No matter what style of food you cook you’re bound to have a bottle of cooking oil lurking in the cupboard. Whether it’s used to roast a tray of vegetables or cook main courses, cooking oil is a kitchen staple.
The reason there are so many different types of oils is that they can be extracted from a wide range of seeds, nuts, legumes, plant fruits, and grains.
Really, though, with about a thousand different types of cooking oils seemingly deemed okay now, it’s tricky to tell which are actually healthy.
In this article, we will discuss what cooking oils are and how they are made. We’ll also list important tips you should consider when choosing a cooking oil and give you 13 of the healthiest cooking oils in the game so you can keep your pantry as healthy and your cooking adventures as catastrophe-free as possible.
How Oils Are Made?
Oils are extracted from their sources basically using two types of processes – naturally (non-refined oils) or chemically (refined oils).
Naturally processes involve mechanically pressing the oil out of its source. Some oils, usually nut oils, are expeller pressed. They require a lot of force and the friction from this force can cause the oil to reach high temperatures. More heat-sensitive oils are cold-pressed, meaning the temperature is highly controlled and oil temperatures are kept below 120F / 49C.
Unfortunately, not all oils can be efficiently produced using natural processes, which is why many oils are made through a chemical process called refining. It involves grinding the oil source and then using chemicals to separate the oil from the seed’s pulp. When oils are refined, they also go through a cleaning process that usually involves bleaching and deodorizing the oil.
Refining is an incredibly common oil processing technique for two main reasons:
To Increase Shelf-Life
Refined oils can be stored at room temperature and can last a long time. For this reason, they’re often cheaper and used for mass-market cooking.
To Increase Versatility
Refining oils usually result in a milder tasting oil and one with a higher smoke point, which makes them more suitable for a variety of cooking needs. These sound like great benefits but refining oils can strip them of their natural nutrients and can introduce chemicals into the oil.
Does it mean you should toss all of these oils from your pantry? There are plenty of health advocates who say yes, but we’ll leave that personal decision to you.
These oils are definitely less expensive than their non-refined counterparts, which is why they’re the oil of choice in many kitchens.
7 Important Points to Consider When Buying Cooking Oils
1. Variety Might Not Be Best
Although having lots of different oils in the kitchen might seem like a good idea, it can also backfire. Over time, heat and light can impact oils’ taste and quality. It’s best to use one or two types of oil. Store them in a cool, dark place and replace any that any smell bitter or “off.” Store grapeseed and walnut oils in the refrigerator because they quickly become rancid. The cloudiness in refrigerated oils will clear once they return to room temperature.
2. Know The Smoke Point
The smoke point correlates with the amount of free fatty acid in an oil. It varies widely depending on origin and refinement. The smoke point of an oil does tend to increase as free fatty acid content decreases and degree of refinement increases.
Heating the oil produces free fatty acid and as heating time increases, more free fatty acids are produced, thereby decreasing smoke point. It is one reason not to use the same oil to deep fry more than twice. Free fatty acids equal oxidation. Oxidation is like eating rusted nails.
3. Learn About the Different Types of Fats
“Bad” Fats or Saturated Fats
Bottom line is, the fewer the better. Less than 7% of your daily fat calories should come from saturated fats. Cut back on saturated fats by avoiding dairy items such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. They are often labeled as “whole.” Limit the amounts of red meat and other animal proteins you eat. You can do this by cutting back how often you eat them, how much of them you eat at a meal or both.
Eliminate all trans fats from your diet by staying away from foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Always read the ingredient list! Shortening and stick margarine contain trans fat.
“Good” Fats or Monounsaturated Fats
Eat plenty of olives, avocados and nuts. Use olive oil for cooking and canola oil for baking.
You probably get enough omega-6 in your diet, so focus on having more foods packed with omega-3 such as nuts.
What Are the Best Oils for Cooking?
1. Olive Oil
Nutrition and cooking experts agree that one of the most versatile and healthy oils to cook with and eat is olive oil, as long as it’s an extra virgin. You want an oil that is not refined and overly processed. An “extra virgin” label means that the olive oil is not refined, and therefore of high quality.
Extra virgin olive oil contains a large number of monounsaturated fats and some polyunsaturated fatty acids. Several studies have linked it to better heart health. Olive oil has a relatively lower smoke point compared to other oils, so it’s best for low and medium-heat cooking (1).
It’s also one of the healthiest oils to use when baking and as a salad dressing. Some people like to put it into their lattes too. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that in the United States, sometimes olive oil that’s labeled “extra virgin” is not what it claims to be (2). In 2015, the National Consumers League tested 11 different olive oils and found that six of them failed to meet the standards that classify them as an extra virgin (3). Other extra virgin olive oil brands that did pass the test include California Olive Ranch, Colavita and Lucini.
2. Coconut Oil
When it comes to high heat cooking, coconut oil is your best bet! More than 90% of its fatty acids are saturated, which makes it heat resistant. This oil is semi-solid at room temperature and it can last for months and years without going rancid.
It also has several powerful health benefits. Its high Lauric acid content can help improve cholesterol levels and kill bacteria and other pathogens (4, 5, 6). Its fats can also increase metabolism slightly and increase feelings of fullness.
