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Healthiest Cooking Oils: 7 Oils to Use & 7 to Avoid

Written by Dr. Edward Group Founder
 
A small bowl of olive oil. Olive oil is one of the healthiest cooking oils you can find.

When it comes to the cooking oil in your cupboard, plant-based oils made from fruit, seeds, nuts, and grains are the way to go. They are a healthier choice than animal fats which have all the health disadvantages of meat. From familiar olive oil to exotic macadamia oil, plant-based oils can be rich and flavorful or light and neutral. You can use them for sautéing, frying, baking, roasting, and drizzling on salad.

However, not all cooking oils are created equal. They all offer different benefits (or detractions) to your health. And, depending on your intended use, some work better for high heat cooking while others are better for low-temperature baking or salad dressings. Here is what you need to know to make the best choices for your health.

Why Using Healthy Oil Is Important

Our bodies require three types of macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Cooking oil, which is liquid fat, is a convenient source of fatty acids, the building blocks of fats. They help with vitamin absorption, energy storage, and controlling inflammation. You need the right balance of essential fatty acids in your diet. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, can only be obtained from food — including cooking oils. Ideally, you should consume one omega-3 for every two omega-6s, but most people get about 16 times as many omega-6s than omega-3s.[1]

When choosing a cooking oil, be aware of its smoke point, which typically ranges from 225 to 510 degrees Fahrenheit. When oil is overheated, its taste and nutritional value are altered. If it starts to burn, it releases free radicals into your food and toxic compounds into the air in your kitchen.

Always look for organic, GMO-free oils and avoid dangerous, “partially hydrogenated" (trans) fats. Many conventional cooking oils are extracted from plants with industrial chemicals such as hexane. Cold-pressed oil, extracted mechanically from the plant or seed using pressure, is typically healthier. Some oils are refined so they can better withstand heat, but refinement reduces nutritional value. With most cooking oils, you'll find that one tablespoon contains around 120 calories and 14 grams of fat.

One tablespoon of most types of oil contains around 120 calories and 14 grams of fat.

Types of Fats and Oils

The Nutrition Facts label on each bottle of oil lists the content of three different types of fat: saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. We need some of each kind, but because of the links between saturated fats and heart disease and stroke, the American Heart Association recommends that you replace most saturated fat in your diet with mono- and polyunsaturated fat.

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat can come from meat, lard, and dairy, as well as some plant sources like coconut and palm. The fat is solid at room temperature. Recent research is showing a role for saturated fat in a healthy lifestyle, but it should still be used sparingly because of its link to poor health. I recommend avoiding animal-based saturated fats completely.

Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fat tends to be higher in omega-6 fatty acids, which is linked to inflammation in the body. Healthier polyunsaturated oil choices contain more omega-3s and less omega-6s. Polyunsaturated oil is less stable than monounsaturated or saturated fat. Polyunsaturated fat can degrade in the body, leading to oxidation and cell damage. These types of fat are not typically used for cooking — especially not at higher temperatures.

Monounsaturated Fat

Oil that's high in monounsaturated fatty acids is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to extend length and quality of life. They tend to be higher in omega-3s than other types of oil and usually solidify when refrigerated.

The Healthiest Cooking Oils

Most cooking oils contain all three types of fat, or at least two, but sometimes people classify them by the type they contain the most of. Here are some of the top oils I recommend for your pantry.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) comes from olives and contains mostly monounsaturated fat. “Extra virgin" means it's an unrefined oil in a natural state, not treated with chemicals or heated. EVOO has a rich, distinctive flavor and a smoke point of 375 degrees Fahrenheit. While you can cook with it on the stovetop, other oils may be a better choice for frying or high-heat cooking. Extra virgin olive oil contains the highest amount of health-protecting monounsaturated fatty acids of any oil, along with vitamins A, D, E, K, and beta-carotene. It's rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant. Some studies have found that the compounds in EVOO have anti-cancer properties.[2] Refined olive oil is lower quality and loses some of its antioxidants and other nutrients in processing, so stick with EVOO.

