The best and worst oils for good health
Back in the 1960s and 70s, choosing a cooking oil typically meant grabbing one of a handful of “vegetable oils” off the grocery store shelf. While no one was really sure what vegetables the oil was made from, when you needed to brown some chicken or sauté pasta primavera-worthy veggies, it definitely got the job done. Fast forward to the 21st century. The variety of oils has exploded far beyond that bottle of Wesson oil or that can of Crisco as consumers continue to expand their culinary boundaries and focus on wholesome foods. But with so many choices, what are the healthiest cooking oils? To provide answers, here’s our guide to the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Problem with Processing
All oils go though some processing, even if it’s just pressing or filtering. But unlike extra virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil, vegetable- or seed-based cooking oils are typically subjected to a massive amount of manipulation. Adding insult to injury, unless your oil is labeled as “virgin” or “cold” or “expeller” pressed, it was likely extracted using the solvent n-hexane, a nervous system toxin derived from petroleum. Once extracted, the oil is then refined, bleached, and deodorized. While this process creates a clear, odorless oil with a neutral taste, it removes valuable nutrients. Fortunately, you can find healthy minimally processed oils that work to meet all your cooking needs.
Oils to Embrace, Oils to Avoid
The granddaddy of healthy oils, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a monounsaturated fat shown to support overall heart health. Many of EVOO’s benefits are due to its 30+ phenolic compounds that reduce oxidative stress in the body. Research also shows that EVOO acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory.
But EVOO isn’t the only cooking oil that’s good for you. Avocado oil is packed with healthy monounsaturated oleic fats and 17 key vitamins and minerals. A number of studies show that it can help lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, ease arthritis symptoms, and boost nutrient absorption. Saturated fats, like those in butter, ghee, and coconut oil, also provide healthy nutrition. Butter and ghee are high in fat-soluble antioxidants, vitamin K, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and butyrate. Coconut oil is high in medium chain triglycerides (MCT) that provide the brain and body with quick energy. All three of these unique saturated fats also raise HDL cholesterol levels in the blood, which is thought to reduce cardiovascular risk.
“Vegetable” oils, on the other hand, are typically high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6s are fine in small amounts, most Americans consume 15 times more of them than their anti-inflammatory omega-3 cousins. Another strike against seed oils is that most come from genetically modified crops. The top three oils to avoid are canola oil, corn oil, and soybean oil. It’s also smart to sidestep grapeseed, safflower, sunflower, and other seed oils as they are extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids and prone to oxidation, which creates free radicals that contribute to cellular damage.
Knowing the smoke point of various cooking oils can prevent the formation of free radicals and help protect the flavor of your finished dish. Here’s our handy cheat sheet:
|Oil/Fat||Smoke Point ºC||Smoke Point ºF|
|Extra-Virgin Olive Oil||160º||320º|