When looking for healthy oils to cook with, there’s a lot of conflicting information around. Which fats are healthy and which are not? Which oils are healthiest, and what’s the difference between them all? We hope this list will shed some light on the subject, explain why some oils should be avoided, and help you choose the best oil that’s right for the kind of cooking you want to do.
Healthy Oils and Fats for Cooking
Here’s a list of the healthiest oils for frying, sautéing, cooking, and baking that won’t harm your cholesterol levels and might even improve your health.
Avocado oil is the oil from pressed avocados—it’s as simple as that. The avocado is well known as one of the healthiest natural fats you can eat, and its oil holds some of those same benefits. High in monounsaturated fats, avocado oil may help sharpen eyesight due to its high level of lutein, has anti-inflammatory properties, and fends off dangerous free radicals before they can harm the body. The fatty acids in avocado oil may even help support cardiovascular health by promoting “good” HDL cholesterol. The oleic acid content, which makes up 70% of avocado oil, has also been linked to healthy blood pressure as well.
As far as eating or cooking with it, avocado oil can make a great salad dressing, marinade, stir-fry oil, etc. Most avocado oils on the market have the impurities removed, which provides for a higher smoke point (the temperature at which fats or oils start to visibly smoke), and thus allows you to cook at a higher heat. Extra virgin avocado oils are more appropriate as salad dressings and marinades.
The star among healthy cooking oils, olive oil is the oil that comes from pressed olives, and it has been shown to increase antioxidants and lower cholesterol levels in people who use it regularly. While it’s technically a vegetable oil, it’s cold-pressed (not heated), and its polyunsaturated fatty acid content is around 30% lower than that of other vegetable oils, making it a much healthier choice. With a high smoke point for the purer extra virgin olive oil, it’s often used in heart-healthy cooking recipes, as a drizzle, or as a dip.
Virgin coconut oil is cold-pressed from the white flesh insides of the coconut and then separated out from the coconut milk. Coconut oil can help increase healthful HDL cholesterol and encourage weight loss because it’s a natural appetite suppressant full of healthy fats. The MCTs, or medium-chain triglycerides, in coconut oil, take longer for the body to break down, so you don’t get hungry again too quickly. There is ongoing research into coconut oil’s use in improving the memory and brain functioning of Alzheimer’s patients, and it’s even used successfully to beautify skin and cleanse the face. Coconut milk makes a great replacement for cow’s milk, while coconut oil can be used for cooking, sautéing, and baking.
Not the same thing as coconut oil, coconut butter is made of puréed coconut flesh, giving it a similar texture to nut butter. It can be used to make egg-free mayonnaise, as a substitute for coffee creamer, and in a skillet for frying foods.
MCT oil can come from many different sources, including coconuts, and is made up of the medium-chain triglyceride fatty acids valuable in such products as coconut oil. With very little flavor, you can add MCT oil to coffee or use it as a base for dips and salad dressing to get the benefits it provides while hardly changing your diet at all.
Red Palm Oil
Made from the fleshy part of the palm fruit, red palm oil is full of vitamins E and K, and is a good source of alpha- and beta-carotene, which is used for making vitamin A. Red palm oil can be used for cooking vegetables or meats via frying, grilling, sautéing, or baking. However, red palm oil is not environmentally sustainable and has destroyed forests and peatland and caused habitat loss for wildlife, so a more environmentally friendly cooking oil might be a better option.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter made when water is removed from butter, and the remaining substance is filtered down to remove any leftover milk solids. Clarified of butter’s milk solids, ghee is a clearer kind of butter that is still stable at room temperature. Ghee contains short-chain saturated fats that can help reduce inflammation and improve gut health. It’s also good for increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Anti-inflammatory and possibly anti-cancer, ghee is great for making baked goods like brownies and healthily buttering your veggies, and, of course, it makes an excellent and sensible popcorn topping.
Often sold as cod liver oil, fish oil is beneficial to your cholesterol levels, high in omega-3 fatty acids, and doesn’t bring an overpowering fishy flavor that would stop you from using it in cooking, or sneaking it into a smoothie just for its nutritional benefits.
Duck fat is a rendered and filtered form of the natural fat of ducks. Full of healthy monounsaturated fats, duck fat also contains linoleic acid, useful for calcium absorption in the body and supportive of your kidney functions. Duck fat is great for frying, for making a creamy sauté, for pan-searing meats, or for melting down with other flavors and using as a rich salad dressing.
Lard (Pig Fat)
Made from pig fat and removed of all traces of bone or protein, lard is high in oleic acid, which helps lower your bad cholesterol and potentially decreases your risk of some cancers. (Oleic acid is also the main component of avocado and olive oil, in case you don’t eat animal products but still want this benefit.) With a good helping of vitamin D, lard can help regulate hormones and boost your immune system, and provides a depth of flavor when used in cooking.