Best Uses: EVOO is great for sautéing garlic and other veggies at low heat, and it makes a delicious oil and vinegar dressing for salads. You can also use it in recipes such as pesto and ratatouille.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil is a monounsaturated fat extracted from the fruit of the avocado tree. It has a mild, buttery taste and a smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies suggest avocado oil may help prevent diabetes and obesity.[3] Recent research also found that adding it to a meal can boost absorption of antioxidants called carotenoids in food.[4] The low-carbohydrate FODMAP diet, which helps reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), makes extensive use of avocado oil.

Best Uses: Because of its very high smoke point, it is good for your highest-heat cooking and frying but can also be used cold in dips or recipes.

Grape Seed Oil

Organic grape seed oil is a healthy cooking oil derived from, you got it, grapes. Grape seed oil is high in vitamin E and antioxidants and is known to deter harmful organisms. Studies have found consuming grape seed oil reduced systemic redness, and also improved insulin resistance in the body.[5] Make sure to pick cold-pressed or expeller-pressed choices because other options involve chemical processing which introduces harmful polyaromatic hydrocarbons into the oil. Don’t confuse it with rapeseed, a similarly named oil that comes from another plant entirely, but is not a healthy option.

Best Uses: Grape seed oil has a smoke point of 390 to 420 degrees, so you can use it for sauteeing and other high-heat cooking, but it also works well in a homemade salad dressing recipe.

Flaxseed Oil

Flaxseed oil comes from the seeds of the flax plant. It is a neutral-tasting oil with a smoke point of only 225 degrees Fahrenheit, which means you should not use it for high-temperature cooking. Flaxseed oil has the highest alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 content of all oils, plus some fiber and potassium. Studies have shown the omega-3s in flaxseed oil are associated with nearly a 10 percent lower risk of fatal heart attacks.[6]

Best Uses: Use at room temperature in recipes for dips and dressings. Add a teaspoon to a fruit smoothie to boost your nutrition without changing its flavor. Many people take flaxseed oil as a supplement.

Sesame Oil

Made from sesame seeds, this oil has equal amounts of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Its nutty, fragrant flavor best complements South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cuisine. It has a smoke point of 350 (unrefined) or 450 (refined) degrees Fahrenheit. Sesame oil has an extremely high antioxidant capacity, meaning it's good at fighting free radicals. Although it has anti-inflammatory properties, it's also higher omega-6 content than some other oils, so use it in moderation.

Best Uses: With its distinctive taste, a little sesame oil goes a long way. It can be a good oil for high heat cooking for people who are allergic to peanuts.

Walnut Oil

Pressed from walnuts, this oil has a rich, nutty taste. Its smoke point is 320 degrees Fahrenheit. It's high in the essential fatty acid ALA and boasts an antioxidant called ellagic acid, which research suggests may be an important nutrient in the fight against cancer.[7] As a good source of important nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, iron, and calcium, walnut oil may even help stabilize hormone levels.

Best Uses: Walnut oil's flavor and texture make it good for low heat uses such as baking, marinades, dressings, or atop whole-grain pasta.

Coconut Oil

An integral part of tropical cuisine, coconut oil is extracted from coconut flesh. You can buy unrefined extra virgin coconut oil or refined coconut oil for a more neutral flavor. Its smoke point is 350 (unrefined) and 450 (refined) degrees Fahrenheit. Studies have found that, despite being 92 percent saturated fat, this oil has excellent health properties. For starters, it boosts your body's "good" HDL cholesterol, and is rich in lauric acid — a medium-length long-chain fatty acid that resists harmful organisms, boosts metabolism, and protects brain health. Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which make it easier to digest than other types of oil. On the other hand, coconut oil does raise "bad" LDL cholesterol more than unsaturated oils but less than butter.

Best Uses: Coconut oil is extremely versatile. Use the unrefined oil with the coconut when making Thai or Indian food. You can use coconut oil for frying, sautéing, baking, to grease pans, and many other uses. Some people consume a teaspoon on its own as a health supplement or add it to their coffee.

Cooking Oils to Avoid

The following oils should never find their way into your shopping cart.

Soybean Oil

Most soybean oil is made from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans. GMO soybean oil is rife in packaged foods — which is another reason to avoid those. Soybean oil also messes with your metabolism: A recent study suggests that, compared with coconut oil and sugar, soybean oil caused more obesity and diabetes in mice.[8]

Corn Oil

More than half of corn oil is polyunsaturated fat, and it also contains a high proportion of omega-6 fatty acids. Most corn oil is extracted with hexane, a toxic chemical solvent that may end up in the final product. Last but not least, most corn oil comes from genetically modified corn, which you should avoid altogether.

