The 10 Healthiest Cooking Oils, and How to Use Them

The 10 Healthiest Cooking Oils, and How to Use Them

Deciding on the healthiest cooking oil to use in your dish isn’t always quite as simple as it seems, because you’ve actually got a good number of options. Despite the ubiquity of ever-popular olive oil, there are plenty of other nutrient-rich cooking oils that deserve a spot in your pantry.

While most cooking oils have pretty similar nutritional profiles in terms of calorie and total fat content, they do differ considerably when it comes to flavor, odor, and cooking properties. So the best healthy cooking oil for the job really depends on what it is you’re making. Whether you’re baking, frying, or whisking up a vinaigrette, there’s a cooking oil that has exactly what you need. Read on for more on what it means for an oil to be considered healthy, how to choose an oil for whatever you’re making, and a list of our favorites.

Here’s what we mean by “healthy cooking oils.”

Oils are an important part of a healthy diet because they are a key source of essential fatty acids and vitamin E, according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines. (Not to mention they make food taste delicious and help keep you fuller longer.) Oils are also rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, the kinds people mean when they say “healthy fats,” and the kind we’re advised to eat more of (in place of saturated fat). As SELF has reported, these unsaturated fats are good for cholesterol and blood pressure, and can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Like all dietary fats, oils also contain at least a little saturated fat (“unhealthy fats”), which some research (but not all) shows has negative effects on cholesterol and heart health in large amounts, as SELF has reported. (BTW: Unhealthy fats also include human-made trans fats, but they’ve been banned in the U.S. because of their link to heart disease.)

Oils can vary a lot in the makeup of their fat content, and basically, the more poly- and monounsaturated fats an oil has, the more healthy it’s considered, and the more saturated fats it has, the less healthy it’s considered, Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant director of performance nutrition for UC Berkeley Athletics, tells SELF.

At the same time, blanket-labeling foods “healthy” or “unhealthy” is always a little tricky. Nutrition is a complex science, healthy choices look different for everyone, and all foods can have their place in a diverse and balanced diet. Plus, other factors like cost and availability are also important to consider here, Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D., of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF. For instance, “canola and vegetable oil, while not necessarily the standouts in the nutrition category, are widely available and relatively affordable compared to the other oils,” Harbstreet explains. Despite having a slightly less impressive fat makeup than, say, olive oil, canola and vegetable oils are still quite rich in unsaturated fats and very low in saturated fat.

Here’s how to choose the healthiest cooking oil based on what you’re making.

The single most important factor when choosing which healthy cooking oil to use is its smoke point. When an oil gets so hot it starts smoking, it starts to taste burnt or bitter. What’s more, “Heating an oil past its unique smoke point can damage or degrade the molecular structure of fatty acids and produce potentially harmful free radicals,” Harbstreet says. In general, the more refined an oil is from its natural state (or “virgin”) an oil is, the higher its smoke point is, and the hotter it can get without degrading. Meanwhile, more virgin or unrefined oils may have more flavor, but they’re more volatile and less able to handle heat.

Here’s the smoke point you want if you’re…

Frying: Opt for an oil with a neutral flavor and a high smoke point, which is typically one above 375 degrees F, because that’s the temperature you usually fry at. Oils with high smoke points include: canola oil, refined olive oil, avocado oil, vegetable oil, safflower oil, and peanut oil.

Baking: Go for a neutral-tasting oil, like canola oil or vegetable oil—something that won’t have too much of an impact on the flavors you’re working with. (On the other hand, some baking recipes are centered around highlighting the flavor of a delicious oil, like olive oil cakes. It all depends on what you’re looking for.)

Sautéing and searing: Choose a more flavorful oil with a lower smoke point. Good options include: canola oil, extra-virgin olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil.

Dressing: Here, the most flavorful stuff is always best, and the smoke point doesn’t matter—this is the time to reach for the fanciest extra-virgin olive oil you have.

With that in mind, here is a closer look at commonly used healthy cooking oils, plus suggestions for making the most out of their unique qualities.

1. Canola oil

Canola oil sometimes gets a bad rap because it is associated with fried food (deep-fried Oreos, anyone?), but that’s not exactly justified, Elizabeth Ann Shaw, M.S., RDN, CPT, adjunct professor of nutrition at Bastyr University, tells SELF. Canola oil’s high smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit and neutral flavor indeed makes it an excellent vehicle for frying, but it can also be used for roasting, frying, and baking. Because it has a neutral taste that doesn’t do much for your food in the flavor department, cooks don’t usually recommend using it for sautéing.

Best for: Frying, roasting, and baking

Not recommended for: Sautéing and salad dressings

2. Extra-virgin olive oil

Lisa Sasson, M.S., R.D., clinical professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU Steinhardt, is obsessed with extra-virgin olive oil—like a lot of us. Cold-pressed and positively packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, a quality bottle can truly take you on a taste bud adventure. There’s just one catch with extra-virgin (or “first press”) olive oil versus regular olive oil: It has a relatively low smoke point (325 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit). Cooking a good EVOO at high temperatures can mess with both its flavor and nutrition, so save your fancy bottle for drizzling and finishing dishes. (Check out these tips on choosing the best olive oil.)

