How to Choose the Right Cooking Oil
- Whether you’re sautéing, baking or drizzling it over vegetables, cooking oil is an indispensable part of any kitchen
- Our bodies need fat, which is critical for a balanced mood, optimal hormone function, and a healthy nervous and immune system.
- But to get the most out of cooking oils, it’s important to understand each one’s flavor profile and how to store them to keep them fresh.
- It also means knowing its smoke point so you don’t take a healthy cooking oil and create a toxic mix of free radicals and trans fats.
by Dr. John Neustadt
No kitchen is complete without cooking oil. Used for sautéing, frying, baking, drizzling over vegetables for roasting or as salad dressing, there are endless ways to use oil. When used correctly, oils can have tremendous health benefits, including lowering cholesterol, decreasing inflammation and reducing your risks for heart disease and death. But if you use them wrong, they can increase your risk for all of these.
Fats and oils help you feel full, provide energy and essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Oils also increase the absorption fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K), improves food texture, taste and flavor and is required for many biologically active compounds made in the body.1 Your brain is 60% fat, and fat is needed for mood, a healthy nervous system, hormone production, and the immune system. High-quality culinary oils are an essential component of a healthy diet.
To get the most out of cooking oils, however, it’s important to understand each one’s flavor profile and how to store them to keep them fresh. Selecting the right oil also means knowing its smoke point so you don’t take healthy cooking oil and create a toxic mix of free radicals and hydrogenated fats. Learning how to use culinary oils will go a long way to helping you feel your best.
The smoke point, also called the burning point of an oil, is the temperature at which you begin to see smoke when you’re cooking. When this happens, you destroy the oil’s flavor and health benefits while creating a toxic mix of free radicals and trans fats. Oils with lower smoke points should be used at room temperature (e.g., drizzling over vegetables to add healthy fats and flavor). Smoke points can range from relatively low 325o F to very high—520o F.
Generally, the more refined an oil, the more neutral it tastes, and the higher its smoke point. Oils with high smoke points (over 400 degrees) include refined avocado oil and sunflower oil. Avocado oil is an excellent choice for cooking at higher temperatures.
Trans fats are particularly dangerous and should be avoided, which is why you want to stay below an oil’s smoke point. Back in 1993, researchers looked at data on trans-fats from the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest prospective investigations into risk factors for major chronic diseases in women. Over 85,000 women without coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or high cholesterol participated in the study, with eight years of follow-up.2 That research and another follow-up study, found that trans-fatty acids increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.3 In fact, one study estimated that 30,000 premature deaths in the United States every year can be attributed to trans-fatty acid consumption.4
Buy Only in Glass Containers
The container your oil comes in is almost as important as the oil itself. It’s important to source oils that are packaged in dark glass bottles. Oils in plastic containers may be easier to ship or store, but the plastic can leach toxic molecules and hormone disrupters into the oil.5 Make sure you buy oils in dark glass bottles only, and store them away from light and warmth, in a dark cool cabinet. The dark glass is important because it protects the oil from ultraviolet (UV) radiation if exposed to sunlight. Even small amounts of UV light can oxidize cooking oil and turn it rancid.6
While companies may entice you with cheaper prices for larger bottles of oil, buying more than what you’ll use within four to six months is not a good idea. Buy smaller quantities, because even the purest, highest quality oil left in the cabinet for months or years can slowly denature and go rancid, destroying their taste and health benefits.
Avocado oil can withstand higher heat than many other oils, which makes it great for cooking. Like avocados, the oil is creamy without a distinct flavor, another reason it’s ideal for cooking. Avocado oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fats. It also contains a generous amount of vitamin E. It’s considered a heart-healthy oil.7
Smoke point: 375o F (unrefined), 520o F (refined)
Oils that are solid at room temperature have higher amounts of saturated fatty acids compared to oils that are liquid at room temperatures. Butter and coconut oil are both examples of culinary oils that are relatively high in saturated fat. Butter’s rich flavor is a staple for baking. Since it’s a dairy product, however, people who have a dairy allergy may need to steer clear of using butter.
The earliest evidence of butter dates back to 6,500 BCE in Turkey. Butter contains vitamins A, E, D and K and minerals such as calcium. In the 1980s butter was viewed as a dangerous food that raises someone’s heart disease risk.8 In a meta-analysis of studies including more than 600,000 volunteers, researchers found no association between butter consumption and heart disease despite the fact that a clinical trial showed that consuming butter can increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.9
If you elect to enjoy some butter, it’s probably a good idea to use it sparingly. Consumption of dairy products has been strongly associated with prostate cancer and other health risks. For more information about dairy, read my blog, What’s in Your Milk? Top Reasons to Rethink Dairy.