Always buy virgin coconut oil. It’s organic and it tastes really good.
3. Canola Oil
Canola oil is derived from rapeseed, a flowering plant, and contains a good amount of monounsaturated fats and a decent amount of polyunsaturated fats. Of all vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats. It has a high smoke point, which means it can be helpful for high-heat cooking. That being said, in the United States, canola oil tends to be highly processed, which means fewer nutrients overall. “Cold-pressed” or unprocessed canola oil is available, but it can be difficult to find.
Butter was also demonized in the past due to its saturated fat content, but there really is no reason to fear real butter. It’s the processed margarine that is unhealthy (10).
Real butter is good for you because it is nutritious. It contains high amounts of Vitamins A, E, and K2. It also contains the fatty acids Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and Butyrate, both of which have powerful health benefits.
Fatty Acid Breakdown:
However, regular butter does contain tiny amounts of sugars and proteins, which makes it easy to burn during high heat cooking like frying. If you want to avoid this, you can clarify your own butter. You’ll remove the lactose and proteins, creating a pure butterfat.
Always choose butter from grass-fed cows. This butter contains more Vitamin K2, CLA, and other nutrients, compared to butter from grain-fed cows.
5. Avocado Oil
Avocado oil is a great choice. It’s unrefined like extra virgin olive oil, but it has a higher smoking point, which means it can be used to cook at higher heat and is great for stir-frying. It doesn’t have much flavor, which makes it a good option for cooking.
Avocado oil contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. In fact, it has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents among cooking oils as well as vitamin E. One downside is that it tends to be more expensive.
6. Palm Oil
Palm oil is derived from the fruit of oil palms. It consists mostly of saturated and monounsaturated fats, with small amounts of polyunsaturated. This makes palm oil a good choice for cooking.
Red palm oil, which is the unrefined variety, is the best. It is also rich in Vitamins E, Coenzyme Q10, and other nutrients.
However, some concerns have been raised about the sustainability of harvesting palm oil, apparently growing these trees means less environment available for Orangutans, which are an endangered species.
7. Sunflower Oil
This oil is high in vitamin E. One tablespoon contains nearly 30% of a person’s daily recommended intake of the nutrient. It has a high smoke point and doesn’t have a strong flavor, which means it won’t overwhelm a dish.
However, sunflower oil contains a lot of omega-6 fatty acids. The body needs them, but omega-6s are thought to be pro-inflammatory, while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Consuming too many omega-6s without balancing with omega 3s, could lead to excess inflammation in the body, so moderation is key.
8. Peanut Oil
Nut oils, like peanuts, can be fun to experiment within the kitchen, especially since there are so many different types. Peanut oil has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents among cooking oils. It’s usually flavorful with a nutty taste and smell and cooks well at high heat.
9. Sesame Oil
This oil is often used for its potent flavor; a little goes a long way. It contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, though it’s not especially high in other nutrients. It has a higher smoke point and can be used for high-heat recipes.
10. Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil is a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of three omega-3 fatty acids. You need dietary omega-3s since your body cannot make them on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and thus may help lower the risk of cancer.
Flaxseed oil may also help reduce symptoms of arthritis, but avoid it if you’re on a blood thinner since flaxseed oil may increase bleeding. While flaxseed oil is not recommended for heating, it is still perfect for cold dishes like salads.
11. Grapeseed Oil
Grapeseed oil is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point, which makes it a healthy choice for all kinds of cooking and grilling. Its nutty but mild flavor also works well in salad dressings or drizzled over roasted veggies.
12. Algae Oil
Algae oil contains lots of antioxidants and has a high smoke point. Since it also has a neutral flavor, you can use it in just about any kind of cooking. Just note that algae oil is relatively new to the market, so it tends to be a bit more expensive than other neutral oils.
13. Corn Oil
With over half of its fat coming in the form of polyunsaturated fats, corn oil is another solid choice for cooking, as it has a smoke point of 450 F. Its medium flavor will also suit salad dressings as well as breads and cakes that call for liquid oil such as waffles.
Look After Your Cooking Oils
All oils will deteriorate over time with exposure to light, heat, and air. The good news is there are lots of ways you can prevent and minimize damage to your oil.
- Avoid Stock-Piling. Keep an eye on the ‘use by’ date and ideally use within 12 months.
- Use the Right Oil for Higher Heat Cooking. Olive, canola and rice bran oils are all good choices.
- Avoid Overheating Oil When Cooking. When the oil is overheated it produces unwanted chemicals. An oil’s smoke point is the point at which the oil starts burning and smoking, which signals that damage to the oil has started.
- Do Not Reuse Heated Oils. As the oil darkens it develops off-flavors and becomes rancid.
Storage of Cooking Oils
Good oils are not cheap, so let’s close on how you can ensure your oils last as long as possible.
Light, heat, and moisture all contribute to a shorter shelf-life of any cooking oil, so be sure to store them in a dark, cool place such as a cupboard or pantry. Store all nut oils in the fridge to prolong freshness.
Get smart about oils, what to use and what to stay away from. The rule of thumb is to keep the cooking temperature below the smoke point. Also, you want to choose good healthy oils instead of products like vegetable shortenings. Learn your oils and cook your heart out!