Which Cooking Oil is Best? The Pros and Cons of 16 Kinds
Last Updated: Oct 18, 2016
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Cooking fats come from animal sources and are solid at room temperature, while oils are extracted from a variety of plants, seeds and vegetables and are liquid at room temperature (with the exception of some tropical oils including coconut, palm and palm kernel oil, which can be solid, semisolid or liquid at room temperature). When choosing a cooking fat or oil, it’s important to consider how the oil holds up to temperature or its smoke point which is the temperature at which the oil begins to create smoke and break down. You also need to consider whether or not you want the fat or oil to add flavor to your food and the overall healthfulness of the oil’s nutrition profile. With the exception of butter, oils and fats contain no carbohydrates or protein, and the discussion of the healthfulness of an oil is centered mostly on the types of fat it contains. Read on to learn more about 16 types of cooking oils and their recommended uses.
Coconut oil comes from the meat of coconuts, and about 86 percent of its fat is the saturated type. It’s a favorite among health-conscious eaters for its high concentration of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). The body burns MCTs immediately for fuel, decreasing the likelihood that they will be stored as fat. There is also some evidence that MCTs boost metabolism and promote satiety (a feeling of fullness). Coconut oil is relatively heat stable and resistant to rancidity. When you see “virgin” on the label, this means the oil is extracted from the coconut without use of high temperature or chemicals and can withstand baking and light sauteing temperatures up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re looking for something that can take a little more heat, refined coconut oil, which is extracted from dry coconut meat and purified using chemical solvents, can hold up in temperatures as high as 425 degrees Fahrenheit and typically carries less flavor. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Trader Joe’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil and Nutiva Organic Virgin Coconut Oil.
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Walnut oil has a rich, nutty taste you would expect from the oil of cold-pressed walnuts. Since two-thirds of the fat in walnut oil is of the fragile polyunsaturated variety (meaning it’s easily damaged with exposure to heat), walnut oil is not recommended for cooking. Instead, use this oil for salad dressings and cold prep. Walnut oil should be stored in the refrigerator and will last up to six months. Just like the nut of its origin, walnut oil has also been show to reduce the risk of heart disease. In a small 2010 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Pennsylvania State University researchers found consuming walnuts and walnut oil helped reduce resting blood pressure as well as blood pressure in response to stress. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: La Tourangelle Roasted Walnut Oil and International Collection Walnut Oil.
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Sunflower oil is extracted from sunflower seeds and is a good source of vitamin E. A tablespoon of the oil provides about 40 percent of your daily needs. Sunflower oil can be found in high oleic, linoleic or partially hydrogenated forms. High oleic sunflower seed oil contains more than 70 percent of the monounsaturated fats that are known to improve blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. However, approximately 65 percent of the fat in the linoleic variety is linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fat that most Americans consume too much of through processed foods. The partially hydrogenated version may contain trans fats, which worsen blood cholesterol levels, increase inflammation and contribute to insulin resistance and overall risk of diabetes and heart disease. If you’re going to cook with sunflower oil, stick to the high oleic variety. The average smoke point is about 460 degrees Fahrenheit. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Spectrum Naturals High Heat Sunflower Oil, Smude’s Cold-Pressed High Oleic Sunflower Oil.
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“Flaxseed oil is a great vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Olivia Martino, registered dietitian and owner of Nourish Northwest, a nutrition and fitness center in Portland, Oregon. “Omega-3s are powerful anti-inflammatory agents, reducing risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer while also improving brain function.” The omega-3 fat in flaxseed oil is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which converts in the body to two other omega-3s -- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). EPA and DHA occur naturally in good amounts in fish and seafood, so it’s important for someone who follows a vegetarian or vegan diet to consume food sources rich in ALA. The daily recommended intake for ALA is 1.1 to 1.6 grams per day, and just one tablespoon of flaxseed oil provides seven grams of ALA. But be careful with this fragile oil. “Flax oil should not be heated,” says Martino, “and it’s best in salad dressings, over cooked vegetables, added to smoothies or just by itself. Make sure to store it in an opaque bottle in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent oxidation.” RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Jarrow Formulas Fresh Pressed Flaxseed Oil and Barlean’s Organic Flax Oil.
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Butter’s fat profile has had it on most people’s “unhealthy” foods list until recently, when a number of research studies evaluating the role of dietary fat in cardiovascular health have challenged the notion that saturated fat is as dangerous as previously believed. One of these, a randomized trial published in September 2014 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that participants eating a relatively high-fat diet (including saturated fat) had greater reductions in cardiovascular disease risk factors than those eating a low-fat diet. That’s not necessarily license to add butter to everything, however. Researchers of the study agree that the overall quality of one’s diet has the biggest impact on our health and that more research needs to be done. Use butter for flavor in cooking and watch it carefully while heating to prevent it from smoking (the milk solids in butter give it a relatively low smoke point). RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter and Organic Valley Cultured Butter.
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Sesame oil is used primarily in Asian cuisine. It is commonly sold “toasted” and has a rich, nutty flavor that complements tofu, rice and vegetables used in stir-fry. Like other nut and seed oils, sesame oil is highly unsaturated (85 percent of the oil’s fat is in mono- and polyunsaturated form) and doesn’t hold up well to high heat or light. Drizzle this flavorful oil over cooked foods or use it in an Asian salad dressing. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Eden Organic Sesame Oil and Kevala Organic Sesame Oil.
Canola oil is a variation of rapeseed oil that was developed in the 1960s using traditional plant-breeding methods to remove a toxic, bitter compound called erucic acid, which made the oil inedible. Today, canola oil is the third largest source of vegetable oil in the world after soybean oil and palm oil. Thanks to its high smoke point (475 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s commonly used in frying and baking and is also an ingredient in salad dressings, margarine and a variety of other products. Canola is also promoted as a healthy oil because of its high monounsaturated to saturated fat ration (it has more than twice the former) and its concentration of omega-3s (about 11 percent of the oil’s fat is of this type). However, more than 93 percent of the canola produced in the U.S. is from genetically modified seed, so if you wish to avoid GMOs, be sure to choose products with the “organic” label. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Spectrum Organic Canola Oil and Cibaria Organic Canola Oil.
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Corn oil, like many vegetable oils, is highly refined through an industrial process of heating and chemical treatment to remove impurities and neutralize the flavor of the oil. Refining oil also increases its smoke point. For this reason, corn oil is nearly tasteless and can withstand cooking temperatures of up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it versatile in food preparation. More than four fifths of the fat in corn oil is unsaturated. Like canola oil, the majority of the corn crop (90 percent) in the U.S. is currently genetically modified. Although the “organic” label prohibits the use of GMOs, it’s nearly impossible to find organic corn oil, so if you are concerned about genetically modified foods, it may be worth using another vegetable oil instead.
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Soybean oil is a major ingredient found in most processed foods, often appearing as the “partially hydrogenated” type on the ingredient lists of more heavily processed foods. Naturally, some 60 percent of the fat in soybean oil is polyunsaturated and about 23 percent is monounsaturated, but this high degree of unsaturation means that soybean oil would spoil readily with extended exposure to heat, air and light. Most soybean oil is thus refined using chemical solvents and heat treatment that, like hydrogenation, tend to increase the amount of trans fats present. This makes the oil stand up to a higher temperature with an average smoke point of about 460 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, trans fats are exceedingly dangerous to our health. It’s best to avoid soybean (and any oil) that may contain these damaging fats. Also, like canola and corn, the majority of soybeans produced in the U.S. are from genetically modified seed. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: King Organic Non-GMO Soybean Oil and Zoye Premium Vegetable Oil 100% Pure Soybean Oil.
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Safflower oil is extracted from the seeds of the safflower, which is a member of the daisy family. More than 70 percent of the fat in traditional safflower oil is in the form of linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fat. Although LA is one of the essential fatty acids, most Americans get too much of it -- roughly 10 times more than of the omega-3 type -- and typically from processed foods. This ratio is not ideal for good health, and current recommendations advise eating more omega-3 and less omega-6. If you decide to take advantage of the neutral flavor of safflower oil for food preparation, choose the high oleic version, which is more than 75 percent monounsaturated and has a lower omega-6 content. The smoke point for safflower oil is higher -- about 475 degrees Fahrenheit. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Spectrum Essentials High Heat Safflower Oil and Eden Foods High Oleic Safflower Oil.
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Grape-seed oil is a byproduct of wine making -- it’s extracted from the seeds of wine grapes. As a specialty oil, it tends to be more expensive than most other cooking oils. Grape-seed oil is often recommended for high-heat cooking due to its relatively high smoke point of 420 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a good choice if you’re looking for a neutral-tasting, plant-based cooking oil for moderately high-heat cooking. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Spectrum Grapeseed Oil and Montebaldo 100% Pure Grapeseed Oil.
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PALM AND PALM KERNEL OIL
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of a palm tree and is 52 percent saturated, while palm kernel oil, taken from the palm seed, is 86 percent saturated. Because of its higher saturated fat content, giving it a longer shelf life, palm kernel oil is typically used in more commercially processed foods. Almost 80 percent of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where rainforests have been devastated to make way for palm plantations. Sadly, this large-scale production is threatening the habitat of the orangutan, an animal that advocacy groups say risks extinction. In an effort to combat these effects, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has established criteria for companies to source sustainable palm oil. Products that comply have the RSPO certification. RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Nutiva Organic Red Palm Oil.
The fat profile of avocado oil is nearly identical to that of olive oil. About 70 percent is monounsaturated fat (MUFA), and the rest is about half saturated and half polyunsaturated fat. This composition puts avocado oil on the heart-healthy list for many nutrition experts who tout the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, rich in MUFAs from olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds. Avocado oil has a greenish color and a buttery flavor characteristic of avocados. Use avocado oil to give a rich flavor to salad dressings or for drizzling over foods. It can also be used in cooking because it has a high smoke point (from 375 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the manufacturer). RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Now Foods Avocado Oil and La Tourangelle Avocado Oil.
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Products labeled “vegetable oil” may be made from one or more plant oils and are often a blend of soybean and other oils like corn and canola. Although vegetable oils are high in heat-fragile polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), they are commonly refined for use in cooking and tend to have a relatively high smoke point of 440 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. The ingredients in vegetable oils typically come from plants that are grown widely in genetically modified varieties, so if you’re concerned about GMOs, be sure to choose products labeled “organic.”
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“Some 75 percent of the fats in olive oil come in the form of the monounsaturated oleic acid,” says chef Rebecca Katz, author of “The Healthy Mind Cookbook.” Olive oil is “renowned as a key element in a heart-healthy diet,” adds Katz, “and has been linked in studies to improved memory and better overall brain functioning.” This understanding stems from studies of people eating a Mediterranean diet, in which olive oil is a major component. Some people believe that the relatively low smoke point of extra virgin olive oil (325 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit) means it shouldn’t be used for cooking. But Katz says this isn’t a problem if you use it properly. “Whenever you are cooking with oil always heat your pan first, then add the oil, and once the oil begins to shimmer add your food. As soon as food is added to the pan the smoke point drops. That’s why you can saute with olive oil and not have it be a problem.” RECOMMENDED BRANDS: 365 Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
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When it comes to healthy cooking oils, Rebecca Katz, executive chef for the Food As Medicine professional training program and author of a number of healthful cookbooks including “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen” and “The Longevity Kitchen,” is a fan of ghee. “I like to stick to oils and fats that have been around a long time. Ghee is great to cook with,” says Katz. Whereas butter contains a small amount of water and some milk compounds, ghee is pure fat (about two-thirds saturated and one-third monounsaturated). “All the milk solids have been skimmed off,” adds Katz, “so it’s great for people who are lactose and/or casein intolerant.” This process also raises the smoke point, making ghee a better choice than butter for cooking at high temperatures. The smoke point of ghee will vary depending on its purity and how long it has been stored, but some culinary guides put the smoke point of ghee as high as 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep in mind that just one tablespoon of ghee contains eight grams of saturated fat (the type that nutrition experts advise eating less of to improve heart health), so use it sparingly. Recommended brands: Purity Farms Organic Ghee and Ancient Organics Ghee
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Not all cooking fats and oils are created equal. The fat types affect the nutrition quality of the oil as well as its uses in the kitchen. Which oils do you typically use? Are there ones you avoid? Why? Share your comments with us below.
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