Smoke point: 302-350o F
Canola oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, containing approximately 60% oleic acid.10 Less expensive than a good quality EVOO, canola oil can be a good choice on a budget. Canola lacks the wonderful flavor profile of other culinary oils and is lower in healthy polyphenols. However, a clinical trial of 119 men and women with a mean age of 44 years old showed that consuming canola oil can still have health benefits. In the clinical trials, participants experienced a statistically significant decrease in total and LDL cholesterol.11 With a relatively high smoke point, canola oil is used for sautéing, pan-frying, roasting and baking.
Smoke point: 400o F
Coconut oil is a sweet, rich oil that is high in saturated fat. It’s commonly used in nondairy yogurts, milks and ice cream. In some parts of the world, such as Papua New Guinea, coconut and its oil are dietary staples. The saturated fat can raise LDL (bad) blood cholesterol, but not as much as butter. In addition, extra virgin coconut oil may help boost levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and thus possibly lower heart disease risk.12 It’s also high in a substance called lauric acid, which is converted to monolaurin in your body. Both lauric acid and monolaurin are antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral.13
Smoke point: 350o F (unrefined), 450o F (refined)
Since it has a high smoke point and a neutral taste, corn oil is most frequently used for frying or high-heat grilling. While versatile, corn oil is probably one of the least healthy oils. It’s low in omega-3 fatty acids while having a high amount of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation and omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. Our bodies need a healthy mix of both. The ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is about four to one. Corn oil has a one to 46 ratio, meaning it has 46 times more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, animals fed a high corn oil diet compared to a high olive oil diet showed increased activation of genes associated with breast cancer.14 For these reasons, it’s a cooking oil I recommend you avoid.
Smoke point: 450o F
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
Nothing can quite rival the flavor, versatility and health-promoting benefits of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), a centerpiece of the Mediterranean diet. EVOO can protect against cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and heart disease.15 The highest quality olive oils vary in color from deep grassy green to bright, yellowy gold. Those luscious hues come courtesy of potent antioxidants called polyphenols.
High-quality EVOO also has a pleasant peppery taste that you can feel in the back of your throat. That experience is created by the polyphenols. Over three dozen phenolic compounds have been identified in EVOO, each with their own unique health benefits.16 These compounds have shown anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral properties.17,18 Their antioxidant power is thought to be responsible for many of the oil’s health effects.19
Olive oil is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which is thought to protect the heart and support insulin sensitivity. EVOO is best cooked with it on low- to medium-heat. While EVOO can be used to sauté, pan- or stir-fry vegetables, it’s best drizzled raw over vegetables, salads, or proteins.
Smoke point: 325-375o F
Sesame oil has been used in food preparation for more than 2,000 years. Sesame seeds are roasted before extracting the oil. This creates aromatic compounds and brown pigments, resulting in sesame oil products’ distinct colors, which vary from yellow to brown. Sesame oil contains lignins, a category of natural chemicals with many health benefits. The lignins in sesame oil include sesamin, sesamolin and sesamol. Studies have shown that sesamin promotes healthy blood lipids, supports liver health, has antitumor activities, promotes healthy blood pressure, and protects against free radical damage. Sesame oil is also a rich source of vitamin E.20
Smoke point: 350o F (unrefined), 410o F (refined)
Sunflower is high in vitamin E, and some varieties are very high in oleic acid (also found in olive oil) and is considered a heart healthy oil.21 Its flavor is mild.
Smoke point: 440o F
Walnut oil has a rich, nutty flavor. It has a relatively low smoke point and becomes bitter when heated, so walnut oil is best used uncooked or in cold sauces or to flavor fish or steak. Walnut oil is high in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be beneficial to the heart and brain.
Smoke point: 320o F
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2The Nurses Health Study. Accessed 07-14-2020. [Report]
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8 Pimpin L, Wu JH, Haskelberg H, Del Gobbo L, Mozaffarian D. Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality. PLoS One. 2016;11(6):e0158118. [Article]
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10 Canola Oil. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published 2019. Accessed July 20, 2020. [Web page]
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18Bogani P, Galli C, Villa M et al. Postprandial anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of extra virgin olive oil. Atherosclerosis 2007, 190, 181–186. [Article]
19Gorzynik-Debicka M, Przychodzen P, Cappello F, et al. Potential Health Benefits of Olive Oil and Plant Polyphenols. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(3):686. [Article]
20 Wan Y, Li H, Fu G, Chen X, Chen F, Xie M. The relationship of antioxidant components and antioxidant activity of sesame seed oil. J Sci Food Agric. 2015;95(13):2571-2578. [Article]
21Jenkins DJ, Chiavaroli L, Wong JM, et al. Adding monounsaturated fatty acids to a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods in hypercholesterolemia. CMAJ. 2010;182(18):1961-1967. [Article]
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