Healthiest Cooking Oils: The Definitive Buyer’s Guide

cooking oil guide

While raw food is really health-enhancing, steamed, baked or grilled may be the healthiest way to cook your food. For many, nothing beats frying.

It gives extra crisp and flavour to the food plus you can’t deny the fact that frying is really yummy too. And when it comes to frying food, the choices for cooking oil are endless.

Oil will always be a staple part in your kitchen. But did you know that cooking oils sold in the supermarket under the label "vegetable oil" are not all that good?

Yes, you read that right. If you are a health enthusiast or even if you are not here are some of the things you should know about cooking oils, plus a list of the cooking oils you should and should not avoid.

Cold-Pressed Is Best

The truth is every oil sold in the shops is processed differently. If you really want the best of what the oil has to offer, then the oil you are about to buy must be cold-pressed. This means that the oil is cold-extracted without the chemicals, high-heat machinery and multi-step production processes.

When the oil is processed in a cold-pressed manner, it is able to retain most of its health-giving properties. Unrefined oils such as coconut, olive and almond are obtained with millstones or heavy granite slabs that squeeze the oil out with as little interference as possible. This way, the nutritional value, flavour and aroma will be maintained, which in turn makes it super healthy.

Cold-pressed oils are usually darker and less clear than refined ones and they contain various health-enhancing ingredients.

How about When Cooking?

There is also one factor you need to look into aside from the manner of oil extraction: its stability. This means when you are cooking in high heat, you don’t want your oils to oxidize or go rancid easily. This is because when the oil oxidizes, its reaction with oxygen enables it to form free radicals and harmful compounds such as carcinogens and you don’t want that inside your body.

Therefore, look into the relative degree of saturation of the fatty acids to determine the oil’s resistance to oxidation, both in low and high heat. If the oil you are looking for has saturated and monounsaturated fats, then they are resistant to heat, thus healthier too. On the other hand, oils that contain polyunsaturated fat (especially unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids), are chemically reactive and more sensitive to heat, thus should be avoided for cooking (they are the best choice raw, added to your salad or smoothie).

If you are confused by know, don't worry. Read on and find out what the healthiest cooking oils are and why it is so important to know about the different fatty acids.

Knowing the Fatty Acids in Oils

​All fats are made out of fatty acids. Their properties (and also if they are healthy or not) vary depending on what type of fatty acids they contain and in what proportion the fatty acids are present. There are three types of fatty acids:

  • Saturated fatty acids It helps the oil to be extremely stable even when exposed to heat and light, hence the best choice for cooking. Contrary to popular belief, saturated fat is not bad at all and turns out, it’s good for you. In fact, saturated fat is healthy and needed for optimal and proper function of the different parts of your body. Butter is made up of mainly saturated fatty acids and it's also a healthy choice for cooking. Just don't burn it.
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids Are quite stable when exposed to heat and work well when cooking at low to moderate temperatures. Examples of this are extra virgin coconut oil, walnut oil, sesame seed oil and peanut oil.
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids This is something you want to use to cook in moderation. Polyunsaturated fats are mainly omega-6 and omega-3 containing fats. They are unstable (especially the ones containing omega-3 fats) and can produce free radicals when exposed to heat. If you are looking for cooking oil, polyunsaturated oils are not the best way to go.

Omega-3 : Omega-6 Ratio

The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated, yet, these two still play an important role in your daily diet, particularly in the cellular function of your body. Both fatty acids are essential, which means we have to get them from our food. However, too much of omega-6 can lead to a lot of problems.

This fatty acid is in almost all processed food we consume including, cereals, bread, biscuits, crisps, canned food, frozen food and many other food items in our pantry which we consider healthy. Too much 0mega-6 is a huge problem these days, as it causes inflammation, that in turn can result in clogged arteries, heart disease and a higher risk of cancer. Inflammation is now thought to be one of the main causes of many major health problems including cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation so a diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 will increase inflammation. This is one of the main reasons why the contemporary diet is pro-inflammatory. In addition, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same conversion enzymes. This means that the quantity of omega-6 in the diet directly affects the conversion of omega-3 ALA, found in plant foods, to long-chain omega-3 EPA and DHA, which protect us from disease.

