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Perplexed by Cooking Oils? Consider These All-Stars

Picking out a cooking oil at the grocery store can be an overwhelming chore. Rows of fancy bottles make a variety of health claims. Which one is best for stir-fry? Which one is best for homemade salad dressing? Grilling? Dipping? Baking? Your heart?

When cooking, Sara Lee Thomas, a dietitian at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, advises people use plant-based oils rather than animal and tropical oils such as coconut or palm, which are typically high in saturated fat.

Unsaturated Vs. Saturated Fats

According to the American Heart Association, a good plant-based oil contains fats that are good for your health like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These unsaturated fats been shown to lower your bad cholesterol and provide beneficial nutrition. They are usually liquid at room temperature.

Saturated fats are present in animal products like butter, lard, red meat and tropical oils. Saturated fat and trans fat, which are found in many processed and fried foods, can raise your bad cholesterol and your risk of diabetes and some cancers.

Although cooking oil should be used in moderation, a small amount of the right oil provides essential nutrients like fatty acids and omega-3s. Nutrition, taste and cooking temperature vary from oil to oil, but if you want to keep it simple, Thomas recommends these two oils to cover all your bases:

All Purpose – Canola Oil

Thomas recommends canola oil for general purpose cooking and baking. It has a light, neutral flavor and is also good for high-heat cooking with a smoke point of 470° F. Canola oil is low in saturated fat at about 6 percent, fair in polyunsaturated fat at about 32 percent, high in monounsaturated fats at about 62 percent and is the highest in omega-3 fats among the common cooking oils. Just one tablespoon of canola oil provides 97 percent of your daily need for plant omega-3 fat.

Thomas discredits media hype that tout canola oil as dangerous. “The scary articles you read about canola oil are not true,” she said. “Modern canola oil was created through normal plant breeding — not genetic engineering — to be different from rapeseed, its relative, which is not safe to eat. It’s like comparing a dog to a wolf. Same ancestors but one is fine in the house and the other, not so much.”

Thomas notes that regular olive oil (not extra virgin) and peanut oil are good for high heat cooking, but lack some of the essential nutrients available in canola oil. If you want to reduce the number of bottles in your cupboard, canola oil covers many bases. 

Flavor Boost – Extra Virgin Olive Oil

When you want to focus on flavor, extra virgin olive oil is your best bet. Thomas notes that it has a light and fruity flavor and contains healthful phytochemicals. For dipping bread or making salad dressing, extra virgin olive oil adds taste and nutrition.

Extra virgin olive oil is low in saturated fat at about 14 percent and high in monounsaturated fat at about 77 percent. With a smoke point of 375° F, extra virgin olive oil is fine to cook with at lower temperatures.

Pairing canola and olive oil together can be beneficial for your health in other ways. In the large Lyon Diet Heart Study, using both canola oil and olive oil together resulted in a 65 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease.

Choosing Other Oils

There are other healthy oils, like avocado oil, that are good for high heat cooking or contain other beneficial fats. However these oils all may be harder to find and more expensive to use.

And when using tropical oils like coconut oil, Thomas advises restraint.

“Coconut oil is popular for cooking because it doesn’t oxidize at high heat, however it is very high in saturated fat and has almost no essential fats or vitamin E,” she said. “It has some medium chain fatty acids which may have some interesting health properties, but in amounts over two tablespoons a day it still exceeds the limits for long chain saturated fats and pushes out other healthy fats that are essential for good health.”

Nutrition services are available at Samaritan hospitals. Consult your primary care provider for a referral for nutrition counseling if you would like to meet with a registered dietitian.

Learn more about coconut oil from our article, "Is Coconut Oil Really Good for You?"