Canola Oil

Although it is polyunsaturated, most canola oil is genetically modified. Not only that, canola is heavily processed and extracted with hexane, which may contaminate the cooking oil. High heat is used during processing, which turns polyunsaturated fats rancid — or into dangerous trans fats. One study found that 0.5 to 4 percent of the oil in soybean and canola oil being sold had turned to trans fats.[9]

Palm Kernel Oil

This oil is as bad for you as it is for the tropical forests, which are being cut down for palm plantations. Not only does it have more grams of fat per serving than other oils (22 grams vs. 14 grams), but it also consists almost entirely of saturated fat. Like soybean oil, palm oil is found extensively in packaged foods. You can sometimes find sustainably-harvested, organic varieties, but if it's not clearly labeled as such, avoid it.

Cottonseed Oil

Made from seeds of the cotton plant, which aren't edible, this polyunsaturated oil can contain residue of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the cotton. More than half of the fatty acids it contains are omega-6, and it's higher in saturated fat than most polyunsaturated oils.

Peanut Oil

Peanuts often contain aflatoxins, substances responsible for severe allergic reactions in some people. The oil contains high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which cause inflammation in the body. Peanut oil is also prone to oxidation, which means the fat goes bad on the shelf — often without you realizing it. Peanut also has been linked to high rates of atherogenicity — a fancy word for hardening of the arteries — in studies involving primates, rats, and rabbits, possibly due to its high levels of lectins.[10]

"Vegetable Oil"

You might also see products simply labeled as vegetable oil. These contain a mixture of different oils, usually soybean, canola, corn, cottonseed, and other oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids. While it may be cheaper, avoid anything labeled as vegetable oil because it is, inevitably, processed with toxic solvents like hexane and is not a healthy choice.

Points to Remember

The best cooking oils are fresh, organic, and cold-pressed. They're rich in omega-3 fatty acids and stand up to the level of heat you plan to use. Olive and avocado oil are mostly monounsaturated fat and excellent choices. Sesame and walnut oil are also excellent choices for cooking. Flaxseed oil, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, is a good option for low-temperature uses, like salad dressing. Coconut oil contains mostly saturated fat, but its lauric acid content provides health benefits including boosting “good cholesterol."

Steer clear of hydrogenated oils — such as what you find in margarine or many packaged foods — because they contain dangerous trans fats. Avoid soybean, corn, palm kernel, cottonseed, canola, and grapeseed oil which likely contain GMOs or are extracted with harsh chemical solvents.

What cooking oils do you use and avoid? Share in the comments below!

References (10)
  1. Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega 6/omega 3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-379.
  2. LeGendre O, et al. (-)-Oleocanthal rapidly and selectively induces cancer cell death via lysosomal membrane permeabilization. Mol Cell Oncol. 2015 Jan; 2(4):e1006077.
  3. Carvajal-Zarrabal O, et al. Effect of dietary intake of avocado oil and olive oil on biochemical markers of liver function in sucrose-fed rats. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:595479.
  4. Unlu NZ, et al. Carotenoid absorption from salad and salsa by humans is enhanced by the addition of avocado or avocado oil. J Nutr. 2005 Mar;135(3):431-436.
  5. Irandoost P, et al. Does grape seed oil improve inflammation and insulin resistance in overweight or obese women?. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2013 Sep;64(6):706-710
  6. Del Gobbo LC, et al. ω-3 ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid biomarkers and coronary heart disease pooling project of 19 cohort studies. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Aug; 176(8):1155-66.
  7. Carvalho M, et al. Human cancer cell antiproliferative and antioxidant activities of Juglans regia L. Food ChemToxicol. 2010 Jan; 48(1):441-447.
  8. Deol P, et al. Soybean oil is more obesogenic and diabetogenic than coconut oil and fructose in mouse: Potential role for the liver. PLOS One. 2015 June.
  9. O'Keefe S, et al. Levels of trans geometrical isomers of essential fatty acids in some unhydrogenated U. S. vegetable oils. J Food Lipid. 1(3):165-176.
  10. Kritchevsky D, et al. Lectin may contribute to the atherogenicity of peanut oil. Lipids. 1998 Aug;33(8):821-3.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.


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