This means that a diet high in omega-6 prevents the omega-3 to be converted into the bio-active form that is so beneficial for us. It is unfortunately that instead of producing and promoting healthy fats, big agribusinesses and governments around the world encourage the consumption of oils that we've known through scientific research that they cause inflammation.

Big Pharma is very well aware of the effect of omega-6 fats on inflammation. In fact, the way over-the-counter and prescription NSAIDs (e.g.ibuprofen, Celebrex, etc.) work is by reducing the formation of inflammatory compounds derived from omega-6 fatty acids. So we eat food that causes inflammation and then take drugs to deal with it it.

The World Health Organization recommended a ratio for omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids to be under 4:1. This means for every food you eat that contains omega-3, you should not eat more than 4 times the amount of omega-6. The more you eat omega-3, the lesser omega-6, which is pro-inflammatory, will be available for the tissues to produce inflammation.

Sadly, a lot of Americans and Australians consume far too much omega-6 compared to omega-3 fatty acids, and the ratios can be 10:1 and up to 25:1. This is due to the huge increase of vegetable oil intake that are found in most packaged and processed foods.

​As a result, you may experience any but not limited to the following diseases:

  • Cardivascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cancer

Unless you eat a lot of fatty fish like salmon or sardines, or munch daily on walnuts or pumpkin seeds, your omega-3 options are rather limited. This is why so may people supplement with fish oil which nowadays is an absolute must.

Cooking oils high in omega-9 is a good way to go. Omega-9 fatty acids are considered to be "conditionally essential," which means that although your body produces them, they aren't produced in meaningful quantities. Consuming omega-9 fatty acids such as oleic acid lowers the risk of heart attacks, arteriosclerosis, and aids in cancer prevention. Olive oil and avocado oil are high in omega-9.

The Healthiest Cooking Oils

Not all fats are bad. In fact, healthy oils are a blend of the right amount of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids. At the same time, if they contain omega-3 fatty acids they are particularly healthy and if your overall diet is good, they can help you lower blood pressure and cholesterol and promote healthy skin. Here is a list of the best and healthiest cooking oils.

Coconut Oil

coconut oil for cooking

Did you know that coconut oil is more than 90% saturated which makes it very resistant to heat? At the same time, it can be stored at room temperature which can last for many years without going rancid. Raw virgin coconut oil is best used in low temperature.

On the other hand, refined coconut oil has higher smoke point of up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Although refined coconut oil may be a good option for frying, it has lesser health benefits compared to the raw version.

Health benefits: Wonder why those who live in tropical areas with abundant coconut plants live a longer life? It’s because coconut is healthy, period. It helps with weight loss, improves your heart’s health, boosts your metabolism and promotes better skin. It also contains lauric acid which can improve cholesterol and helps kill bacteria and other pathogens.

How to use: There are many ways to use coconut oil. Eat it straight from the spoon, add it to smoothies, or mix it with your favourite dishes. Coconut oil is also great in soups, stews, curries and baked goods.

Olive Oil

olive oil for cooking

A Mediterranean diet will never be complete without olive oil. It is made from ripe olives with a mild to tangy flavour. It is also good for frying with a smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit for light olive oil and 400 degrees F for extra virgin.

Health benefits: Olive oil will always be known for promoting a healthy heart. It is high in omega-9, rich in antioxidants and can also raise HDL, also known as good cholesterol, and lower the amount of oxidized LDL cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream. It is also rich in vitamin E to help your body maintain a healthy immune system.

How to use: It can be used for grilling, sautéing and roasting. However olive oil is best cold-pressed and used drizzled over bread, as a base for European dishes or even added to dressings, soups, and dips for added flavour.

