How to Choose the Right Cooking Oil

November 02, 2019

"Not all oils are created equal. There is a wide range of oils from different plant sources, and they all have different smoke points."

There's a lot of conflicting and confusing information out there about "healthy" and "unhealthy" fats. Add to that the fact that some fats are good for us UNTIL we cook with them, and it gets even more confusing! Today Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, will cut through the noise and break down which oils are healthy to cook with, and which ones to avoid. We'll talk about what considerations to keep in mind when choosing a cooking oil, including the oil "smoke point" and why some oils shouldn't be heated up, while others are fine to use.

Video Highlights

  • 00:47: Types of Fats
  • 03:00: Cooking with Oil
  • 03:44: What is a Smoke Point?
  • 05:49: Types of Oils
  • 15:59: Wrap-Up

Types of Fats

We all know that oils are fats, but there are some broad categories of fats that we need to understand:  

  • Saturated Fats  — saturated fats tend to be animal fats, and are usually solid at room temperature.  
  • Unsaturated Fats — these tend to be vegetable-based, and liquid at room temperature. Within this category, there are also subcategories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.  

Whether a fat is saturated or unsaturated comes down to the chemical structure of the fat — without getting too much into the science of it all, it’s about how many double bonds, and how many hydrogens a fat has in it. Saturated fats tend to be more inflammatory for the cardiovascular system, and unsaturated fats (both mono and poly) are generally healthier for us. Some studies do suggest that whether a saturated fat is unhealthy depends on the source, and that saturated fats from certain sources may not be so bad. You can research this further if you’re interested, but in general the more unsaturated fats you get in your diet, the better off you are.

Trans Fats

We aren’t going to talk too much about trans fats, except to say that you should avoid them at all costs. Those are sometimes labeled as trans fats on the bottle, or sometimes they're referred to as partially hydrogenated fats. That means that the fat itself has been chemically altered in a lab to to cause it to resist turning rancid, or to make them become either solid or liquid at room temperature in a way that wouldn’t occur naturally. It’s believed that this type of fat is the worst for your body. 

Cooking with Oil

When it comes down to which oils, start by asking yourself a couple of questions:

  • What is the purpose?  
  • What's the recipe calling for?  
  • Are you baking, frying, or sautéing?
  • Are you using it for a dressing? 

These questions will determine the kind of oil you want to use — both for flavor and cooking type. Some oils have no flavor at all, and some have very distinct and prominent flavors.  Finally, you also need to know what the smoke point of the oil is.

What is a Smoke Point?

The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil will start to smoke. More importantly, the temperature at which the oil starts to chemically change into a structure that's less healthy for you. When the oil smokes, it oxidizes it, and changes the chemical bonds, which basically takes all of the good properties out of the oil and makes it more inflammatory.

Not all oils are created equal. There is a wide range of oils from different plant sources, and they all have different smoke points. 

Typically, if you're frying something, you need oils with a much higher smoke point because the temperature gets really high when you're frying. So you need an oil that really can resist that temperature. When you're sautéing, you can use an oil with a slightly lower smoke point, if you're baking, it can be even lower still, and of course if you're just drizzling on food without cooking it, you don’t need to worry about the smoke point at all.

One final disclaimer before we get into some examples of different oils: remember that oils are still fats. Although we're going to talk about which ones might be healthier in certain scenarios, keep in mind that you still need to be careful about fat in your diet — try to get the daily recommended amount, without overdoing it. All fats can raise cholesterol, and they are very high in calories, so they can just lead to weight gain. So even if an oil is more healthy, it should be used with moderation. 

Types of Oil

Canola Oil

Canola oil has been around for a long time. You probably have a bottle somewhere at home.  It used to get kind of a bad rap, as it’s associated with a lot of fried foods. That's because canola oil is processed, and therefore has a fairly high smoke point. When an oil is processed, they take out a lot of the compounds within the oil that might make it smoke at an earlier temperature. Processed oils tend to have higher smoke points. Processing an oil doesn't necessarily make it worse for you, but it does usually mean it's going to have less flavor.  Canola oil doesn't have much flavor, which is why canola oil is typically used for frying foods, but you can also use it for baking. It's got a smoke point of 400°F, which is a fairly robust smoke point. The good thing about canola is it's relatively low in saturated fats, it has no trans fats, and it's got a fairly healthy amount of mono and polyunsaturated fats. Remember we want no trans fats and we want less saturated fats in general. So, canola oil is really not too bad. Again, you can bake with it and fry with it, but it’s not a great option if you want to add flavor to a dish with it. 