Tallow (Beef/Mutton Fat)
Full of vitamins A, D, E, and K, tallow is the rendered fat from cows (beef) or sheep (mutton); unrendered tallow is called suet. With healthy saturated fats like linoleic acid, it can help reduce your body fat and may contain anti-cancer advantages. Since it adds meat flavor when used in cooking, it does especially well for cooking burgers, frying bacon and eggs, or for making cookout-style side dishes like veggie fritters.
Made from ground almonds, you could make almond butter yourself with a decent food processor, and use it to make desserts like brownies or enrich the taste and nutrient density of smoothies.
Extracted from cocoa beans and tasting lightly of chocolate, cacao butter can be used as a butter replacement, and like almond butter goes particularly well in sweet dishes like blondies (you could even bring almond and cacao butter together to get the best of both).
Macadamia Nut Oil
Made by pressing the whites of macadamia nuts, macadamia nut oil is over 80% full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats (which is more than even olive oil). It has a buttery, nutty flavor, and can be used to grill meats and/or vegetables in sautés, stir-fires, or salads.
Marginal Oils for Cooking
These oils can be used in cooking and food prep, but are recommended only in small amounts.
Sesame oil is derived from sesame seeds, high in antioxidants, and full of B vitamins like riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, and folic acid. Tricky to heat without becoming bitter, in Chinese cooking particularly, sesame oil is used at the end of the cooking process, when it’s dashed in for flavoring.
Extracted from walnuts, this oil is a great source of copper, manganese, and antioxidants that can add a pleasant nutty flavor when drizzled over a dish. However, it, too, can turn bitter when heated, so it’s better to use walnut oil unheated, for cold use with food.
Unhealthy Oils for Cooking
Here’s where the debate sets in on the question of healthiest cooking oil, mostly surrounding canola oil. With confusing article titles like “Canola Oil vs. Vegetable Oil” or “Canola Oil vs. Olive Oil” all around, it’s fair to remind ourselves that canola oil actually is vegetable oil, and that olive oil is cold-pressed as a natural fruit juice instead of chemically refined like the other vegetable oils.
Vegetable oils are derived from plants, and include canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and soybean oil. Vegetable oils are full of polyunsaturated fatty acids (fine from whole foods, but not desirable in an oil), and all are refined.
Refining involves extracting the oils at high temperatures and using toxic chemicals in the process. They are further deodorized (thus losing their flavor enhancements), degummed, and bleached at high temperatures in a refining process that can significantly raise an oil’s concentration of trans fats. Vegetable oils can increase your levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, decrease your levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, raise your triglyceride levels, and provide too many omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase your risk of blood clots, heart disease, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of their specific issues:
- Canola oil: Produced from a genetically engineered form of rapeseed plant, this oil was renamed “canola” in the 1970s by the Rapeseed Association of Canada, from the phrase “Canadian Oil Low Acid.” Developed to be lower in toxic erucic acid than the original rapeseed oil, canola oil is not preferable to unrefined, cold-pressed, virgin oils.
- Corn oil: Due to oxidation issues, it is not recommended to use corn oil for cooking.
- Grapeseed oil: This industrialized oil from the waste product of wine-making is extracted using the toxic solvent hexane. Though grape seeds contain antioxidants and micronutrients, grape seed oil does not after being processed through the high heat of the extraction process.
- Peanut oil: Another industrialized oil, peanut oil is harmful to those with a peanut allergy.
- Rapeseed oil: The original non-GMO version of canola oil, rapeseed oil was found to contain high levels of erucic acid, which was proven to be toxic when consumed in large quantities.
- Safflower oil: Safflower can thin the blood and may slow down clotting, and so is not advisable for people who have bleeding disorders or who are undergoing surgery.
- Sunflower oil: Is sunflower oil healthy? No, and it, along with corn oil, are associated with an increased risk of cancer when they’re heated (which is exactly what you do when cooking with oil).
- Soybean oil: Soybean oil consumption is linked to obesity, heart disease, fatty liver, and metabolic syndrome.
Your Choice of Oils
Polyunsaturated, and deemed “healthy” because of it, genetically-modified, partially hydrogenated, and refined vegetable oils, are overall bad for your health. On the contrary, an extra virgin olive oil, for example, is unprocessed, unrefined, with no GMOs, and no artificially amped trans fats. Vegetable oils are more susceptible to damage when exposed to light, heat, and oxygen; this means they’re more likely to become rancid, and will oxidize easily when heated, forming harmful free radicals that you then consume along with other toxic compounds created during the oxidation process.
These are among the many reasons why oils like olive, palm, and coconut oil are more preferable than vegetable oils. They are more stable and better suited for medium-to-high-heat cooking, and thus healthier additions to your kitchen and to your table.