Avocado Oil

Looking for the perfect frying oil? Then avocado oil might be your best friend. It has a high smoke point at 475 to 520 degrees F. It is also packed with monounsaturated fats with just the right amount of polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). Plus, its composition is almost the same with olive oil too.

Health benefits: It is full of healthy fats so you do not have to worry about weight gain. At the same time, it can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

How to use: Another oil that is high in omega-9 fatty acids, avocado oil is perfect of high heat cooking, sautéing, frying and baking. It can also add a wonderful taste on dressings and stir fries. However, avocado oil is not ideal for everyday cooking because of the PUFA it contains. Keep in mind that while avocado oil is healthy, too much of it can cause inflammation too.

Almond Oil

Just like avocado oil, almond oil is ideal for high heat cooking, with a smoke point of up to 495 degrees F.

Health benefits: It is full of good fats and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, hence beneficial for your body. It can also nourish and cleanse your digestive system, thanks to its omega-9, vitamins and mineral it contains. Almond oil has also been documented for its beauty properties and is a perfect body moisturizer.

How to use: Almond oil is the perfect addition to salads because of its natural almond flavour. It is also suitable for all sorts of cooking but if you used the processed one, it will lack the flavour and nutritional value.

Peanut Oil

This type of oil that is derived from shelled peanuts and is popular among Asian and Southern dishes. It has a nutty yet mild flavour with a smoke point of 450 degrees F.

Health benefits: Peanut oil contains heart-healthy phytosterols, that are beneficial steroid compounds similar to cholesterol and are thought to prevent some cancers.

How to use: Peanut oil is best for roasting and sautéing especially in fish and Asian dishes. It can also be used for sauces especially when you want that nutty flavour. However, use peanut oil occasionally since it has a lot of omega-6 fatty acids.

Palm Oil

Palm oil comes from the fruit of oil palms. It is mostly made of saturated and monounsaturated fats with small amounts of polyunsaturated fats. Despite its benefits, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the palm oil plantations and how it affects and destroys the rainforest. Hence, it is important to buy only sustainably harvested palm oil.

Health benefits: Palm oil is a good choice especially when you use the red palm oil or the unrefined variety. It is rich in "good fats," vitamin E, coenzyme Q10 and other nutrients. It is also rich in carotenes such as lycopene and tocotrienols.

How to use: Palm oil is ideal for cooking since it is rich in saturated fat and can withstand the heat, making it a stable cooking oil.

Sesame Seed Oil

If you love Asian food particularly Chinese and Korean, then you’re probably familiar with sesame seed oil. It is made of sesame seeds and has nutty flavour.

Health benefits: Raw sesame oil is rich in cholesterol-busting polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. It is also rich in vitamins E and B and antioxidants, making it a great choice to promote healthy skin.

How to use: Light sesame oil is ideal for stir frying while the dark sesame oil is best for dressings and sauces

Cooking Oils to Avoid

There is a reason why these oils MUST be avoided. Unhealthy oils are packed with omega-6 fatty acids and can force the body to raise blood LDL cholesterol that can lead to vascular diseases. Aside from this, these types of oils are often made from genetically modified (GMO) crops or cultivated using many pesticides and chemicals.

Do not fall for false advertisements and start protecting your health. Avoid all the oils that are marketed as "light" as they have been bleached and are highly processed. Here is a list of the different types of cooking oils you think are healthy – but are not.

Canola Oil

Unfortunately, canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil) is one of the "must avoid" list when it comes to cooking oil. To create canola oil, the crude oil that has been heat extracted from rape seeds will be removed, refined, bleached and deodorized. This makes the canola oil rancid, thereby resulting to industrial carcinogenic bleachers and deodorizers.

But canola oil contains omega-3, right? Yes, but canola oil is fragile and can be easily oxidized. After you have cooked with it, most of the omega-3 has been destroyed through heating. So even if canola oil has some omega-3 (about 9%), most oils that contain it are not ideal for cooking because they are sensitive to oxidation when heated.

Soybean Oil

This type of oil also hides under the "vegetable oil" label. Soybean oil is 54% omega-6 fatty acids which can lead to inflammation and other health issues. Also, 94% of soy is GMO – definitely a big no-no. In general, soy must be avoided or at least reduced.

It is high in phytic acid and trypsin inhibitors, thereby prevents your body’s absorption of vitamins, minerals and proteins. At the same time, soybean oil also contains phytoestrogens which can mimic your estrogen and mess up your normal hormonal function.

Sunflower Oil

Did you know that sunflower is rich in vitamin E while most of its fats are unsaturated? Apparently, sunflower oil in packaged foods is often partially hydrogenated, which means that it contains unhealthy trans-fats. At the same time, it is high in omega-6 fatty acids which we now know can lead to obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart diseases. Sunflower oil can be used for cooking at high temperature.

Safflower Oil

Safflower oil has a high smoke point with low saturated fat level. However, this type of oil can form into dangerous free radicals especially when exposed to heat or oxygen. At the same time, polyunsaturated safflower oil is also full of linoleic acid – also known as omega-6 fatty acids.

Corn Oil

Corn is not a vegetable, it’s actually a grain. Still, it does not mean that corn oil is healthy. Although it is made from the germ of the corn kernel, it is packed with polyunsaturated omega-6 (58% is too high!). Plus, it only has a medium-high smoke point which is not ideal for cooking. Further, corn is one of the most genetically modified crops – and you know the effect if it’s GMO.

Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed oil is advertised as "healthy cooking oil." Did you know that this type of oil contains 70% omega-6 fatty acid, which is really high? Grapeseed oil is industrially processed oil that is made from grapes seeds. This means hexane and other toxic and carcinogenic solvents are used to extract and clean the oil.

At the same time, it is high in polyunsaturated fat which is prone to oxidation that can create free radicals. What if it’s cold pressed? Still, the results are the same. Grapeseed oil is still high in PUFAs which means that once it is exposed to heat, it will still be oxidized.

Understanding the Concept of "Smoke Points"

Did you know that cooking oils can only be heated to a certain maximum temperature? Otherwise, too much heat can damage the oil’s composition and make it rancid. And that is what the concept of smoke point is all about.

An oil smoke point refers to the stage where it starts to smoke at high heat. It is the temperature which the oil breaks down, starts to smoke and can have a foul odor or taste. Keep in mind that oils are not created equally. They must be used in a certain way to enjoy the health benefits they can give without ruining its taste.

If you cooked the oil at a higher heat than its recommended smoke point, it will oxidize, its composition will be affected which can lead to the formation of carcinogens and other unhealthy compounds. For instance, you know that olive oil is good for the heart. Unfortunately, excessive heating can oxidize olive oil which can contribute to heart disease and cancers.

Therefore, take it easy on fire. There is no doubt, trying to find the healthiest cooking oil can be a daunting task. The following is a summary table that will help you select cooking oil that is appropriate for your cooking needs and is a healthy choice too. It is important to remember that in general, raw or cold-pressed oils are easily damaged by heat.

cooking oils chart

Source: http://jonbarron.org/diet-and-nutrition/healthiest-cooking-oil-chart-smoke-points#.U6GkGpWKBEY

Healthy oils will always be helpful in maintaining a healthy body. However, the key here is moderation. Choose your oil carefully and do not use it liberally. And make it a point to check the smoke point to determine the amount of heat you will use when you cook your food.

Healthy oils are NOT a miracle cure but they can definitely promote a better mind and body. Still, nothing beats having a healthy, balanced diet, exercising regularly and drinking water everyday. Just do not forget to incorporate the healthy oils in your daily routine.

Since they are used in our kitchens every day, unhealthy oils can cause inflammation and in time affect our health in many negative ways. What to toss and what to keep? Have you made your choice?

Barbara Komorek

Barbara is the founder and owner of www.leanhealthyandwise.com. She is a former research scientist with a serious passion for health. She enjoys writing about nutrition, wellness and lifestyle and empowering people to take control of their health.