Cooking Oils 101

From frying to baking to sautéing to drizzling, cooking oils are used for a ton of different methods of cooking and flavoring. I guess it makes it only natural that there are so many different types, with everything from canola to grapeseed oil hitting the mainstream grocery markets. With so much to choose from, which oils should we actually be using to cook with?

Well for starters, it’s important to note that the US Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans include small amounts of oil in their diets to help get in the daily recommended amount of essential fatty acids and vitamin E in their diet. This means that all the oils in this list should generally be consumed in moderation. In moderation, some oils are correlated with healthy body weight and reduced risk of heart disease.

Well, Which Fats are Healthy?

There are four types of fat—saturated fat, trans fat (trans-unsaturated fat), monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat.  Saturated fat and trans-fat are “the unhealthy fats”. Saturated fat comes from mostly various animal products, but can also be found in tropical oils, such as coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter. Trans fats can be found in various products, from frozen pizza to microwave popcorn, making it a “sneaky fat”. Natural trans fat come from the gut of animals such as cattle, sheep, etc. but most of the trans fats we find in products today come from hydrogenated oil, which is a type of vegetable oil that has hydrogen is added to make it a more solid form. It seems widely understood now that we should stay away from all hydrogenated oils, so we will not get into that in this post. Monounsaturated fat is labeled as “the healthy fat” and can be found in almonds, avocado and other plant-based foods. Polyunsaturated fat is also a healthy fat where we find omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You can find polyunsaturated fat in fish, certain dark leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds.

So, obviously monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat are the fats we are aiming to incorporate in our diet, while avoiding saturated and trans fat. Let’s take a look how these oils measure up.

Vegetable and Canola Oil

Vegetable oil is extracted from the seeds of various plants and includes corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower and canola oil, among others. Vegetable oil contains the highest levels of polyunsaturated fats. This type of oil tend to be highly processed, which means fewer nutrients overall. “Cold-pressed” or unprocessed vegetable oil is available, but it can be difficult to find. Vegetable oil has a neutral smell and taste, making it a go-to choice for many cooks. It also has a high smoke point (400-450°), which is the temperature where oils start burning and smoking instead of shimmering. So overall, this oil is fair choice, but probably not the most nutritious.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is cherished by many western European countries and is even a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is ranked as the #1 Best Diet Overall according to US News.  It is obtained from olives and is cold-pressed. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat and has antioxidant properties, which reduce inflammation in the body. Extra virgin olive oil is from pure cold-pressed olives, while regular olive oil is from both cold-pressed and processed olives. Overall, olive oil is a great choice in terms of nutrients. It has a more distinct taste than vegetable oil but is noted as flavorful and a delicious addition to many dishes. It has a fairly low smoke point though (325-375 ° F), meaning that you may not want to use it in certain dishes that require high heat.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil is pressed for the avocado fruit and is similar to extra virgin olive oil in the way that it is unrefined and nutritious. It has both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as antioxidant properties. It has a fairly neutral taste like vegetable oil. It has a higher smoke point than olive oil (520°F), making it a great option for frying, roasting or other high heat cooking. The only downside is avocado oil is pretty expensive, making it more difficult to get when you’re on a tight budget.

Grapeseed Oil

This oil is obtained from the seeds of grapes that are a by-product of grapes used in winemaking. It contains a high amount of polyunsaturated fats, containing a high amount of omega-6 fats. It also has a high smoke point (421°F) and is virtually flavorless, making it a perfect for other vegetable oils.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil was once seen as a super health food, noted to have tons of various benefits. This still reigns true, but coconut oil may not be the best choice when it comes to cooking and eating. It is high in saturated fat and is known to raise various cholesterol levels, both good (HDL) and bad (LDL). Its lauric and caprylic acid content give it antibacterial properties. Since coconut oil is a saturated fat, it comes in a solid form, making it difficult for drizzling or sautéing. It has a high smoke point (450° F). Its high saturated fat content makes it controversial in the health community but is seen as a fantastic vegan alternative for butter when baking because of its solid creamy texture. Coconut oil does have an amazing amount of beauty benefits for skin hair and nails, making it definitely worth grabbing a jar.

Butter

Butter, which made from protein solids found in milk, is also often used in various dishes, particularly when baking. Butter has a low smoke point (302° F) and a high amount of saturated fat. So, which is better for you, coconut oil or butter? Research says that they are basically the same in terms of weight maintenance and cholesterol levels.

Which Oil is Best?

Avocado Oil seems to reign king for its heart healthy benefits and its high smoke point. But, this is all up to preference. Use whichever oil seems best for the dish given and the method of cooking. It’s all about which flavor you are going for. Best of luck!