Fat can add great flavor to food. But there’s a way you can get that flavor while also making healthy choices. The availability of a wide variety of healthy cooking oils makes it possible to make a nutritious meal without sacrificing flavor.
The type of fat you cook with affects your health. Below, find some guidance on which cooking oils are healthier and which you should avoid.
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Shopping for Healthy Cooking Oils
When searching for the right cooking oil, you should choose a nutrient-dense cooking oil appropriate for the desired cooking method. Here are some things to pay attention to when you’re trying to decide which oils to stock in your pantry.
- Types of fat: Most of the healthiest cooking oils contain unsaturated fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) or omega-3 fatty acids. Consumed in moderation, these oils can lower your low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol and your risk of heart disease. The worst cooking oils usually include lots of saturated or trans fats, which can raise LDL cholesterol. When consumed in excess, these fats can cause poor heart health and an increased risk of stroke. Saturated fats are usually found solid in form, such as butter or shortening.
- Smoke point: A smoke point refers to the temperature at which oil begins to smoke and break down. A cooking oil’s smoke point not only affects its flavor but also your health. When oil starts smoking, it produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. You should use oils with low smoke points for low-heat cooking, or you can drizzle them on food or use them in salad dressings for flavor. You can use oils with high smoke points for high-heat cooking and stir-frying.
- Cooking oil blends: Some common oils, like vegetable oils, are actually a blend of several cooking oils. Although oil blends are often refined and therefore less nutritious, they are still healthier than fats like butter and lard. The vegetable oil blend you purchase at the supermarket likely derives from a combination of rapeseed, soybean, corn, sunflower, and/or safflower oils. On their own, each of these oils is a healthy option when preparing food, according to the American Heart Association.
The American Heart Association recommends choosing oils with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. You also should avoid partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats.
Healthy Cooking Oils
The following cooking oils are a healthier option than solid fats like butter, lard, and stick margarine, as well as tropical oils. However, it’s important to note that you should use even healthy cooking oils in moderation.
There’s a reason olive oil is a staple in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. It’s versatile, affordable, and contains both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both of those link to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
Olive oil is great for cooking foods at low to medium heat. You also can use it raw in salad dressings or drizzled on pasta or bread. Because of its low smoke point, you shouldn’t use olive oil to cook at high heat.
When shopping for olive oil, make sure to look for the extra-virgin variety. That means it’s less refined and of higher quality. Unrefined olive oils — extra-virgin or virgin — are the most flavorful and have a lower smoke point. Refined olive oils — regular or light olive oil — are less flavorful and have a higher smoke point, making them easier to use in cooking.
Avocado oil is also a top contender when it comes to healthy oils. It’s unrefined, neutral in flavor, and has a high smoke point. It’s a great source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. It also contains vitamin E, which supports heart, skin, immune system, and eye health.
You can use avocado oil in similar ways to olive oil, including baking, sauteing, and drizzling on salads. However, avocado oil is one of the more expensive healthy oils.
Canola oil comes from the rapeseed plant and contains heart-healthy fats.
Of all the vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats and a higher smoke point. It is also often highly processed — so it doesn’t contain quite as many nutrients as extra-virgin olive oil, for example.
Sesame oil is a staple in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and holds up well at higher smoke points. It does, however, have a strong, nutty flavor, so it’s not the best choice if you’re looking for a neutral-tasting cooking oil. Its flavor does work well if you are stir-frying or sauteing foods such as potstickers or Asian dumplings.
Other healthy cooking oils
Some lesser-known healthy cooking oils include:
- Walnut oil: Low smoke point (best with no heat), nutty flavor.
- Flaxseed oil: Low smoke point (best with no heat), strong flavor.
- Corn oil: High smoke point, neutral flavor.
- Sunflower oil: High smoke point, neutral flavor.
- Soybean oil: High smoke point, mild flavor.
- Safflower oil: High smoke point, neutral flavor.
- Peanut oil: High smoke point, nutty flavor.
- Grapeseed oil: Moderate smoke point, neutral flavor.
- Rice bran oil: High smoke point, nutty flavor.
- Hazelnut oil: Moderate smoke point, nutty flavor.
The Worst Cooking Oils for Your Health
- Coconut oil: Given its many supposed health benefits, it may come as a surprise to see coconut oil on a list of unhealthy cooking oils. But coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which isn’t good for your heart. It is important to note that the saturated fats found in coconuts are plant-based, which likely poses fewer health risks than the animal-based saturated fats found in butter or lard. So, there’s no need to throw it out: just use it in moderation and balance its use with other unsaturated fat sources.
- Palm oils: Palm oil and palm kernel oil are extremely high in saturated fat. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels and is especially risky for people with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
- Cottonseed oil: Cottonseed oil is rich in polyunsaturated fat, which can lower harmful LDL cholesterol. But it’s also high in saturated fat. It also undergoes an extensive refining process in order to become supermarket-ready, which strips it of most of its essential nutrients.
- Partially hydrogenated oil: Avoid oil blends that list partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients. In fact, you might want to steer clear of all products that contain this oil. According to the Food and Drug Administration, partially hydrogenated oils are a major source of artificial trans fats in processed foods. It extends the shelf life of baked goods, snacks, and margarine. Look out for it on nutrition labels the next time you’re at the store.
If you’re looking for more tips on healthy cooking, nutrition, and more, UPMC Nutrition Services can help. We provide nutrition information and counseling, medical nutrition therapy, and more. To find a nutrition expert near you, visit our website. Or, if you have a specific nutrition-related question, you can email our “Ask a Dietitian” service at AskADietitian@upmc.edu.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About UPMC Nutrition Services
Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.