“What’s the healthiest cooking oil to use?” You’ve probably asked this question at least once in your life. With many varieties of cooking oils dominating the grocery store shelves, it can get overwhelming when selecting the right oil for everyday cooking. The truth is, all cooking oils are not created equal and understanding the basics will put you ahead of the game. From its specific uses to distinct characteristics, nutrient composition and flavor, the oil you choose can be used to either enhance your cooking and dishes in a multitude of ways or do the total opposite.
For example, some oils are best suited for sautéing, while other oils may complement certain ingredients and boost flavor. Some oils may even work better when used as a light drizzle or can serve as a base in your favorite dips and dressings. There’s no need to bulk up on all the cooking oils at the store, but you might benefit from having more than one or two on hand.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing the healthiest cooking oil:
- The smoke point: Smoke point or “burning point” is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing an oil to cook with. It is defined as the temperature at which an oil stops glistening and starts to break down, losing its integrity. This is when things start to get smokey. When this happens, the taste can become unpalatable but not only that, it can lose its nutritive value and produce free radicals that are very harmful to the body. When dealing with high heat oils, Good Housekeeping Institute Kitchen Appliances Lab Director Nicole Papantoniou recommends heating your pan first, then adding your oil, and then the ingredients to help prevent the oil from getting hot too quickly and potentially burning. To avoid the smoke, it’s important to choose the right oil suitable for the different types of foods you are cooking.
- Refined vs. unrefined: Cooking oils are classified as refined or unrefined. Refined oils go through an extraction process using high heat. This technique may result in a loss of natural nutrients, flavor or aroma in the cooking oils. Unrefined or cold-pressed oils are extracted using pressure and no heat or minimal heat is applied. As a result, these cooking oils retain most of their natural nutrients and have a distinct flavor and aroma that is not compromised. Unrefined cooking oils are more nutrient-dense compared to refined cooking oils, but have a shorter shelf life. However, refined cooking oils are best suitable for cooking at high-heat temperatures with a longer shelf life, making it more convenient and can fit into a balanced eating routine.
- Fat composition and flavor: Each cooking oil comes with its own flavor profile, which can enhance any dish, from rich and buttery to nutty and fishy. If your goal is to make your food taste like the oil it’s cooked in, you’ll want to select an oil with a strong, bold flavor. If you are looking for an oil to not overpower your dish in any way, choose an oil with a mild flavor. Another thing to pay attention to is the types of fat found in your cooking oil. Health experts recommend consuming healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat to benefit your overall health, while limiting saturated and trans fats. A diet rich in saturated and trans fats may increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses, according to one study.
The healthiest cooking oils you can use:
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The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a reduction in chronic disease risk. Olive oil, known for its role in the Mediterranean diet, is abundant in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and powerful antioxidants, like fat-soluble vitamin E which helps to support the health of your skin, hair and nails. Not only that, olive oil is typically classified as the healthiest cooking oil because of its numerous health benefits, from preventing or managing diabetes to protecting against some cancers, plus a boost in longevity overall. In fact, in regions where olive oil is a staple, people tend to live longer. One study in the Journal of American College of Cardiology found that people who consumed more than half a tablespoon of olive oil per day had a lower risk of mortality compared to those who did not.
For olive oil to be certified extra virgin, it must be first cold-pressed. Cold-pressed indicates that the olives never exceed a certain temperature during the pressing process, which ensures maximum quality. Harvesting is also important when it comes to olive oil. Katina Mountanos, the founder of Kosterina Greek Olive Oil, said her brand harvests unripe olives which, “makes the oil richer in healthy polyphenols and very high in antioxidants.” Extra virgin olive oil has a relatively low smoke point, so it’s best for sautéing over medium heat or roasting below those temperatures. It’s also a great addition to dressings because of its deep peppery flavor. Plus, cooking vegetables in extra virgin olive oil can actually boost phytonutrients (types of antioxidants) in the vegetables.
- Best for: Salad dressings and sautéing
- Smoke point: Extra virgin 325-375°F, refined 465°F
- Nutritionist pick: Kosterina Olive Oil
This oil, derived from the flesh of pressed avocados, has a mild flavor and high smoke point so it’s perfect for almost any cooking uses in the kitchen. Avocado oil has one of the highest levels of healthy monounsaturated fats of all oils, and it’s also low in polyunsaturated fats. These combined fats make avocado oil a heart-healthy choice. It also contains beneficial antioxidants like lutein, which is naturally found in the eyes. An eating routine high in lutein may decrease the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, a common eye disorder for people over 50. Your body does not produce lutein on its own, so getting it from your diet is key and adding avocado oil to your dish is a great way to support the health of your eyes. In addition, though it shouldn’t replace sunscreen, research has found that both topically and when consumed, avocado oil may protect against UV rays as it helps nourish and protect the skin.
The mild flavor is very versatile, which is why avocado oil is the perfect healthy swap in any baked goods. It tends to be a bit more expensive, but many brands offer it in a spray container without propellants so you can control how much you use at a time.
A high-heat cooking oil, peanut oil is made from the seeds of a peanut plant. Most are refined, which is the common type of peanut oil. It’s budget-friendly and has a neutral flavor, making it a versatile option for many dishes. Unrefined options do exist and are made by drying the peanuts at a low temperature and extracting the oil, which helps preserve most of its nutrients. Unrefined or cold-pressed peanut oil has a strong, nutty flavor and aroma which compliments salads and spreads very well.
According to dietitian Jada Linton, RDN, LD, there are a few different types of peanut oil, each made using a different technique and offering a range of flavors from mild and sweet to strong and nutty. Almost half of peanut oil is monounsaturated fats. Traditionally used in Asian dishes, peanut oil has a relatively high smoke point and is ideal for searing meats, grilling, roasting vegetables and frying. “On top of the delicious flavor, peanut oil is a great source of vitamin E containing 11% of the recommended daily intake and has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents among cooking oils,” Linton adds.
Chia Seed Oil
Known for its beauty and hair care goodness, chia seeds can also be enjoyed in the form of a cooking oil. Derived from the plant Salvia hispanica L., the seeds are pressed to extract this golden-colored oil. Chia seed oil has a high smoke point and a neutral flavor, and can be used for light sautéing, pastas and salads. It’s packed with omega-3 fatty acids known as alpha-linolenic acid, which is used to make other forms of omega-3s, specifically EPA and DHA found in fatty fish like salmon. It has heart-healthy benefits, but you’ll still need to incorporate more omega-3s EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in your diet to maximize these benefits. When it comes to different forms of omega-3s, including ALA, EPA and DHA, they may benefit the brain with its neuroprotective effects.
While the chia seed itself is high in fiber, the cooking oil lacks as a result from the oil extraction process. A diet rich in fiber may reduce risk for heart disease, control blood sugar and maintain bowel health. If you’re looking to add more fiber to your diet, don’t rely on chia seed oil to help you meet your daily needs.
Canola oil is known to be a heart-healthy option because of its low saturated fat content, about 7%. In fact, major health organizations recommend the use of canola oil, including the American Heart Association.
A great substitute for vegetable oil, canola oil is made from rapeseed and has a high smoke point, so it can be used in a variety of ways in the kitchen, making it a staple in many homes. It’s also budget-friendly. Most canola oil on the market is refined as it goes through multiple steps in the manufacturing process, so many of its natural nutrients are lost. One tablespoon of canola oil packs in 16% DV (daily value) of vitamin E, a nutrient that supports immune function and promotes eye health.
The truth is canola oil tends to be highly processed, so looking for cold-pressed and a good quality brand is key if you want to reap its full health benefits. More research is needed on the health benefits of canola oil due to the inconsistent evidence.
The worst oils to use with high heat
As previously mentioned, all cooking oils are not created equal. The key here is never to cook oils above their smoke point. With that said, there are many oils that are not ideal for high-heat cooking, but are perfect for enhancing low-temperature or cooler dishes.
Cooking oils with a low smoke point typically require refrigeration and are very sensitive to heat as it can go rancid and oxidize quickly. The great news is they are extremely nutrient-dense with a distinct flavor and aroma and are perfect for salad dressings, light drizzles and topping off your favorite recipes.
Here are five cooking oils you don’t want to use for high-heat cooking:
- Flaxseed oil
- Walnut oil
- Pistachio oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Pumpkin seed oil
Is coconut oil healthy?
Coconut oil has grown much in popularity with followers of the keto diet and the Paleo diet, but is it healthy? Depending on the type, coconut oil is made by pressing fresh coconut meat or dried coconut meat.
Coconut oil is firm at room temperature because it is composed of 90% saturated fat and also is a rich natural source of medium-chain triglycerides. Research on coconut oil has been inconsistent; some studies show it can raise the good HDL cholesterol, while other studies show it can also raise the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. It’s best for quick sautéing or in baked goods, but it does not do well at very high heat temperatures.
If you substitute coconut oil for butter in baked goods, you’ll want to use about 25% less coconut oil than the called for amount of butter since coconut oil has a higher percentage of fat solids. Regardless, coconut oil is not a miracle food and it is best to use it in moderation.
How to store your cooking oil
When it comes to storing cooking oils, you never want to store oil near or above the stove. Certain oils can become rancid if exposed to light, heat and oxygen. Instead, store oil in a cool, dark place. For best quality and flavor, aim to use your oil within one year of purchase (some oils may need to be used even sooner). While wine gets better with age, oil does not and the quality and flavor will weaken as the oil ages.
Why trust Good Housekeeping?
Stefani Sassos is a registered dietitian and NASM certified personal trainer. With a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Sciences from The Pennsylvania State University and a Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University, Stefani aims to provide evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. Growing up with a family in the restaurant business, she was able to combine her nutrition expertise with culinary skills taught to her by her mother and grandmother. As a busy working mother, Stefani needs food on the table quickly and relies on high-heat cooking oils to shorten the cooking time on roasted veggies and proteins.
Valerie Agyeman is a women’s health dietitian and the host of the Flourish Heights podcast, where she produces science-driven content covering overlooked nutrition, wellness and women’s health topics. She has over 10 years of nutrition communications, corporate wellness and clinical nutrition experience. Valerie is a trusted expert and regularly appears on networks including ABC’s Good Morning Washington, and she is a contributing expert to publications like Women’s Health, The Thirty and Shape.
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