No matter your diet, you likely cook with some amount of oil: It’s often an essential ingredient in preparing vegetables, meats, eggs, sauces, and more, providing texture, lubrication, and taste, too. But not all cooking oils are created equal when it comes to nourishment.
“A healthy cooking oil is an oil that is predominately made of monounsaturated fatty acids or omega 3 fatty acids,” explains Kylene Bogden, R.D. and co-founder of the nutrition coaching group FWDfuel.
But an oil’s composition in the bottle is only part of the picture when it comes to its healthfulness. The other critical piece is its smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil is no longer stable. Oils have a range of smoke points, and you shouldn’t use them to cook at a temperature above this point. So depending on what you’re cooking, the healthiest cooking oil is also going to be one that stands up to high heat.
“Each oil has a different smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and produce harmful compounds,” explains Noah Quezada, R.D.N. and CEO of Noah’s Nutrition. “It’s important to use oils with a high smoke point when cooking since overheating oils can lead to the release of harmful chemicals.”
Of course, to benefit from a cooking oil’s nutritive potential, you must actually want to use it. Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, R.D.N, recommends selecting your oils with this three-prong test: “Are they nutritive oils themselves and can they handle the heat? Not to mention do you like the flavor of them so you’d gain the benefits by actually using them?” She notes that tasty oils “can help make foods we need more of in the diet—like vegetables—more delicious and perhaps easier thus to eat more of.”
Read on to learn what nutritionists say are the best healthy cooking oils—as well as some oils to avoid.
What makes cooking oil healthy?
A healthy cooking oil is one that is low in saturated and trans fats, and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. “When any of these replace a less healthy oil or are blended with another oil, that can be a win for health,” Bazilian explains.
The American Heart Association recommends choosing oils with less than four grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, and no partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats, notes Amy Adams, R.D.N.
The healthiest cooking oils to use
Extra-virgin olive oil is often considered a great oil for cooking because it is filled with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, explains Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and the author of Recipe For Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life. These are anti-inflammatory and beneficial for lowering LDL cholesterol levels. “However, it does not have a high smoke point and is best used as a dressing on salad, or a topper for pasta, or for a low-slow cook,” she says. “Its low smoke point is due to the fact it contains more of the microparticles from the olives themselves—[resulting in] the greener color.”
Regular olive oil also is healthy, and is still full of monounsaturated fats, but not quite as anti-inflammatory as it has been processed more and some of those plant-nutrients (phytonutrients) have been removed. “It can however be cooked at a higher temperature, higher smoke point, and therefore is better for pan-frying and searing,” Hunnes explains.
Especially popular in Asian cuisines, this is another healthy monounsaturated oil that has a very high smoke point and can be used to deep-fat fry, although such a preparation method would “negate its health benefits,” Hunnes says. “It is an oil that does not have much flavor, despite its peanut derivative,” she adds, and that can be desirable for taste neutrality and versatility in dishes.
Refined avocado oil has a high smoke point of 520 degrees (and unrefined at 375 degrees). It’s also filled with monounsaturated fats, and it’s good for baking as it’s nearly flavorless.
“Avocado oil is a good cooking oil and carries along with it some, though certainly not all, of the nutrition that the whole avocado has,” Bazilian says. (As a practical matter, Adams adds, “though avocado oil is fine for sautéing, it is quite expensive.”)
Canola oil has a smoke point of 400 to 450 degrees and is low in saturated fat. And because it doesn’t have much flavor, Quezada says, “this makes it a good option for recipes that call for subtle flavors.”
This oil is less familiar to casual cooks in the U.S. but is starting to make its presence known, Bazilian says. She recommends it as a healthy oil because “it has a very high smoke point and is stable at high temps due to its high antioxidants that remain in the cooking oil.”
What makes an “unhealthy” cooking oil?
Although our reporting suggests plenty of subjectivity even among registered nutritionists, some oils are typically considered unhealthy because they contain high levels of saturated and/or unhealthy unsaturated fats. “Partially hydrogenated oils found in items like shortening are the most unhealthy because they usually contain trans fats,” Adams explains. “Trans fats are man-made fats created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil.”
Trans fats simultaneously lower your “good” cholesterol (HDL) while raising your “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and have been linked to heart disease. To determine if you are cooking with trans fats, look out for “partially-hydrogenated oil” on the ingredients list.
Without even looking at the label or researching the ingredients, you can tell which oils contain saturated fat because they are solid at room temperature, Adams explains.
Bogden adds, “Oils that are less than ideal to use are very refined and contain a higher omega 6 to omega 3 ratio, a ratio that if consumed routinely can contribute greatly to inflammation.”
Cooking oils to use in moderation
Palm oil is high in palmitic acid, “a type of saturated fat that has been linked to increased risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses,” Quezada explains. Butter is high in saturated fat as well as trans-fatty acids, “which have been shown to increase the risk for heart disease,” he says.Sunflower oil has a high smoke point, “but it contains a lot of omega 6 fatty acids,” according to Lisa Young, Ph.D. and registered nutritionist. “Too many omega 6s are considered pro-inflammatory, and eating too many omega 6s without balancing with omega 3s could lead to inflammation, so you may want to limit this oil.”Margarine contains an unhealthy combination of saturated and trans fats.
What’s the deal with coconut oil?
Among the many dietitians who contributed feedback for this story, coconut oil was controversial. Some called it healthy; others didn’t.
“Depending upon who you ask, some people love coconut oil while others think it should be avoided. This is because of its high saturated fat content,” Dr. Young explains. “Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat as compared to other plant oils. The American Heart Association advises replacing foods high in saturated fat like coconut oil with foods that are high in unsaturated fats like olive oil.”
Because it has a high smoke point, it’s good for cooking—but because of its high saturated fat content, it should be consumed in moderation, she says.
Bazilian agrees with the approach. “Coconut oil, which has received lots of attention, is actually a saturated fat, but shorter chain and can be used in moderation,” she says.
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