Smart Selections in Cooking Oils
I use three different oils in the kitchen—canola for baking and seasoning cast iron, olive for cooking and coconut for stirring in my coffee when I remember to. I’m sure many people use more for a variety of specific reasons and applications and some use only one for everything. With so many options on the grocery store shelves—grapeseed, coconut, avocado, canola, sunflower, and a myriad of olive oils—which ones are best for which types of cooking and baking and how many do you really need?
The Skinny on Oils in General
All cooking oils are made up of three different kinds of fatty acids—saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats—and are categorized according to which type of acid is most prevalent in its composition. For example, since olive oil has higher levels of monounsaturated fats than the other two types, it is considered monounsaturated.
Another kind of fatty acid—trans fat—although naturally occurring in small quantities in meat and dairy products, is more commonly formed through the process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to solidify. You know trans fatty acid as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which can be found in everything from baked goods to fried foods to non-dairy creamer and margarine. Trans fat, which has no known nutritional value and increases both bad and good cholesterol, is best if either not consumed at all or consumed in very small amounts. Shortening—like Crisco—which is made of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and is 100% fat. One tablespoon of shortening contains 1.7 grams of trans fat. Most shortenings, Crisco included, have reformulated their recipes to be trans fat-free.
An advisory, written by a panel of experts and published in the June 2018 issue of the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, advises physicians to encourage patients to substitute saturated and trans fatty acids with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids since these “reduce serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and the risk of coronary heart disease and total mortality.”
The Particulars on Oils and Their Categories
The advisory recommends using any cooking oil in moderation but to choose the healthiest option when possible. Because polyunsaturated is a little healthier than monounsaturated, those who want to be as heart-healthy as possible should choose the former. Choose either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated rather than saturated, which is the unhealthiest of all oil options.
Following is a listing of oils in their categories as well as some specifics about each one’s properties and implications for your health.
- Coconut oil: Despite all of the media hype touting it as a healthy oil and a butter substitute for vegans, coconut oil is 92% saturated fat and one of the worst oil options available. Although the claim is that it is healthier than butter, in fact, it has a higher saturated fat content than butter or lard. Lard!? (I will no longer be swirling it in my coffee!) A 2016 review of available studies, which was published in the journal Nutrition Reviews, discovered those who utilized and ate coconut oil maintained higher levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol as compared to those who utilized or ate unsaturated fats. Additionally, in a separate review the following year, issued by the American Heart Association, noted that coconut oil actually influences and increases the level of LDL cholesterol in the body, which is coincidentally a well-recognized cause of heart disease, and has no redeeming nutritional qualities whatsoever.
- Avocado oil: Because it has a 70% monounsaturated fat content, it is healthier than coconut oil but not quite as healthy as polyunsaturated oils. Because it can tolerate higher temperatures without scorching, it is ideal for sautéing, roasting or grilling and its mild flavor lends itself to homemade salad dressings. It tends to be a little pricier than other oil options and can be more difficult to find so it may not be readily available at your local grocery store.
- Canola oil: Although it has a relatively high monounsaturated fat content of 62%, it also has a decent amount of polyunsaturated fat (32%). Lowest in saturated fat than the other cooking oils at 7%, canola oil also contains plant-based omega-3 fats, which are beneficial polyunsaturated fats. You might assume that canola oil comes from a “canola” plant but actually, it is a product of the rapeseed plant, which is primarily grown in Canada. Its name is derived from the term “Canadian oil, low acid,” which refers to the low amount of erucic acid in the plant, which at high levels can be toxic. Canola oil is relatively flavorless and so is ideal for baking as well as grilling, stir-frying and making salad dressings. It also is fairly inexpensive.
- Olive oils: Olive oil has a high level (77%) of monounsaturated fats as well as polyphenols, plant-based antioxidants that some suggest may be beneficial to heart health. Because of its widespread use in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a very popular choice. Extra-virgin olive oil is made simply from extracting and bottling the oil. “Pure” olive oil or “olive oil” is refined using solvents and high temperatures, which neutralize the flavor of the oil. “Pure” or regular “olive oil” is typically derived from olives that are not the cream of the crop. Extra-virgin olive oil is very flavorful but burns and smokes at high temperatures. It is more suited to sautéing, as a dipping oil for bread or mixed into salad dressings or marinades. “Pure” or regular “olive oil” is the better option for cooking at high temperatures.
- Grapeseed oil: Despite its high level of polyunsaturated fat—71%—little is known about the health benefits of grapeseed oil. Extracted from grape seeds left over from the winemaking process, the oil is the subject of controversy based on how it is processed. Many varieties of grapeseed oil available on the market are produced using chemical solvents such a hexane, which is categorized as a neurotoxin and air pollutant. Grapeseed oil that is processed by cold-pressing or expeller-pressing does not employ chemical solvents and, therefore, are safer options. Because of its mild flavor, it can be used in roasting, sautéing or in salad dressings. Grapeseed oil should be refrigerated to prevent it from turning rancid.
- Sunflower: Sunflower oil, which is comprised of 69% polyunsaturated fats, is one of the best heart-healthy cooking oils available. Sunflower oil is a good, all-purpose oil, appropriate for many types of cooking since it can withstand high temperatures and also for baking since it is neutral in flavor.
- Vegetable: Typically, vegetable oil is made from soybeans although nowadays some varieties are made from a blend of oils. Vegetable oil made from soybeans is 61% polyunsaturated fat and also contains some omega-3 fatty acids, which make it a good choice for heart health. Like sunflower oil, its mild taste lends itself to all types of cooking and baking as well as use in salad dressings and marinades.
More Oils to Mention
This list is certainly not exhaustive. There are a number of additional oils to consider—corn, hemp, palm, safflower, walnut, peanut, sesame and flaxseed to name a few more. When shopping for a cooking oil, take time to read the label to determine the rate of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated in the type you are looking to buy. Always choose either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated as the healthiest options and remember to use them sparingly.
- The Science of Cooking Oils: Which Are Really the Healthiest?, website ,
- Medical Nutrition Education, Training, and Competencies to Advance Guideline-Based Diet Counseling by Physicians: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association, journal website ,
- The health and beauty benefits of grapeseed oil, website ,
- Shortening: Good or Bad?, website ,