Cooking oil 101: The healthiest cooking oils

Good health starts with what you cook, and cooking – whether sauteing, roasting or baking – almost always starts with some sort of oil. Even if we’re not cooking with oil, we’re still adding it to our food in hidden ways, like when we put mayonnaise on a sandwich or spread butter on toast.

It’s hard to avoid oil in our modern diet, and thankfully we don’t have to. There are plenty of oils that offer heart-healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamins. You just have to pick the right ones.

Below, we’ll guide you through the healthiest cooking oils – which ones you’ll want to keep as your kitchen staples and which ones you should try to avoid.

What are cooking oils and vegetable oils?

Oil is a type of fat. And fat, despite all its controversy, makes food taste good. Plus, we need fat in our diet – well, healthy fats. Cooking oil also adds flavor and texture to our dishes and keeps food from sticking to pots and pans.

We derive our cooking oils from a number of sources, but the oils most commonly used in our kitchens are the products of plants, seeds and nuts. These fall under the broad category of “vegetable oils.”

This can be confusing – you’ve likely seen bottles labeled “vegetable oil” at the grocery store, but these often contain an unpredictable mixture of some of the vegetable oils we’ll discuss below, a mixture that may or may not be made up of the healthiest ones.

Why some cooking oils and vegetable oils are healthier than others

Vegetable oils are generally healthier than other oils and fats because they are composed predominantly of unsaturated fats as opposed to saturated fat.

Unsaturated fats, which include both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, are healthier than saturated fat. They raise your level of good cholesterol, or HDL cholesterol, while simultaneously lowering your bad cholesterol, or LDL cholesterol. This is great for heart health and can decrease your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Saturated fat, on the other hand, does the opposite when consumed in large amounts. It causes an increase in bad cholesterol and a decrease in good cholesterol. Like most things, saturated fat is okay in moderation: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that less than 10% of your daily calories come from saturated fat.

Within the category of polyunsaturated fats are two more fats to consider: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. We have to consume a balance of both for optimal health, but our Western diet is heavy on omega-6.

To learn more about the different types of fats, visit our blog on healthy vs. unhealthy fats.

The difference between refined and unrefined cooking oils

The production of vegetable oils – the actual extraction of oil from various seeds, nuts and plant parts – is not always a straightforward process. Sometimes various combinations of chemical and heat-based techniques are used in addition to the physical pressing to get the most oil possible out of the source material. Oils that are made without heat or chemicals are commonly labeled “cold-pressed” or “expeller-pressed.”

Unrefined oils are immediately bottled after extraction and sold as is. This means unrefined oil, often marketed as “virgin” oil, maintains most of the natural properties that give it stronger flavors and more nutrients. At the same time, these natural properties shorten the oil’s shelf life and make it less suitable for high-heat cooking.

Refined oils undergo further processing after extraction to get rid of impurities. This lengthens their shelf life and makes them great choices for all your cooking needs. But this additional processing removes their nutritional benefits and makes them “neutral,” the name for oils that don’t have a strong flavor. Neutral oils aren’t a bad thing, and can be used for cooking dishes without adding extra, perhaps unwanted, tastes.

Cooking oil vs. cooking spray

Cooking spray is an aerosol form of cooking oil that comes in a spray can. It typically has fewer calories than cooking oil and can be used to evenly coat frying pans, baking dishes and oven trays without adding extra calories to your food.

The downside? Cooking spray is less flavorful and often contains other additives, like soy lecithin and certain chemical gases that create the aerosol effect. Cooking spray is perfectly fine to use occasionally, but try to alternate it with the liquid form of cooking oil as well.

Cooking oil vs. butter

The debate between butter and cooking oils is a complicated one, with no simple answer. Butter contains a higher amount of saturated fat than nearly all cooking oils, with 7 grams in just 1 tablespoon. That’s nearly a third of the total recommended daily intake of saturated fat.

However, butter can handle high-heat cooking better than many cooking oils and is considered a “whole food,” meaning it’s made without food additives or chemicals (depending on the type you buy). Certain cooking oils, despite being low in saturated fats, can involve chemicals in their manufacturing process that inevitably seep into the finished product.

No matter what choice you make between butter and oil, be aware of how much you’re using in your daily cooking and eating in your overall diet. And always steer clear of both margarine and shortening. They may contain a harmful type of fat called trans fat.

