Not all oils are created equal.
Nowadays, there are seemingly endless varieties of oils lining the supermarket shelves, each proclaiming to be healthier and more flavorful than the next. So, which oils actually reign supreme when it comes to cooking with health in mind?
On top of the numerous varieties of oils, confusion also springs from constant input about just which kinds of fats we should be consuming for the benefit of our heart health and our bodies overall.
All cooking oils can essentially be broken down into three categories of fat: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Arguably, what makes an oil “healthy” is containing higher levels of unsaturated fats and lower levels of saturated fat.
While there has been debate in recent years over the harmfulness (or lack thereof) of saturated fats, in a report published by the American Heart Association in 2017, a panel of scientists who carefully reviewed the available data surrounding dietary fats recommended that people should decrease their consumption of saturated fats—which are prevalent in meats, cheeses, and certain oils—and instead consume more unsaturated fats, which will help decrease “bad” cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease.
The scientists also found that consuming polyunsaturated fats, which includes foods like walnuts, fish, and sunflower, soybean, and corn oils, is preferable to consuming monounsaturated fats, including avocado, a variety of nuts, seeds, and olive, canola, and peanut oils. While both forms of fat are healthy, polyunsaturated fats are more likely to reduce the risk of heart disease than their counterpart.
No matter which oil you use, scientists who have studied the correlation between fat consumption and health still suggest using oils in moderation. However, there are certain oils—some that may surprise you—that will provide you the healthiest ratio of the two kinds of fat. While there is certainly still much to learn about how certain fats ultimately affect our health, these are the healthiest and least healthy of the most common cooking oil options you’ll find in just about every supermarket today.
WATCH: What is the smoke point of an oil?
The Healthiest Oils
Canola Oil – While many people have an unhealthy connotation with canola oil, thanks to its association with fried food, this neutral-flavored oil made from rapeseed is not only high in both forms of unsaturated fat, but also has one of the lowest percentages of saturated fats of any oil and contains lots of beneficial omega-3s. While it is commonly used to create greasy deep-fried food that’s not so healthy, thanks to its high smoke point, this oil is actually extremely healthy on its own. However, canola oil is chemically processed, which can be a red flag for those trying to stick to an organic diet. Because of its super neutral taste, canola is best for baking, roasting, and (of course) frying, rather than salad dressings and sautéed dishes.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – With high levels of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, and a rich, luxurious flavor, there’s no wonder why extra virgin olive oil has become one of the most popular cooking oils. Since EVOO’s nutritional integrity is somewhat broken down when cooked, the biggest health boost will result from eating it at room temperature, as part of a salad dressing or drizzled over the dish of your choice. While great for sautéing, dressing, and low-temperature roasting, EVOO has a low smoke point that makes it difficult to fry or roast with above 375 degrees. Therefore, when it comes to frying it’s best to stick with another variety of oil.
Grapeseed Oil – This mild flavored oil, which is made from the grape seeds discarded during the wine making process, has a huge percentage of polyunsaturated fat and a low percentage of saturated fat. In addition to being packed with heart healthy fats, grapeseed is also a great neutral oil for just about every kitchen task, from roasting to salad dressings.
Sunflower Oil – With one of the highest percentages of polyunsaturated fat among cooking oils and low levels of saturated fats, sunflower oil is all-around a super heart healthy cooking oil. With a neutral flavor and high smoke point, sunflower oil is good for frying and roasting a variety of foods. You can also find “high-oleic” sunflower oils (as well as canola oils), which have higher levels of oleic acid, boosting the monounsaturated fat count and therefore the cholesterol-lowering power of this beneficial ingredient.
Safflower Oil – This oil, which is sold in both cold-pressed and chemically processed varieties, is high in polyunsaturated fats, low in saturated fats, and high in omega-9 fatty acids. Additionally, safflower oil also has one of the highest smoke points of any cooking oil, and a neutral flavor, making it a great option for frying, sautéing, and roasting.
Avocado Oil — This trendy—and more expensive—oil is packed with monounsaturated fats and benefits from having a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil, making it the perfect alternative for higher heat frying and roasting. As a bonus, this oil is neutral flavored but not chemically processed, making it a great frying option for those avoiding chemically processed oils. However, with a higher saturated fat content than comparable vegetable oils—around 20 percent—it’s not the most nutritional of the bunch and will cost you a pretty penny.
Sesame Oil – This powerful, cold pressed oil packs a serious punch when it comes to flavor, so a little goes a long way. Low in saturated fat, and with balanced levels of both forms of unsaturated fats, sesame is a great option for flavoring foods. Use small amounts of this oil for sautéing and pan-frying.
Peanut Oil – Like sesame oil, peanut oil is super flavorful and should only be used in foods that you want to taste like, well, peanuts. Peanut oil has the highest level of monounsaturated fat among cooking oils; however, it also has a slightly higher percentage of saturated fat than many other vegetable oils. This chemically processed oil is great for sautéing Asian stir-frys and even deep-frying tempura foods, as it as a high smoke point.
Vegetable Oil (Made with Soybean) – It’s likely this chemically processed oil has been a presence in your kitchen for as long as you can remember. However, there’s a good chance a certain kind of vegetable oil—which is primarily made with soybean oil—is healthier than you’ve ever given it credit for. Super high in polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fat, this form of vegetable oil is theoretically high on the healthy oils list. However, the heavy chemical processing that gives vegetable oil its neutral flavor and high smoke point has the potential to deplete the natural nutrients of the oil.
Oils to Use Sparingly
Palm Oil – This cooking oil, while a rarer sight in most American kitchens, is actually one of the most widely consumed edible fats in the world, frequently used in vegetable oil, margarine, and shortening in other countries. Though an effective frying oil, palm oil is high in saturated fat—about 50 percent—which can pose a risk to a rise in the “bad” cholesterol levels of the body.
Coconut Oil – While you might think this trendy oil is bound to be one of the healthiest options, given all of the hype around coconut oil in recent years, this oil contains more saturated fat—about 90 percent!—than butter, lard, and beef fat. While scientists have found that coconut oil—which contains 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon—does have the potential to give our “good” cholesterol a boost, it’s still recommended that coconut oil be used sparingly and as a replacement for less healthy fats, such as butter or shortening in baked goods.
Vegetable Oil (Made with a Mystery Blend) – Some store-bought vegetable oils are made from a blend of oils, rather than soybean oil alone, making it harder to give a definitive verdict on its nutritional potential. In the past, many vegetable oils were simply heart disease-causing trans fats in disguise, but as of last year those dangerous fats have been banned from grocery stores and restaurants in the U.S. altogether.
While your go-to cooking oil choice is probably based on a variety of factors, including the flavor and what kinds of dishes you prepare frequently, keeping in mind the nutritional value of the oils you use daily is one of the easiest ways to make a heart healthy dietary change that could benefit you, and your loved ones, significantly for years to come.