There are a lot out cooking oils out there and they all come with various health claims. Some claim to improve cholesterol management. While others brag of aiding in weight loss. At the end of the day every oil is different — so what are the healthiest cooking oils? And you can’t swap them out due to their different flavors and smoke points. Which oil is best though? It depends on what you’re using it for. Different oils serve different purposes. Whether for sautéing, deep fat frying, or used in dressings or to finish off a dish with a simple pour. And their fat make-up determines which oil would be most beneficial for our health needs.
Oils are a blend of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats
What’s the difference between these fats? Well, in short, their chemical structures. Without getting too technical, saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats all have carbon and hydrogen chains. And each chain has a different arrangement. These different arrangements are the reasons that saturated fats are solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. And therefore have different effects on the body.
Saturated fats increase our bad LDL cholesterol which increases our risk for cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting 5-6% of your calorie intake to saturated fats. If you aim to eat ~1800 calories/day, that would mean limiting your saturated fat intake to 10g – 12g per day.
At this time, there are no recommended intakes for mono or polyunsaturated fats. It is good practice to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats due to their cardio-protective properties. Consuming unsaturated fats helps meet our omega-3 and other important fatty acid needs. Polyunsaturated fat, like omega-3s, are essential. This means our bodies can not produce polyunsaturated fats, and we must meet our needs through diet. We eat a lot of omega-6s, another polyunsaturated fat, in our Western diet. Which makes deficiency unlikely.
Sidenote: There are some alternative oils like flaxseed and walnut that have immense health benefits. But we decided to stick to the most popular oils on the market for this list. But we do recommend trying out some different oils that have even more potential health benefits when you’re ready.
Below are the healthiest cooking oils based on what you’ll find on most grocer’s shelves.
Let’s review their fat composition and any health benefits they may offer.
1. Olive Oil/Extra Virgin Olive Oil – The Classic
Olive Oil’s fat breakdown:
14% saturated fatty acids
75% monunsaturated fatty acids
11% polyunsaturated fatty acids
Olive oil is one of the most talked about oils out there. It is one of the pillars of the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet, and offers a multitude of health benefits.
There are different types of olive oil, but we will focus on the big two, extra virgin olive oil (lovingly referred to as EVOO) and olive oil. So what’s the difference? Extra-virgin olive oil is much less refined. EVOO must meet certain criteria to be called extra-virgin. But (and this is a big “but”), this is not regulated. So always go with a trusted brand. Bottlers cold press the best EVOO. Which means manufacturers do not use heat or chemicals to extract the oils from the fruit. This process maintains the olive oil’s rich polyphenol, fatty acid, and overall nutrient content. And it also gives EVOO its rich color and taste.
EVOO’s smoke point is around 350-375℉. A smoke point is the temperature that oil starts to smoke and burn when heated. It is important to not to heat an oil past its smoke point; the compounds start to break down and free radicals, molecules that cause cellular damage, form and can produce a rancid taste to foods. If oil is heated past its smoke point, it should be discarded. Due to its lower smoke point, EVOO is best used in low to medium-heat cooking. EVOO’s stronger, more robust flavor adds fruitiness to dressings or can be used to drizzle over dishes.
EVOO is rich in oleic acid to promote heart health — Making it the healthiest cooking oil
It is also rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols act as antioxidants and can help neutralize free radicals in our body and can help prevent inflammation. There is some promising on-going research that EVOO is beneficial for gut health and can help prevent cancer. Though more human-based trials are needed. EVOO contains more cholesterol-lowering phytosterols compared to olive oil.
Olive oil on the other hand is more refined. Manufacturers use heat or chemicals to extract and purify the oil. During these processes many of the beneficial nutrients from olive oil are stripped. Olive oil is typically a blend of extra virgin oil, for taste and color, and refined oil. Refining the oil increases the smoke point, making it a better option for heavier sauteing.
When Should You Use Olive Oil – the healthiest cooking oil?
EVOO is one of the best oils out there. Though it isn’t rich in omega-3s, it is one of the least refined oils, which helps maintain its antioxidant properties and heart protective compounds.
2. Avocado Oil – Dressed to the Omega-9s, High Smoke Point, But High Price
Avocado Oil’s fat breakdown:
16% saturated fatty acids
71% monunsaturated fatty acids
13% polyunsaturated fatty acids
Refined avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points — over 500℉. While extra-virgin avocado has a lower smoke point. Refined avocado oil is great for heavy duty sautéing, grilling or searing. You can use both types of avocado oil in dressing. But just be aware that the extra-virgin version has a stronger avocado taste.
Replacing saturated fats with the oleic acid that’s found in avocado oil shows promising results in reducing the risk of coronary artery disease. Oleic acid, also known as omega-9, is a monounsaturated fatty acid. It can help lower blood pressure and help lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Making it one of the healthiest cooking oils on your grocer’s shelves.
Avocado oil also provides lutein in our diet. Lutein is an antioxidant that gives produce its yellow and orange pigments. And it promotes eye health.
The healthiest cooking oils – When Should You Use Avocado Oil?
Extra virgin avocado oil is another great oil to use as a replacement for saturated fats. Refined avocado oil has a high smoke-point so it’s perfect to use for searing or grilling. The oleic acid content also helps protect our heart. One downside is that extra virgin avocado oil is pricey. This can deter folks from using it.
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3. Canola Oil – This is the most Omega-3s for the buck
Canola oil’s fat breakdown:
7% saturated fatty acids
65% monounsaturated fatty acids
28% polyunsaturated fatty acids
Canola oil is a refined oil, and has the lowest amount of saturated fat compared to these other oils. It has a high smoke point of about 420℉, which makes it more tolerant to higher heat cooking. Canola oil contains both omega-6s than omega-3 fatty acids. Though we need omega-6s in our diet, they are already in a lot of foods we eat. (In things like meat, poultry, fish, soybeans, nuts, seeds etc.) Our western diet lacks omega-3s and is rich in omega-6s. Good practice calls for adding more omega-3s into our diet.
When Should You Use Canola Oil?
Canola oil has a place in our diet. It’s more affordable than EVOO and avocado oil. It’s the lowest in saturated fats compared to other oils, but it contains the most heart-healthy omega-3s compared to other oils discussed here – making it one of the healthiest cooking oils. It also has a high smoke point making it more efficient for cooking. However, some of its cholesterol lowering compounds are lost during the refining process.
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4. Peanut Oil – High flavor, lower nutrients
Peanut oil’s fat breakdown:
16% saturated fatty acids
50% monounsaturated fatty acids
34% polyunsaturated fatty acids
It has a high smoke point of about 450℉. Which makes it a good option for high heat cooking.
Peanut oil’s monounsaturated fats boast heart-healthy benefits such as cholesterol management. Peanut oil also contains phytosterols, compounds found in plants. These phytosterols, or plant sterols, are similar to our body’s cholesterol. They help lower cholesterol levels by competing with cholesterol absorption in our body, therefore lowering cholesterol absorption. Phytosterols can help decrease inflammation and promote cardiovascular health too. Peanut oil also contains more omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3s.
When Should You Use Peanut Oil?
Peanut oil is a good choice for adding more flavor to fried foods and stir frys. But it is highly-refined. So it has fewer nutrients than other oils on the market.
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5. Coconut Oil – Tons of saturated fats…but
Coconut’s oil fat breakdown:
Up to 90%% saturated fatty acids
~5% monounsaturated fatty acids
~5% polyunsaturated fatty acids
There is a lot of hype and controversy involving coconut oil. So why is it on a list of the healthiest cooking oils? There are some claims that it can help with weight loss due to its Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT). MCTs are utilized differently in the body compared to other fats in processes that burn more calories. Per Today’s Dietitian, coconut oil is the best food source for MCT. However, only about 15% of its carbon chains are structured in this way to help promote weight loss. And research is too limited to make a definitive claim. Therefore, the limited-researched benefits would not outweigh the risks for using coconut oil as your primary cooking oil. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fatty acids. And these have been shown to increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
But we’re not saying you should never use coconut oil. It can add fruitiness to dishes. And it tastes good! But use it sparingly given its crazy high saturated fat content. And you can find it either refined or unrefined. Unrefined coconut oil has a low smoke point of 350℉, making it less desirable for frying, and refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400℉, serving as a better alternative.
When Should You Use Coconut Oil?
Does coconut oil, with its high saturated fat content belong on a healthiest cooking oils list? Yes and no. The MCTs have potential benefits, but the fat and caloric content is high. Just make sure you use coconut oil sparingly. It does taste better. So make it count when you use it.
6. Vegetable Oil – You should still eat your veggies, but this is one of the least healthiest cooking oils
Vegetable Oil’s fat breakdown:
Varies by brand and type of vegetable used
Vegetable oil is a blend of various oils such as corn, soy, canola, olive, safflower, and sunflower. (It all depends on the manufacturer.) The mono, poly, and unsaturated content varies based on brand. Though this oil contains mono and polyunsaturated fats. The downside is that this oil is one of the most processed/refined oils. So you get less nutritional bang for your buck. Vegetable oil offers a neutral taste. It also has a higher smoke point making it a good option for frying and sautéing. It is one of the cheapest oils that you’ll find.
When Should You Use Vegetable Oil?
Because of how highly refined this oil is, it would be best to choose another oil with a better fat profile. Oils such as safflower, sunflower, and corn all have a low omega-3 fat content.
The Healthiest Cooking Oils: Different oils offer different health benefits
Oils are calorie dense fats. To put it in perspective: Fats offer 9 calories per gram, much more compared to protein, carbohydrates (each with about 4 calories/gram, respectively), and alcohol (7 calories/gram). Keep in mind that yes, they offer wonderful health benefits depending on your oil of choice, But they can add a significant amount of overall calories to your daily intake. So be mindful of the amount you use. Try measuring out an actual tablespoon when cooking to see what a tablespoon actually amounts to.
So what are the healthiest cooking oils?
It all depends on your needs. Olive and avocado oils are the healthiest in terms of nutrient density. But that doesn’t mean you should never use peanut, coconut or canola oils is it suits a recipe. Just be aware when you’re using them. But we don’t recommend using vegetable oil. There’s so many great oils out there that can be great additions to a meal without being a health hindrance.
We use them for sautéing, deep fat frying, to finish a dish or use as a dressing, so choose accordingly. You can reap the cardiovascular benefits by replacing saturated fats such as butter, shortening, lard, tallow with unsaturated fats for cardiovascular health. Choose oils that fit your price range, your cooking needs and tastes. Remember to store all oils in a cool, dark place. Light and heat quickens the breakdown of the oils, allowing them to spoil more quickly.
Christine Morgan is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian who currently practices in dialysis. Her experience includes renal nutrition, food service, and geriatrics. Her education includes a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and she completed her Dietetic Internship with the University of Delaware. She is also a member of the Tri-State Renal Dietitians Association.