Cooking oil smoke point, and the best oils for frying

Every cooking oil has a “smoke point,” which is the highest temperature an oil can reach before it starts to burn and break down, releasing harmful substances called free radicals. Free radicals are compounds that can lead to chronic inflammation and disease after repeated exposure.

This is why you should consider the type of cooking you’ll be doing and pick the right cooking oil for the job. In the list below, we’ll include the specific smoke point temperature for each of our healthy cooking oils, but here’s a breakdown by style of cooking:

  • Best oils for high-heat cooking: Avocado oil, peanut oil, canola oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil
  • Best oils for medium-heat and low-heat cooking: Olive oil and sesame oil

The healthiest cooking oils

It seems like there are more cooking oils than ever before, and opinions on the best or healthiest ones are constantly shifting. We’ll lead you through the increasingly vast array of oils on the market and provide information on their contents so you can make the most informed decisions when it comes to your cooking.

Good nutrition is built on variety, and it’s important to include an array of different types of oils in your diet.

Olive oil

Olive oil is made from pressing whole olives and collecting the oil they expel. Olives and olive oil have a starring role in the Mediterranean diet, which is considered by many clinicians to be one of the best diets for both heart and brain health.

And rightly so – olive oil is one of the healthiest oils, with its high amount of monounsaturated fats and naturally occurring antioxidants. Olive oil in its purest and least processed form is called extra virgin olive oil. This is the healthiest kind, as it still has all or most of its nutritional benefits. And, unlike other unrefined oils, it’s safe to cook with extra virgin olive oil.

  • Smoke point: 320-376 degrees Fahrenheit
  • How to use it: Refined olive oil, which is the cheaper counterpart to extra virgin and cold pressed varieties, is a fine option for sauteing, baking and Extra virgin olive oil has stronger flavors that can be better enjoyed in salad dressings and sauces, or simply as a dip for bread.

Avocado oil

Avocado oil is extracted from mashing the soft green inside of the avocado, known as the avocado pulp. Avocado oil boasts high concentrations of monounsaturated fats and healthy antioxidants, much like olive oil. However, olive oil still claims the top spot as the healthiest oil because it contains more potassium, calcium and iron than avocado oil. The monounsaturated fat content of avocado oil makes it ideal for high-heat cooking.

  • Smoke point: 520 degrees Fahrenheit
  • How to use it: Like olive oil, avocado oil is a great choice for sauteing and roasting. But avocado oil has a higher smoke point, so it can be used for recipes that require more heat, like searing and grilling meat or cooking a stir-fry. It can also be eaten on its own and mixed in salad dressings or sauces.

Note: Those taking the anticoagulant Warfarin should be wary of avocado oil, as avocado can interfere with its efficacy.

Sunflower oil

Sunflower oil is made from pressing sunflower seeds and extracting the oil. There are four kinds available in the U.S., but the best one for cooking is the high oleic variety (oleic is a type of monounsaturated fat). High oleic sunflower oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, making it a healthy choice for all your high-heat cooking needs. It’s also very low in saturated fat, with just 1 gram per tablespoon.

Sunflower oil also boasts some antioxidant properties, but these benefits tend to break down in high-heat cooking.

  • Smoke point: 450 degrees Fahrenheit
  • How to use it: Sunflower oil works well for recipes that require high heat like searing, sauteing, roasting, grilling, frying and deep-frying.

Canola oil

Canola oil is extracted from the seeds of the canola plant. With its low levels of saturated fat and high concentration of monounsaturated fats, canola oil is great to use in all kinds of cooking, especially frying.

Canola oil has garnered a bad reputation in the past as a result of the canola plant’s close relation to the rapeseed plant. Oil made from seeds of the rapeseed plant can have a large amount of erucic acid, which is toxic to humans. Canola oil, on the other hand, contains a harmless amount of erucic acid.

  • Smoke point: 400 degrees Fahrenheit
  • How to use it: Canola oil is extremely versatile and can handle the heat needed for sauteing, grilling, frying and deep-frying. You can also use it to keep baked goods from sticking to your pans.

Peanut oil

Peanut oil is made by extracting oil from peanuts, a process that can involve roasting, crushing or boiling them. The oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats, followed by polyunsaturated fat and just a small amount of saturated fat. However, peanut oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, so you may want to limit your consumption or try to balance it out with omega-3s.

Refined peanut oil is more heavily processed to remove its allergen components, but people with a peanut allergy should still be wary of its widespread use in restaurants.

