Oils are essential to cooking because they carry and enhance flavor molecules that easily dissolve in the oil — or the oil has good flavor in its own right. Oils are dietary fats, most often liquid at room temperature. Those oils that are high in unsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, like extra virgin olive oil and pure vegetable oil, increase good cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease when replacing saturated fats, according to the American Heart Association. But oils should be used sparingly because they are calorie-dense. The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommends that fats should account for 25-35% of daily caloric intake (44g-77g/day on a 2,000 calorie diet) and one tablespoon of oil is about 14g. So, what is the healthiest cooking oil to cook with?
While specific oils tout health benefits such as reduced inflammation or improving the symptoms of arthritis, the amount of oil we consume on a daily basis is so small that the health benefits associated with an oil’s minerals and vitamins is minimal. It is best, therefore, to balance consumption of the healthiest cooling oils and fats with the healthiest foods in other key food groups, such as non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds and lean proteins.
Oils are fats: So what types are the healthiest?
Physicians recommend that the majority of fat intake should come from monounsaturated fats, followed by polyunsaturated fats, and with minimal saturated fat and no trans fat.
- Monounsaturated fat: 15% to 20%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 5% to 10%
- Saturated fat: less than 10%
- Trans fat: 0%
How to choose the healthiest cooking oil
There are a variety of healthy cooking oils that are high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. Choosing the healthiest cooking oil from that list depends on how the oil will be used, the desired flavor and how long the oil has been stored.
Regardless of the vitamins and minerals an oil contains, the most important factor to consider is the fat profile. Choose an oil low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. (For information on other common fats, see What Is The Healthiest Butter to Eat?)
- Saturated fats should be limited as much as possible because they raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase inflammation throughout the body, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. These types of fats are solid at room temperature.
- Trans fats should be avoided. These fats come from processing liquid fats into solid fats through hydrogenation and are usually found in processed food and spray oils. Trans fats raise the bad LDL cholesterol levels and decrease good HDL cholesterol levels. Beware: spray oils can say they have no trans fat if the amount is less than 0.5g — so to avoid this type of fat completely, use a towel to wipe oil on the pan or buy a small spray bottle and make your own.
- Monounsaturated fats reduce bad cholesterol levels and contain nutrients such as antioxidants. Monounsaturated fats should be the majority of fat consumed each day. Oils high in monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but typically start to turn solid when cooled.
- Polyunsaturated fats are another type of healthy fat and include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These oils also turn solid when cooled but take the liquid form at room temperature.
Fat breakdown is so important when choosing healthy oils that the USDA recommends against using some oils made from tropical plants including coconut, palm and palm kernel oil because of the amount of saturated fat they contain.
The healthiest cooking oils, on the other hand, are the lowest in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — such as flaxseed oil, hazelnut oil, canola oil and extra virgin olive oil. It’s important to remember that the healthiest oils remain healthy until they’re cooked beyond their smoke point.
One of the most important factors in getting health benefits from oils is making sure that the oil doesn’t overheat during the cooking process. Cooking oils have a range of smoke points, defined as the temperature at which the fat starts to break down and release free radicals along with the chemical acrolein that gives foods a burnt taste and aroma. The higher the smoke point, the more cooking methods you can choose from. Cooking an oil past its smoke point can break down the nutrients and health benefits, so it’s important to select an oil with a smoke point that suits your cooking method.
All fats, including oils, should be used sparingly. Consider the flavor of the oil — neutral, nutty, spicy, peppery — and when it will be used in the cooking process to decide on the most appropriate choice.
Oils are made from crushing and pressing nuts and seeds. Bottling immediately after this process is called “cold-pressed,” “raw” or “virgin” — and these oils are colorful and the most flavorful. These unrefined oils are also most susceptible to becoming rancid quickly through high-heat cooking or over time.
It’s best to consume fresh oils within a year of their production date. Buy oils in small amounts; store them in cool, dark places; and replace them when they begin to smell “off.” Check the label because some oils like grapeseed and walnut should be stored in the refrigerator.
Over time, oils undergo the oxidation process which turns them rancid. This chemical process produces free radicals, which are molecules that damage cell growth and repair in the body and can lead to cancer and other diseases.
The healthiest cooking oils, ranked by smoke point
Source: Cleveland Clinic
Oils are an excellent source of healthy fats. When cooking with oil, choose a fresh, unrefined version and buy it in small quantities to avoid it from turning rancid. Store your oils in a cool, dark place away from the sun, heat and open air. There are many healthy oils to choose from: having a “go-to” for each heat point is an easy strategy. Once you have your smoke point (or cooking method) identified, select an oil low in saturated fats and without any trans fat. Then, choose an oil high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats that provides the flavor you’re looking for. Use it sparingly; a little goes a long way, especially since oils are calorie-rich. And when you have the choice, replace saturated fats with healthy unsaturated fats, including the healthiest oils such as flaxseed oil, extra virgin olive oil and canola oil.