Best for: Sautéing and drizzling

Not recommended for: Frying or roasting above 375 degrees Fahrenheit

3. Pure olive oil

If you love frying things in olive oil (which, like, who doesn’t?) you’ll want to use the more refined stuff instead of EVOO—which is labeled pure olive oil, refined olive oil, or light olive oil. It has a smoke point of 465 degrees Fahrenheit, which stands up well to that heat. Unfortunately, some of its flavor has been filtered out, but that’s the trade-off for being able to use it for heavy-duty cooking.

Best for: Frying

Not recommended for: Salad dressings

4. Avocado oil

According to Sasson, “Avocado oil is the new kid on the block” for many home cooks in the U.S. It is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats (almost as much as olive oil) and has a high smoke point (375 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit) and neutral flavor. It’s a bit more expensive than those more processed oils like canola and vegetable, but if you want that high smoke point and don’t mind the splurge, then this is a great alternative.

Best for: Frying

Not recommended for: Budget cooking

5. Vegetable oil

Vegetable oil is kind of a sister to canola oil. (In fact, it’s often made from a blend of various plant-derived oils, like soybean and canola.) It’s also versatile, chemically processed, neutrally flavored, affordable, and has a similarly high smoke point (400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit). Again, these characteristics make it good for high-heat cooking.

Best for: Frying, roasting, and baking

Not recommended for: Sautéing and salad dressings

6. Safflower oil

Safflower oil is a less popular but all-around awesome oil. It’s very high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fat, and has a neutral flavor and high smoke point. In fact, at 510 degrees Fahrenheit, it has the highest smoke point of all the oils listed. Safflower oil is sold both chemically processed and cold-pressed like olive oil, and either version you opt for will have that same high smoke point.

Best for: Frying and sautéing

Not recommended for: Salad dressings

7. Peanut oil

Peanut oil is one of the more flavorful oils out there, with a nice nutty scent and taste. Sasson recommends adding it to peanut butter cookies, or using it in stir-fries. It also has a high smoke point (450 degrees Fahrenheit), so you can even use it to fry foods like tempura. Much like vegetable and canola oil, it’s also chemically processed and low in saturated fat.

Best for: Frying and sautéing

Not recommended for: Foods that shouldn’t taste like peanut

8. Sesame oil

Another highly flavorful oil, a little sesame oil can go a long way, says Sasson. “Sesame oil adds so much to a dish, so you don’t need [to use] a lot,” she explains. It’s commonly called for in Chinese and Japanese cooking. And it’s a great alternative to peanut oil if you have a peanut allergy (or just aren’t fond of that peanut flavor). And like extra-virgin olive oil, it’s cold-pressed rather than chemically processed. So while it may not have the highest smoke point ever (350 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s a good flavorful and unrefined option if that’s what you’re looking for.

Best for: Sautéing

Not recommended for: Foods that shouldn’t taste like sesame

9. Flaxseed oil

This oil has a couple interesting characteristics: For one, it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, so you may want to look into using it more often if you don’t eat a lot of omega-3 rich foods like fish, says Sasson. That said, this one is not for cooking because it’s incredibly sensitive to heat and oxidizes quickly, she notes. Instead, use it in salad dressings and drizzle it over dips like hummus. Buy small bottles so you can use it up quickly, and be extra sure to store it in a cool, dark place.

Best for: Drizzling and salad dressings

Not recommended for: Cooking

10. Coconut oil

Some people think coconut oil is the healthiest oil ever, but it may not quite be the miracle cream it’s advertised as. (Well, actually, as a literal cream, a lot of people consider it kind of a miracle worker for skin and hair.) Despite its health halo and popularity, it is lower in healthy unsaturated fats than all the other oils on this list, and can be both more expensive and harder to find, Harbstreet says. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines consider coconut oil (along with palm/palm kernel oil) to be a solid fat (like butter) nutritionally speaking, because it is so high in saturated fat and solid (or semisolid) at room temperature.

Along with debate over how good or bad saturated fat is for us, though, there are conflicting views on the relative nutritional value of coconut oil in comparison with other solid fats like butter or lard. Some research suggests it has less detrimental effects on cholesterol, and would be a good replacement for those things. In any case, coconut oil can absolutely be part of a healthy diet. But given that the research is unclear, you’re probably better off relying more often on other oils with demonstrated health benefits, Ansari says.

For instance, that creamy semisolid quality makes coconut oil a great vegan butter alternative for baked goods. And in some baked goods, like a coconut cake, for instance, that coconut flavor can be lovely. If you do want to use coconut oil for methods like sautéing or roasting, know that it has a relatively low smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Best for: Baking

Not recommended for: Frying

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