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How to Choose The Healthiest Cooking Oil

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How to Choose The Healthiest Cooking Oil

We might not always be aware of the specific ingredients in pre-prepared foods. When we sauté vegetables at home, for example, we handle each ingredient, choosing it intentionally. When we buy a frozen pizza or eat in a restaurant, though, we might not know every ingredient. One such ingredient that is less obvious when eating out or eating packaged foods is the type of oil used in preparation.

Consuming healthy fatty acids is an essential part of a healthy diet. When we inadvertently consume unhealthy fats, it could negatively impact various areas of health. For example, just a 2% increase in the consumption of trans fats has been shown to have a 23% increase in cardiovascular risk.

Often, foods prepared in settings where cost is a primary or significant driving factor may use cheaper and less health-promoting oils. The cheapest or most shelf-stable options are often not health-promoting choices. It is worth maintaining awareness of the oils we consume. This article will discuss the most beneficial oils for cooking for health and well-being.


Most Common Cooking Oils

If you have driven through the rural Midwest, you have undoubtedly seen great expanses of fields growing soybeans. Many of these soybeans will be processed to extract soybean oil that is used for frying foods and cooking. Soybean oil is the most abundantly produced and used cooking oil in the US.

On a global basis, palm, soybean, and canola oils are the most commonly consumed cooking oils. The pattern is different in the US, mainly reflecting its predominantly non-tropical climate. In the US, after soybean oil, the most common cooking oils are from canola, which can be seen creating beautiful yellow fields when it blooms, corn, one of our most abundant crops, and palm, which is largely imported.

For any individual, the amount of restaurant, fried, and packaged foods one consumes may significantly change the balance of oils in the diet. Soybean oil is often used in fried foods, baked goods, processed foods, margarine, and salad dressings. It is sometimes used to sauté vegetables as well. Canola oil is popular for home cooking, baking, and deep frying at restaurants due to its high smoke point and neutral flavor. It is also sometimes used in packaged foods. Corn oil is used for frying snack foods, cooking, and salad dressings. Palm oil, despite its environmental and ethical costs, is still commonly used in packaged foods in the US, especially ice cream, packaged baked goods, instant noodles, and margarine. This is partly a result of the ban on trans fats, as it is a good substitute. However, palm oil consumption is a major driver of tropical rainforest deforestation.

Healthiest Oils To Cook With

We can look at various components of raw food oils that promote health and consider that these can and do change with extraction and cooking methods. It is helpful to think of a small collection of oils ideal for their chosen purposes. For example, flaxseed oil is most healthy when eaten in a salad dressing in its raw state. It, unfortunately, becomes quite unhealthy when heated. In contrast, avocado oil doesn't degrade into toxic compounds with added heat, making it an excellent option for cooking. Olive oil and coconut oil are also among the healthiest options for cooking as they are healthy in their raw states but also tolerate heat well.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in the diet. However, oils high in omega-3s often do not tolerate heat well. Instead, they work best used as toppings or in salad dressings. It is also helpful to consume a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, so simply consuming a little flax (omega 3s), but also consuming many fried foods or oils high in omega-6s  still have a negative outcome.

Plant oils are often extracted so that other nutrients in the plant are preserved in the oil. These may be things like Vitamin E and phytonutrients that have antioxidant effects. These components help keep oils stable and provide antioxidant effects when consumed intact but may be degraded by high heat.

Unhealthy Cooking Oils

Vegetable oils are so ubiquitous in the food world that it is interesting to consider that cooking with vegetable oils to the degree we now do is a relatively new pattern. As they were popularized, vegetable oils were heavily promoted as a heart-healthy option compared to butter due to the lower saturated fat content and, thus, the effects on lipid profiles. While this appears true in many studies showing association, the way they are used frequently involves frying, which negatively changes the effects.

In most cases, choosing food preparation methods (like steaming, roasting, or eating raw) that do not involve heating oil is a healthier option than those, like frying and sautéing, that does involve heating oil. There are clear negative health outcomes associated with frequent exposure to repeatedly heated oils, like in deep fryers, but the link is not yet so clear as to oils heated more briefly, such as stir frying at home.  

One of the reasons for the initial popularization of vegetable oils was the growing understanding of the negative effects of saturated fats, such as from butter and animal foods, on heart health. Coconut and palm oil are vegetable sources of saturated fat. But the effects of coconut oil on lipid profiles are not detrimental the way they are with saturated fats of animal origin. Palm oil, though widely used, has unfortunate environmental and ethical costs to wildlife. Therefore careful sourcing of palm oil is recommended.

As cheaper vegetable fats were widely available and packaged foods exploded in popularity, the question of how to keep them on the shelf for longer was asked. It turns out that you can create vegetable shortening or partially (or fully) hydrogenated vegetable oil by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. These modified oils can be used in food prep in ways similar to butter but much cheaper, creating shelf-stable products. However, these have very high levels of trans fats.

