Olive, peanut, canola, coconut… There are so many cooking oils out there, it can be hard to figure out which to use—especially if you’re trying to eat healthy.
To spare you from Googling “olive oil or canola oil?” during your next trip to the supermarket, we asked a few dietitians to weigh in on the best and worst oils for your health—along with how to properly use them. The right oil can not only do your body good, but it can also take that garden salad or stir-fry to a whole new level of deliciousness.
Before we get to the good stuff, take note of the not-so-friendly oils out there…
First things first: Steer clear of any oils identified as ‘partially-hydrogenated.’ (Note: these are commonly vegetable oils.) These fats, which are chemically altered to have longer shelf lives, are sources of the infamous trans fat. You’ve probably heard that trans fats are no good, and that’s because these artificial fats have been linked to inflammation, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, says bestselling author Tanya Zuckerbrot, M.S., R.D. They’re so bad that the FDA is rolling out regulations to have them completely removed from foods by 2018—but for now, look out!
Other oils you need to be careful not to overdo it with: those high in saturated fats, such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oil. “Coconut oil is made up of about 90 percent saturated fat, palm kernel oil about 85 percent, and palm oil about 50 percent,” says Zuckerbrot. While saturated fats play a number of roles in the body, eating them in excess can raise LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke, she explains.
Related: Finally, The Truth About Coconut Oil
For that reason, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 10 percent or less of our daily calories come from saturated fat. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, that’s a max of 200 calories (or about 22 grams) of saturated fat per day—about two tablespoons-worth of coconut oil.
You can certainly benefit from eating saturated fat in moderation. Coconut oil, in particular, offers two beneficial components: lauric acid and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which may help to raise HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and boost our metabolisms, respectively. Just don’t consider it your ‘staple’ oil.
Most experts recommend opting for unsaturated fats—which support heart health and reduce inflammation—over saturated fats whenever possible. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
“Monounsaturated fats have been linked to reducing LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and triglycerides, while raising HDL (‘good’) cholesterol levels,” says Zuckerbrot. Plant-based oils high in monounsaturated fats include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil. Avocado oil is also high in monounsaturated fats—and it’s becoming more and more popular. The oil made from our favorite green fruit also offer vitamin E, which helps keep skin healthy, says Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D.N., author of The MIND Diet.
Polyunsaturated fats also offer health benefits—with two particular fatty acids in the spotlight: omega-3s and omega-6s. “These two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in plant oils and play a crucial role in brain function and normal growth and development,” says Zuckerbrot.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseed, walnut, and cod liver oil, while omega-6 fatty acids can be found in soybean, safflower, sunflower, and grapeseed oil. “We need a balance of both types of essential fatty acids,” says Zuckerbrot. Here’s the thing, though: The average American gets plenty of omega-6s and not enough omega-3s, which are especially important for cognitive function, a healthy heart, and reducing inflammation, Zuckerbrot says. So if you don’t eat fish, grass-fed beef, eggs, walnuts, flax seeds, or chia seeds regularly, try to pick omega-3-containing oils whenever possible.
How To Cook With Healthy Oils
So which healthy oil do you use when? First and foremost, the method of cooking that you’re using will help you pick.
If you’re pan-frying, for example, you need an oil with a higher smoke point (above 375 degrees), says Elizabeth Ann Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., C.L.T. (Once an oil starts to smoke, it becomes ineffective, wrecks the flavor of your dish, produces harmful fumes and free radicals and may even set off your smoke detectors…) If you’re just sautéing something though, Shaw recommends a mild-flavored oil with a lower smoke point. For baking? A neutral-flavored oil. Dressings or drizzles? Something with a stronger flavor.
For Frying: When you need to crank up the heat, certain oils will work better than others. Some of your best options: avocado oil (smoke point of 520 degrees), safflower oil (smoke point of 450 degrees), and canola oil (smoke point of 400 degrees).
These oils all have a mild flavor, so they won’t take the spotlight away from your other ingredients. Moon likes using avocado oil to sear chicken breast or salmon, and make avocado or veggie tempura fries.
Sesame and peanut oil also have high smoke points (410 degrees and 450 degrees, respectively), so they’re safe for high-heat cooking—but they’ll also add an extra layer of flavor. Zuckerbrot likes using them in Asian-inspired dishes.
For Sautéing Or Roasting: Zuckerbrot also likes canola oil for sautéing or roasting because its neutral flavor lets the flavor of your food shine through. Similarly, mild-flavored avocado oil also works well for sautéing veggies or making eggs, says Moon.
Stir-frying veggies? Sesame oil can add robust Asian-inspired flavor and take the meal to the next level, says Zuckerbrot.
Olive oil is another popular choice for the sauté pan or roasting sheet—just keep in mind that extra-virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point of 320 degrees. But despite its low smoke point, EVOO offers more brain, heart, and skin benefits than more refined olive oils, so it’s still worth picking, Zuckerbrot says.
For Baking: Coconut oil, walnut oil, and canola oil are all great options for baked goods. Coconut oil’s nutty flavor works particularly well in cakes and frostings, says Shaw. Since it has a bolder flavor though, consider using walnut or canola oil in milder recipes. Zuckerbrot likes using walnut oil in desserts like pound cake and cookies because of its nuttier flavor, which often becomes bitter when heated too much in other cooking methods.
For Dressings, Drizzles, And Extra Flavor: Looking for a milder oil to use for a simple, healthy salad dressing? Zuckerbrot likes pairing walnut, olive, and grapeseed oils with herbs to top fresh greens with. Grapeseed oil tastes light and a little sweet, while olive oil can vary from floral to fruity to herbal to bitter, depending on the variety, says Moon. Try drizzling your favorite olive oil over grains and salads or adding it to basic soups and sauces.
And, of course, peanut and sesame oils also add tons of flavor to Asian-style dressings and sauces, whether you’re topping fish, chicken, or a salad.
The Right Balance
While these healthy oils do offer some benefits, they’re still calorically dense. All fats, including oils, contain nine calories per gram, Zuckerbrot says. (That’s twice as calorically dense as carbs and protein.) One tablespoon of any oil—healthy pick or not—is about 135 calories. To prevent over-oiling, try putting your favorite oils in spray bottles to coat pans, baking sheets, veggies for roasting, or salads.
Save this infographic for a quick cooking oil reference: