Photo: Gentl & Hyers
Most foods—jam, say, or meatballs—would look peculiar if they wound up on your skin. Not so oils, which are beneficial in so many ways that, since earliest times, they have been slathered on our bodies as often as they have been eaten. Romans bathed in olive oil, Egyptians rubbed rosemary oil into their scalps, and Indians received Ayurvedic sesame oil massages. And when oils were ingested, it wasn't just for flavor; their healing properties made them among the most precious of ancient medicines.
But despite all their advantages and admirers, healthful oils were slow to be integrated into the American diet. Our national cuisine, like our language, derived largely from England, and leaned heavily—you could even say stodgily—toward butter and lard. When we did discover oils, we chose the blandest ones. "Thirty years ago, consumers wanted clear oil with no color, no odor, no flavor—corn oil or safflower," says Matthieu Kohlmeyer, CEO of La Tourangelle, a 150-year-old French manufacturer of nut oils that recently began producing and distributing in the United States. Then, in the 1980s, Americans fell for Mediterranean food and the gorgeous, green-gold oil that pervades it. "Olive oil persuaded Americans that oils could be dark and very flavorful, even cloudy, unfiltered," says Kohlmeyer.
While we now consume twice as much olive oil as we did 10 years ago, we've still barely dipped our toes into the vast world of oils. It doesn't help that the health benefits and risks of the various oils on the market can seem head-spinningly complex—and that many dieters think they should be avoiding fat altogether. The important thing is that our bodies need fat in order to process certain nutrients and build crucial cell membranes, and various oils—especially plant-derived varieties like walnut, avocado, and grapeseed—can impart benefits, such as heightened immunity and lowered levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol.