As the saying goes: everything in moderation. When it comes to fat, experts suggest that it’s not just the total amount we eat that matters, but also the type of fat. This means choosing wisely when it comes to cooking oils—some can spike blood cholesterol levels, while others such as olive oil boost heart health.
“For over three decades olive oil has been benchmarked for being the ‘best oil’ for reducing low-density lipoproteins (LDL)-cholesterol and triglycerides—risk factors for cardiovascular diseases including coronary heart disease,” explained Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, a Senior Advisor at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovations (SIFBI), adding that it’s the high levels of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and phytochemicals in olive oil that make it so beneficial.
However, olive oil isn’t always a natural choice for Asians wanting to adopt a healthy heart diet—olives are neither native to Asia nor are they a staple in local cuisines. Could there be Asian oil alternatives with similar boons to cardiovascular health?
To answer this question, Henry’s team, in collaboration with the National University of Singapore and agribusiness group Wilmar International, first created two custom blends using oils consumed extensively in Asia. They selected rice bran, flaxseed and sesame oils for their rich concentrations of healthy fats and phytonutrients—plant-based compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The team then recruited a cohort of over 140 volunteers of Chinese ancestry diagnosed with high cholesterol levels. Participants received ready-made chicken dishes cooked with either one of the Asian oil blends or olive oil. They ate these specially prepared meals twice daily, consuming the equivalent of around two tablespoons of oil per day.
After eight weeks, they assessed volunteers’ blood lipid profiles again. Henry said the team was surprised to find that eating Asian oil blends provided cardiovascular benefits on par with—and in some cases even better than—olive oil. All the volunteers showed marked reductions in diagnostic markers of heart disease risk including cholesterol and apolipoprotein B levels.
The study, one of the first to examine links between nutrition and cardiovascular disease risk among Asian populations, highlights the tremendous potential of these new oil blends from both medical and commercial perspectives.
While plans are underway to commercialize the new oil blends for an Asian market, Henry and study first author Sumanto Haldar continue to examine the mechanisms behind how the oils enhance cardiovascular health. Follow-up studies to expand their initial findings are also in the works, said Henry. “In addition to exploring other vegetable oils in this region for their general health we also propose to run similar trials in other ethnic groups such as Malays and Indians,” he said.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovations (SIFBI) and the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC).