8 Alternative Healthy Cooking Oils

While olive and canola oils are definitely healthy choices, newer oils like grapeseed, avocado, and coconut oil are vying for attention. Are they worth your health dollars? By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD

  • Basic Vinaigrette
    Photo: Dana Gallagher

    Healthy Cooking Oil

    Newly popular oils like hemp and grape seed, and long time standards in Asian cuisine like sesame oil are showing up in supermarkets with their own good-for-you claims. The question is, how do they rate when compared to heart-healthy staples like olive and canola oil? And more importantly, how do you cook with them? We took a look at some of the more popular nut, seed, and fruit oils that are showing up these days in the local grocery to find out how they taste and how they stand up when it comes to nutrition. Here’s a look at eight oils you might be wondering about.
  • Spiced Shrimp with Avocado Oil
    Randy Mayor; Melanie J. Clarke

    Avocado Oil

    An emerald green oil made by cold-pressing the flesh of ripe avocados, this oil ranks right up there with olive oil as a rich source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. It’s also rich in vitamin E, plant based omega-3 fats, and beta-sito sterol, a potent cholesterol lowering agent.

    Taste: Buttery rich with a distinct avocado flavor

    Uses: Drizzle over seafood, salad and vegetables. Great for frying and high heat cooking because of its high smoke point.

    Storage: Keep in a cool, dark cabinet away from heat and light. Can be refrigerated but will solidify.

  • Grilled Swordfish with Tomato-Molasses Dressing
    Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine

    Coconut Oil

    Coconut oil (a solid waxy white fat) is riding a wave of popularity among the health food crowd. Some reports suggest the saturated fats in coconut oil are not as damaging as the saturated fats in fatty meat or heavy cream. But expert opinion from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association still hold that oils high in saturates (this one is 86% saturated fat) are best limited.

    Taste: Coconut overtones with a hint of sweetness and vanilla

    Uses: Sautéing, baking, making popcorn

    Storage: Keeps at room temperature

  • Arugula, Grape, and Sunflower Seed Salad
    Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Cindy Barr, Hayden Patton

    Grape Seed Oil

    Prized by chefs for its neutral flavor and high smoke point, this polyunsaturated-rich oil is made from the seeds of wine grapes. Grape seed oil is adept at raising “good” cholesterol (HDL) and lowering LDL or “bad” cholesterol. However, unlike grapeseed extract, the oil doesn’t harbor appreciable amounts of proanthacyanadins, potent antioxidants that fight disease.

    Taste: Clean, light flavor

    Uses: Frying and sauteeing. Good for ethnic dishes

    Storage: Opened, it will keep for up to a year in a cool, dry cabinet.

  • Pistachio Rice
    Randy Mayor; Melanie J. Clarke

    Pistachio Oil

    A jewel-like deep green color and a rich pistachio flavor makes this oil a stunning garnish for almost any dish. But since it’s not as delicate as most other nuts oils, pistachio oil also lends itself to both baking and sauteing. Bonus: It’s also adept at lowering cholesterol and, according to a recent report, lowering risk of heart disease.

    Taste: Rich pistachio flavor.

    Uses: Drizzle it over grilled fish, mashed potatoes, salads or steamed veggies.

    Storage: Store in a cool, dark cabinet. Refrigerate after opening.

  • Kung Pao Chicken
    Photo: John Autry; Styling: Cindy Barr

    Sesame Oil

    Rich in both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, it’s no surprise that sesame oil is adept at helping lower cholesterol. But a new study shows it might help lower blood pressure too. Experts suspect antioxidant compounds called sasamol and sesamin may give the oil its healthy edge.

    Taste: Varies depending on seeds. Oils made with roasted seeds are dark hued and intensely nutty. Lighter hued oils are mildly nutty.

    Uses: Drizzled over vegetables or fish or blend with other oils to keep it from overpowering a dish

    Storage: Keep in a cool, dark cabinet or refrigerate

  • Sage, Bay, and Garlic Dipping Oil
    Becky Luigart-Stayner; Lydia DeGaris-Pursell and Jan Gautro

    Hemp Oil

    Rich in polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, and plant based omega 3-fats, this fragile fat is made by drying hemp seeds and cold-pressing them to extract oil. Many vegetarians favor the oil because hemp seed (the industrial crop grown for non-drug use) is sustainable and seeds can easily be grown without pesticides.

    Taste: Light and mildly nutty

    Uses: More delicate than olive and many nut oils, so use for salad dressings or cold foods

    Storage: Keep refrigerated after opening. Use up in 3 months.

  • Spinach Salad with Pumpkin Seeds and Avocado
    Photo: Ryan Benyi; Styling: Andrea Steinberg

    Flaxseed Oil

    While it needs careful handling, the delicate golden colored oil extracted from flaxseeds offers vegetarians a wealthy bounty of plant-based polyunsaturated omega-3 fats (alpha linolenic acids or ALAs). Preliminary evidence suggests ALAs may help lower cholesterol. One hitch: the oil doesn’t let you tap into the cancer fighting fiber or lignan compounds found in the whole seeds.

    Taste: Subtle nutty flavor

    Uses: Salad dressings, cold pasta salads, smoothies or any recipes that keep the oil at cold temperatures

    Storage: Buy in small batches, keep refrigerated, and use quickly

  • Thai Chicken and Noodle Curry
    Photo: Annabelle Breakey

    Macadamia Nut Oil

    Tag this golden-hued oil, typically cold-pressed from the meat of tree-ripened nuts, as the richest plant oil source of monounsaturated fats (85% monos.) It also sports the lowest levels of omega 6-fats, fats that some scientists suggest, in large quantities, may promote the harmful kind of inflammation at the root of many chronic diseases.

    Taste: Buttery rich

    Uses: Versatile enough for just about any culinary use. A high smoke point makes it work well for baking, a stir fry, or a sauté.

    Storage: It is not a delicate nut oil so it’s ok to store at room temperature for long periods

  • olive oil

    Flavor and Storage

    Keep in mind that, like wine, healthier oil can vary in flavor depending on how they are harvested, processed, and bottled. Less processing (cold-pressing) typically yields richer more robust flavors. More processing equates to a blander or more neutral oil. And once you’ve made your selection, handle oils carefully. The healthier fats that contain monounsaturates and polyunsaturates are delicate. A good general rule of thumb is to store healthy oils in a cool cupboard away from light and heat. (In hot summer months, the refrigerator may be your best bet.) What happens if you don’t? Fatty acids in the oil can oxidize making the oil taste bitter or rancid.

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