  • Smoke point: 350 degrees Fahrenheit (unrefined), 450 degrees Fahrenheit (refined)
  • How to use it: Peanut oil is ideal for high-heat cooking. Use it for stir-frying and deep-frying.

Sesame oil

Sesame oil is extracted by crushing raw or toasted sesame seeds. The raw sesame seeds create sesame oil, and the toasted ones make toasted sesame oil. Sesame oil contains many antioxidants and healthful nutrients, like vitamin E and phytosterols, both of which help you fight free radicals and keep cholesterol low. Sesame oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats, making it a great option for high-heat purposes.

  • Smoke point: 410 degrees Fahrenheit
  • How to use it: Sesame oil is common in Asian dishes because of its flavor profile. And with its high smoke point, it’s great for sauteing, stir-frying and deep-frying. Toasted sesame oil, on the other hand, is best used as a finishing oil or mixed in salad dressings and sauces.

Safflower oil

Safflower oil is extracted from the seeds of the safflower plant. It comes in two forms, high linoleic and high oleic. High oleic is the most common form on the market, and it contains more monounsaturated fats. This makes most safflower oil purchased from the grocery store good for frying and sauteing. However, unlike most other oils, safflower oil doesn’t offer many other nutritional benefits.

  • Smoke point: 510 degrees Fahrenheit
  • How to use it: You can use safflower oil for frying purposes, but there are more nutritious options out there.

Cooking oils to avoid if you can

No oil is entirely off the table, but there are some that have the potential to be detrimental to our health due to a concentration of undesirable fats.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is composed of nearly 90% saturated fat. By comparison, butter is just 64%. The saturated fat content is what makes coconut oil liquid in warm temperatures and solid in cooler temperatures.

Coconut oil is commonly used in many Southeast Asian cuisines, and it’s perfectly fine to eat on occasion. But you should be using mostly vegetable oils in your cooking, so that unsaturated fats always outpace saturated fat.

Palm oil

While palm oil is a healthier choice than butter, it’s still high in saturated fat. Palm oil can be found in a wide variety of packaged goods here in the U.S., everything from ice cream to shampoo to sliced bread.

When it comes to cooking, reach for the vegetable oils listed above instead of palm oil.

Corn oil

In order to make corn oil, the corn has to undergo an elaborate extraction process involving heat and chemicals. While corn oil does contain some healthy fats and vitamins, it is heavily processed and refined. It’s also full of omega-6 fatty acids, more so than most other vegetable oils.

Soybean oil

Soybean oil is one of the most frequently consumed oils in the U.S. because of its use in fast food and packaged goods. While it’s high in omega-6 fatty acids, there’s more that makes it an oil to avoid. Recent studies have found that chemicals in soybean oil could increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and anxiety by affecting the function of the hypothalamus in the brain.

How much cooking oil to use

It’s important to remember that cooking oils are fat, and even though some fats are better for us than others, they should all be eaten in moderation.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, adult men and women eating a 2,000-calorie daily diet should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of oil each day, or just 27 grams.

Keep in mind that this daily serving recommendation includes oils found in foods as well as the oil you use to cook. Foods that are naturally oily, including fish like salmon, trout and herring, are different from processed, packaged food with a lot of added oils – but both should be included when calculating a daily intake amount. So, while it’s satisfying to splash oil into a pan with abandon, be mindful of how much you’re pouring so you don’t surpass these dietary guidelines.

Whether you’ve already chosen your cooking oil or you’re still perusing the oil aisle at the grocery store, there are a few things you can do to make sure you have the best cooking and eating experience when it comes to oils and beyond:

  • Check the nutrition labels and ingredient lists of packaged foods for grams of fat and types of oils listed. Avoid both partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, which are forms of harmful trans fat.
  • Buy butter made with olive oil instead of canola oil, and steer clear of margarine containing trans fat. Choose margarine that comes in a tub instead of in stick form because it has less saturated fat.
  • Most cooking oils go bad 3-6 months after opening. Keep your cooking oils fresh by storing them in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. Refrigerate oils that contain added ingredients like garlic, chili peppers and herbs.
  • When cooking, allow your oil to heat up slowly. If the oil starts to smoke, throw it out and start over with some new cooking oil. And avoid reusing oil you’ve already cooked with, as a second round of heating can cause the oil to break down and release cancer-causing compounds.

Need some help navigating the world of cooking oils? Talk with your primary care doctor or clinician, or one of our knowledgeable dietitians.

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