 'linseed' the best oil comes from artisan producers where the oil is gently cold-pressed at minimal temperatures with no vigorous filtering or pumping. It should taste mildly of linseeds, with a delicate, sweet, fresh taste.

Pros: Of all the oils, flax is the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids. Flax is the only oil that contains more omega-3 than omega-6 (as much as four times more). Official guidelines and nutritionists say oily fish is the best source of omega 3 but flax oil is considered the best vegetarian source. It's also more sustainable and arguably a safer alternative to fish oils that may come from contaminated waters.

Cons: Poorer quality oils can taste very bitter. Even though there are pioneering UK farmers out there producing top quality oil there are very few of them because the yields aren't very good.

Use: Surprisingly you can heat it as the oil is heat stable at 150°C for an hour. Use it more like melted butter, extra virgin oil or cream. Try it in salad dressing, on a baked potato, trickled over steamed veg, or stir it into soup to bring out the flavour of the herbs. Flax oil can go rancid very easily needs to be kept in the fridge.

Good brands: Flax Farm in West Sussex make their oil 'the traditional German way' with minimal processing. They say it is 'the best linseed oil you will taste in this country'. Other brands to try include High Barn Oils based in Sussex and Biona Organic (available from Goodness Direct), made in the UK but with flax sourced from the Ukraine.

Hemp oil

With its reputation as a wonderplant - it's a low-input and low-impact crop that is easy to grow without chemicals, which enriches the soil with nutrients, and has thousands of uses - cold pressed hemp oil has a dedicated band of producers and supporters in the UK.

Pros: It contains omega fats 3, 6 and 9 in the ideal ratio for your body to absorb them (omega-6 to omega-3 at 3:1).

Cons: The UK climate. Here, hemp grows beautifully for fibre but not for top quality food grade seeds that need long hot summers, according to Yorkshire Hemp. Hemp oil producers in the UK tend to supplement their supply with hemp from Europe. China, the world's biggest hemp producer where farmers grow it as a natural barrier crop, also has a lot of cheap seeds available but traceability can be an issue.

However, Devon-based Good Oil says that it sources the majority of its seeds from the UK, and has spent 10 years working with British farmers to form a unique process which 'allows us to produce high quality food grade hemp seeds in Britain.'

Use: With its distinctly nutty flavour and rich green colour, hemp oil can taste strange at first but you soon get used to it. Use it on salads, in pesto or other savoury dishes, dip crusty bread into it or drizzle over rice or pasta. Many brands advise not heating the oil, storing it in the fridge and consuming within 6 weeks but Good Oil says its cold pressed oil is suitable for light cooking and shallow frying (it has a smoke point of 178°C), has a shelf life of 12-18 months and does not have to be stored in the fridge.

Good brands: Yorkshire Hemp sell a range of organic hemp oils and seeds.  Good Oil produce a range of hemp oils, dressings and mayonnaise.

Rapeseed oil

Cold-pressed, extra virgin rapeseed oil is catching on as a healthy British-grown alternative to olive oil.

Pros: Unlike flax and hemp oils, it has a high smoke point (more than 220°C), so it can be used to fry things at a high heat. It's surprisingly healthy - high in mono-unsaturated fats (like olive oil) and very low in saturated fats, it also contains 'good' fats omega-3 and omega-6 and vitamin E.

Cons: Rapeseed's reputation. Although this is NOT to be confused with the mass produced, flavourless cheap cooking oil variety (or canola oil, as it's know in the US), rapeseed is grown widely across the world, often as a GM crop.

Another downside is that rapeseed is hard to grow organically as normally the crop requires high levels of nitrogen fertiliser.

Use: Although its mild, slightly sweet taste is nothing like that of olive oil, it works well on salads. Even just trickled on tomatoes it brings out the flavour of them. There's not much you can't do with this oil - use it instead of butter in desserts, in dressings and stir fries.

Good brands: UK producers include Hill Farm Oils in Suffolk and R Oil in Gloucestershire. Further afield, Bio Planete has a co-op of 10 organic rapeseed producers in Burgandy and makes organic oil (available online from Goodness Direct).

THE BEST OF THE REST:

For cooking

Sesame oil - rich and nutty, the semi-refined variety has a higher smoke point than unrefined - great for stirfries, oriental dishes. Toasted sesame oil is the tastier version.

Sunflower oil - a general-purpose cooking oil. If you're frying with it make sure you get the refined 'frying oil' variety.

For flavour

Toasted pumpkin seed - a rich, dark green oil with a strong, nutty flavour. Delicious over salad, rice, pasta or steamed veg.

Walnut oil - nutty and sweet it adds a delicious flavour to salads and dips.

All available from Goodness Direct

GENERAL BUYING GUIDELINES:

For maxiumum health benefits, and taste, go for for cold pressed oil. High temperatures can neutralise or destroy the antioxidants and create free radicals (molecules that attack the cells in the body). Solvents (usually hexane) are often used to extract the oil too and small traces may remain in the oil.

Top quality cold pressed oil is mechanically (expeller) pressed with minimal exposure to heat, light and oxygen. Check the label and look for the words 'expeller extraction'. If you're buying organic, you can be sure that no solvents are used - solvent extraction of organic oils is not permitted under EU organic regulations or Soil Association standards.

Store oils away from heat and light, preferably in a dark glass bottle. Some oils, such as flax, need to be kept in the fridge and consumed within 6 weeks - check the label.

WHOLE SEEDS

Don't forget about whole seeds - still the best way to get fresh oils. They not only contain essential fatty acids but also vitamins, minerals, proteins and fibre. Pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and shelled hemp seeds are so easy to use sprinkled in salads or stirfries or on cereal.

As for linseeds, use them whole on mueslis or on salads. For maximum nutritional benefit it's best to grind them into a fine meal with pestle and mortor or a coffee grinder (whole seeds are too tough to digest properly). Add the meal to porridge or muesli. Soaked in water the whole seeds improve digestion - although flax swells to five times its dry volume so make sure it's combined with enough liquid.

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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