There’s no doubt that fat adds great flavor to food. But the type of fat you cook with affects your health. Fortunately, thanks to the availability of a wide variety of healthy cooking oils, you can make a nutritious meal without sacrificing flavor.
To help you choose the best cooking oil for your health, we’ve broken down the options into a list of healthy cooking oils and a list of cooking oils to avoid. But first, read up on general things to look for when shopping for cooking oil.
What to Look for and Avoid When Choosing a Cooking Oil
One way to ensure a flavorful dish while staying mindful of your health is by choosing 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 and which to avoid:
Types of Fat: Most of the healthiest cooking oils contain unsaturated fats or omega-3 fatty acids. Consumed in moderation, these oils can lower your cholesterol and your risk of heart disease. The worst cooking oils, however, usually include lots of saturated or trans fats; when consumed in excess, these fats are linked with poor heart health and an increased risk of stroke.
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 impacts your health. When oil starts smoking, it produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. Oils with low smoke points should be used for low-heat cooking or should not be heated at all. Oils with high smoke points can be used 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 a healthier option than fats like butter and lard. The vegetable oil blend you purchase at the supermarket is likely derived 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.
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Healthy Cooking Oils
- Olive Oil: 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 which are linked with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Olive oil is great for cooking foods at low to medium heat, and can also be used 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, which means it’s less refined and higher quality.
- Avocado Oil: 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 and contains vitamin E, which supports heart, skin, immune system, and eye health. Avocado oil is one of the more expensive healthy oils.
- Canola Oil: Canola oil comes from the rapeseed plant and contains heart-healthy fats. Of all the vegetable oils, it tends to have the least amount of saturated fats and a higher smoke point. It also tends to be highly processed, however, so it doesn’t contain quite as many nutrients as extra-virgin olive oil, for example.
- Sesame Oil: Sesame oil is a staple in Asian 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.
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
Peanut Oil: High smoke point, nutty flavor
Grapeseed Oil: Moderate smoke point, neutral 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. There’s no need to toss it out quite yet, though — just use it in moderation, especially if you’re cooking at a high temperature.
- Palm Oils: Palm oil and palm kernel oil are extremely high in saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol levels and is especially risky for people with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
- Cottonseed Oil: Cottonseed oil, while rich in polyunsaturated fat (which can lower harmful LDL cholesterol), is also high in saturated fat. It also undergoes an extensive refining process in order to be 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 is used to extend the shelf life of baked goods, snacks, and margarine, so look out for it on nutrition labels the next time you’re at the store.
For more advice on healthy cooking, visit Nutrition Services at UPMC or call 412-647-8762 to make an appointment. You can also ask a UPMC dietitian your nutrition question directly by emailing AskADietitian@upmc.edu.
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