Canola oil is probably the best of the vegetable oil options, which brings us to the next type of oil.  

Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oil is made from a combination of different vegetables. It often has a lot of soy in it, but they can use any kind of vegetable they want. It contains about twice as much saturated fat per serving as canola oil, but it still has no trans fats and it does have some poly and monounsaturated fats. Vegetable oil is also highly processed. Again, if you’re going to use vegetable oil, canola oil is the best option.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Not all olive oils are created equal either. Extra virgin olive oil means that it’s non-processed, first press olive oil. It has a lot of really healthy unsaturated fats in it, and basically no trans fats. It’s also fairly low in saturated fats, although it does have some. Extra virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point, so it’s not great to cook with. You can't really do much frying or sautéing with extra virgin olive oil, as it will start to smoke. It's great for drizzling on salads, or breads though. It's really healthy, and all those unsaturated fats can help lower your cholesterol. 

 

Pure Olive Oil

If you do want to cook or fry with olive oil, then you can get pure olive oil. There is a difference here. Pure olive oil, despite the way its name sounds, has been processed. So it's lost some of the flavor that extra virgin has, as well as possibly some of the healthier qualities, but it's still not as bad as some of the other oils out there and it has a higher smoke point. Its smoke point is up to 465°F, whereas the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil is only about 325°F to 375°F. So, if you're going to try to fry something, pure olive oil is a better choice than extra virgin.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil has gained a lot of popularity recently, for good reason. It has a lot of flavor, and it’s high in monounsaturated fats. It also has a much higher smoke point than some of the other ones, at 400°F, so you can try to fry with it. It does contain some saturated fats but not as much as some of the other oils, like coconut oil, and it’s not processed. For those who are trying to get really good flavor and prefer non-processed foods, avocado oil is an excellent choice. The downside to avocado is that it tends to be more expensive, so if you're cooking for a lot of people or you're on a budget, this can be a little bit harder to incorporate into your diet.  

Safflower Oil

Safflower oil is low in saturated fats and high in Omega 9s. Omega 9 fatty acids can be very beneficial for lowering cholesterol, and reducing inflammation. This oil has a nice neutral flavor, so it's helpful in cases where you don’t want to add flavor from the oil. The main bonus to safflower oil is that it has a really high smoke point of 500°F. When you’re using this oil you can turn up the skillet all the way, or put something on the grill, and you're not going to cause the oil to smoke.  

Peanut Oil

Peanut oil has a lot more flavor than some of the other oils we’ve discussed. It is chemically processed, which means that it does have a higher smoke point — 450°F. So you can definitely fry with it. You can bake with it as well, but because of the flavor, it’s usually recommended for use in things like stir fries. If you're baking with it, only use it on products that are meant to have a peanut flavor, like peanut butter cookies. It contains 2.5 g of saturated fat per serving, so, it's a higher in saturated fats than the other options. But if you're looking to fry something and you're okay with having a peanut flavor, this is a decent choice.

Sesame Oil

Sesame oil also has a more pronounced flavor, and it is not chemically processed, making it a good alternative to the peanut oil. It does have a lower smoke point though, about 350°F to 400°F. The flavor is great for sautéing, and it has less saturated fat (2 g per serving) than the peanut oil.  

Flaxseed Oil

A lot of people talking about flaxseed oil, because it's healthy and contains omega 3s. It's great for a dressing, but we really recommend that you not cook with it.  Flaxseed oil has a very low smoke point, and it will basically become saturated fat, or an inflammatory fat, very quickly. We definitely recommend using this oil uncooked.

Coconut Oil

People love coconut oil these days. They use it in all their cooking, and they use it topically as well. But coconut oil is really high in saturated fat — up to 11.8 g per serving! For perspective, we were in the 2 to 2.5 range, and as low as 1 with some of the other oils on the list. So, from a health standpoint, it’s not actually much better than butter. You can certainly bake with it and it does have a great flavor, but it's also got a fairly low smoke point at 350°F, so it’s probably best not to fry with it. It has a great creamy texture and good flavor if you're baking with it, but if you're trying to improve your health by choosing coconut oil over butter, it may be less helpful than trends make it seem.

Wrap-Up

We hope this break down of different types of oil for cooking and meal preparation was helpful. We know it can get confusing trying to remember the smoke points of various oils, and there is a wide variety to choose from. Just remember to look at what your recipe is calling for, think about whether you’re frying, sautéing, or baking, and then try to make the best choice based on the flavors you need, the smoke point, and the amount of saturated fats in the oil. Happy cooking!

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