Higher intake of trans fats has been shown to contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, inflammation, and cancer. As study after study emerged showing a clear link between the intake of trans fats, sometimes even relatively small amounts, and negative health outcomes, agencies moved to ban or largely limit their use. In the US, the FDA ban was active starting in 2020. Despite this, there are still exceptions where they are allowed and may be present, so it is wise to read the label.  

Signs You Should Consume More Healthy Fat In Your Diet

While excess fat consumption has its own problems, a low-fat diet can also lead to non-optimal health. Fat is an essential nutrient critical for many important bodily functions, such as the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Very low-fat diets, for example, have been recommended for both weight loss and heart health. However, some individuals may end up with low levels of essential fatty acids over time because restrictive diets can lead to inadequate fatty acid levels. This is also a frequent concern for those with Gastrointestinal Disorders and Anorexia. If you have been on a low-fat diet or have a history of digestive or eating disorders, you may notice some of the following symptoms, indicating that you need more healthy fat in your diet:

  • Dry scaly skin
  • Sensitivity to sunlight
  • Poor wound healing
  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Poor circulation
  • Excessive thirst
  • Decreased resistance to infection
  • Poor memory
  • Unstable moods
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Decreased growth in infants and children

Health Benefits To Popular Cooking Oils

While every possible food has potential health benefits and detrimental factors, there are some clear benefits to including oils in food preparation, whether this is adding unheated olive oil to a salad or baking with coconut oil. Fats must be present for proper absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Including healthier fats with one's vegetables and salads helps the body absorb the vitamins present in the vegetables.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil

Olive oil has been a component of Mediterranean cuisine for thousands of years. Signs of olive production and use of olive oil have been unearthed throughout the region, including ancient Egyptian artifacts. Research suggests that the properties of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) are a major reason for the health-promoting effects of a Mediterranean diet.

Polyphenols from olive oil have been shown to have a broad array of positive health effects, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergic effects, and protection from the development of clots, blood vessel plaques, and genetic mutations, which might lead to cancer.

Olive oils differ in flavor and polyphenol content based on variety, which is also linked to where they are grown. The quality of a particular oil can, in large part, be determined by taste. Oils higher in beneficial polyphenols will usually have a stronger bitter flavor. Mustiness and alcohol taste can also identify oil from olives that degraded before processing.

Olive oil contains fatty acids known as monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which are typically associated with fats found in nuts and seeds. Research has shown a strong protective effect of MUFA consumption, particularly through the consumption of olive oil, on cardiovascular health and overall risk of death.

Tocopherols (like Vitamin E) are antioxidants. Their presence in EVOO helps to maintain freshness and has antioxidant effects on the body.

In addition to the direct effects on our human cells, research is beginning to explore and show the beneficial effects of EVOO on the gut microbiome, thus creating an additional benefit through the gut-brain axis.

Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is unique because it is semi-solid at room temperature and has a fairly high smoke point. This makes it useful as a plant-based butter replacement and for high-temperature cooking. It may have a mild coconut flavor or be fairly neutral, depending on how refined it is.

Coconut is widely used in the tropics, and the fruit has multiple beneficial properties, including activity against bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites, antioxidant effects, and may help regulate blood sugar. There also appear to be benefits for improved lipid profiles. Some studies also show a positive effect on weight loss.

Coconut oil does have a high saturated fat content, so there has been a lot of discussion about whether it should be avoided, similar to animal-based saturated fats. However, although both butter and coconut oil are saturated fats, they have different effects on blood lipid profiles, with coconut oil resembling the healthy effects of olive oil. Similar guidance should be followed as with intake of any saturated fats, maintaining intake at less than 10% of total calories a day.

Health Benefits of Avocado Oil

A unique fact about avocado oil is that it is extracted from the flesh, not the seed of the avocado fruit. This means that the nutrients and phytonutrients in the flesh will to some degree, remain in the oil, depending on extraction methods and storage. Similar to olive oil, avocado oil has a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). It is also rich in fat-soluble antioxidants, especially lutein, Vitamin E, and B-sitosterol. These compounds are beneficial for oxidative stress balance, especially as it relates to eye health and prevention of macular degeneration, as well as healthy lipid metabolism.

Avocado oil may be used unheated, as in salad dressings, or in applications of higher heat cooking as it tolerates heat well. The flavor is mild and neutral.



Humans have cooked with oils for thousands of years. The addition of oil to vitamin-rich foods helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, so it is not just for flavor. In modern times, the push toward mass production of food products has led to a quest for longer shelf life. This, in turn, has impacted the kinds of fats used in food preparation, often detrimental to health.

Returning to awareness of the fats one consumes in restaurant-prepared foods or those prepared at home, may go a long way toward empowering the choices that will ultimately lead to better health, quality of life, and longevity. Though oils are not especially visible as an ingredient in many foods, the actual oil used and consumed matters greatly for health. Higher-quality oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, provide health-promoting phytonutrients and healthier fatty acid profiles. It is worth being aware and making choices based on health, as the healthier alternatives can be just as functional as the less healthy ones, aside from a shorter shelf life.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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