Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, going to the market for cooking oil has become an overwhelming exercise. With shelves and shelves of different brands, flavors, blends, organic versions, extra virgin, unrefined, and cold-pressed varieties, how are you to choose? In the United States, you have the benefit of many choices, yet the burden of trying to figure out which is the healthiest cooking oil, let alone deciding which is best for use at high temperatures or for baking.
The first, most important factor regarding cooking oils is that they are not all created equal; no one oil is suitable for all types of cooking. The four main cooking categories to keep in mind when choosing an oil are baking, frying, sautéing, and dressings and dipping. Read on to see which oils work in each of these cooking categories, why they are healthy options, and which cooking oils to avoid altogether.
Olive oil is one of the oldest known culinary oils. Cultivation of the olive tree spread to the Mediterranean 6,000 years ago. Today, it remains one of the most popular oils and can be found in virtually every grocery store and home. As long as it’s extra virgin, it is one of the healthiest oils to cook with. Care must be taken when purchasing olive oil; it can be highly processed and various chemicals can be used to extract the oil. Furthermore, many brand olive oils do not meet the criteria set by regulatory agencies for the “extra virgin” label. Extra virgin olive oil is extracted using natural methods, which retain more true olive taste and has a lower level of oleic acid than other olive oil varieties. Extra virgin olive oil contains a large amount of monounsaturated fats and some polyunsaturated fatty acids. Olive oil has a low smoke point, which means it burns at high temperatures. It is best used for light sautéing, dressings, marinades, and dipping.
Coconut oil has steadily gained its place in the world of healthy cooking oils. Considered a “superfood” by some, coconut oil is as easy to find in the grocery store as any other cooking oil. Coconut oil contains healthy fats called medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). These unique fats include caprylic acid, lauric acid, and capric acid. Studies link coconut oils MCFAs to increased fat burning, supporting the body in killing pathogens, and helping you stay fuller longer, thus helping you eat less. Like olive oil, it is best to use virgin, unrefined coconut oil. It has a higher smoke point than olive oil, so it is great for sautéing or roasting.
Avocado oil is pressed from the pulp surrounding the avocado pit, not from the seed. This pulp produces an oil full of healthy fats, including oleic acid and essential fatty acids. It is unrefined like extra virgin olive oil, but it has a higher smoking point, which means it can be used to cook at higher heat. It also has a mild flavor which makes it a good option for cooking but can still be used in dressings and marinades. Avocado oil contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids – it has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents among cooking oils – as well as vitamin E. It has anti-inflammatory properties that help prevent heart disease and high blood pressure.
Flaxseed oil, or linseed oil, is made from flaxseed that has been ground and pressed to release its natural oil. Full of plant-source omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, just one tablespoon can meet your daily dietary needs. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to health and are linked to benefits like reduced inflammation, improved heart health, and protection for the brain against aging. Flaxseed oil should not be used for cooking; it has a low smoke point and can form into harmful compounds when exposed to heat. Flaxseed oil is best for dipping and in dressings. It is also great added to smoothies if you are looking for more omega-3 in your diet.
Use of grapeseed oil is somewhat controversial. A byproduct of winemaking, grapeseed oil is extracted from the leftover seeds of the pressed grapes. Much of this oil is extracted using chemical solvents and heat; so for health reasons, it is best to find cold-pressed or expeller-pressed versions. Similar to olive oil, but with a much milder taste, grapeseed oil is being used as an alternative to other vegetable oils. Care must be taken, however, as it does have a high omega-6 content, which needs to be balanced with appropriate omega-3 levels. Too much omega-6 can cause inflammation. Used in moderation, grapeseed oil is great for sautéing and baking as it has a clean taste. Its smoke point is just a bit higher than that of olive oil.
High Smoke Point Oils
Peanut oil, palm oil, and sunflower oil all have very high smoke points, ranging from 410°F to 450°F, which makes them fantastic for frying. Both peanut and sunflower oils go rancid quickly, so it’s best to buy them in small batches and use them quickly.
Oils to Ditch
“Vegetable” oil has become an umbrella term to describe any oil made from corn, soybeans, safflower, cottonseed, and the like. Additionally, it can also mean that the oil is a blend of any of those listed. Once upon a time, these cooking oils were the preferred choice, highly recommended by the American Heart Association. But these oils contain very high amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Overconsumption of omega-6 vegetable oils increases the potential to develop cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, pre-diabetes, IBS, arthritis, asthma, cancer, autoimmune diseases, just to name a few. There has even been some suggestion that there is a connection between increased omega 6s, mental health, and inflammation. It’s really in your best interest to use these oils sparingly and opt for a healthier choice for cooking and baking.
As with any food choices you make, doing a bit of checking first is always good advice! Happy cooking.
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