Grocery stores are filled with an endless variety of oils on the shelves, so how do you know which oil to choose, and what is the best or worst purpose for each, and most importantly, what is the healthiest oil for you? There isn’t always one simple answer, but there are times when one oil is truly preferable. There are a few factors to consider about each so let’s look at the health benefits, the taste profiles, and of course, what would work best for your needs so you can stir fry or make a salad dressing with confidence.
A star over the past decade or so, sometimes it can seem like coconut oil can do no wrong. And Kylene Bogden, RDN and Love Wellness Advisor, says coconut oil is one of the best cooking oils out there. “Coconut oil is nutrient-dense, not very inflammatory and, most importantly, it has a high smoke point,” she says. “This means you can safely saute and fry with it. Because coconut oil has a strong flavor and tastes a bit sweet, it works well with items such as carrots, pancakes and fish.” On the other hand, coconut oil is a saturated fat and the American Heart Association has issued a scientific advisory statement in 2017 to replace saturated fats (including coconut and other tropical oils) with unsaturated fats.
Coconut Oil At a Glance
- Healthy benefit: Coconut oil contains no cholesterol and traces of vitamins, minerals, and plant sterols. Plant sterols have a chemical structure that mimics blood cholesterol, and may help to block the absorption of cholesterol in the body, according to the Harvard school for public health.
- What it tastes like: Coconut oil tastes a little bit like coconut, unless you buy the refined type. For everyday cooking, opt for the refined version, you’ll never end up with scrambled eggs that taste like coconut.
- Best way to cook with it: Coconut oil is great for baking, since it is 100% fat (butter is about 80% fat.) It’s also a great everyday-anytime oil for sautés and roasting.
- When to avoid it: Coconut oil is handy for most uses, but for deep frying or pan frying at very high temperatures stick to other oils with even higher smoked points, like avocado oil.
Try this recipe: Crunchy Coco-nut Granola
If you opt for either regular olive oil or the extra virgin variety, the smoke point is lower than oils like coconut oil and avocado oil. This means it’s best used on cold dishes or for quick cooking.
“Olive oil is excellent in terms of heart health, brain health, and fighting general inflammation,” says Bogden. “However, olive oil has a low smoke point. The rich, bold flavor and low smoke point of olive oil makes it excellent to drizzle on cold dishes such as salads or on veggies after they have been roasted, or pasta after it has been cooked. I actually have a handful of clients who blend olive oil into their morning smoothie.”
Olive Oil at a Glance
- Healthy benefit: Olive oil is very healthy fat, which may have significant benefits for many people, and helps with many issues, like protecting your heart health, and even may support anti-cancer agents.
- What it tastes like: Olive oil taste varies from mild and fresh, to brisk, bright and peppery.
- Best way to cook with it: Salad dressings, dips, drizzles for flavor, and in many stews and sauces cooked at low to medium heat.
- When to avoid it: Pan frying, deep frying and any high heat cooking.
Avocado oil is right up there with coconut oil cooking-wise, thanks to its high smoke point. It also has a milder flavor than coconut oil, making it more versatile. “Avocado oil is known to have a very mild grassy taste, but much less so than olive oil,” says Jessica Randhawa, the head chef, recipe creator, photographer, and writer behind The Forked Spoon. “Also, this weak grassy flavor goes away once cooked or baked.”
One thing Randhawa does note is that there’s a lot more (non-industry funded) research needed on avocado oil before it can be declared a miracle oil.
Avocado Oil at a Glance
- Healthy benefit: Rich in antioxidants, great for heart health.
- What it tastes like: Varies, but maintains a slightly vegetal, green flavor no matter what company or type.
- Best way to cook with it: Terrific for high heat uses, it’s also a great all around oil.
- When to avoid it: If you want to avoid any taste coming from an oil, avocado may not be your best bet.
Canola oil is inexpensive, and it’s been used in cooking and baking for years. While delicious with a higher smoke point, Bogden notes that there are a few negatives to using canola oil. “Canola oil tends to be one of the most heavily processed and inflammatory oils,” she says. “It’s also very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which the average American receives too much of in their daily diet anyway.”
Canola Oil at a Glance
- Healthy benefit: No cholesterol, high in Alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), Canola oil also contains very high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids. It has been designated as heart healthy by the FDA but has become controversial due its processing.
- What it tastes like: Neutral, no significant flavor.
- Best way to cook with it: Frying, especially when using a blend of canola and olive oil or when having little to no taste in the oil is necessary.
- When to avoid it: If you are looking to avoid omega-6 fatty acids, or want a far less processed oil, canola oil may not be the best option.
What About Sesame Oil & Peanut Oil?
Most sesame oil available is toasted which offers a deep but very specific flavor, and is usually used in Asian-inspired dishes. While it will certainly add a specific type of flavor to anything you cook in it, Randhawa says it’s pretty healthy as far as oils go. “Sesame is a very healthy oil,” she says. “Very few are allergic to sesame oil, and it contains more unsaturated fatty acids than most other oils on the cooking market.”
Considering sauteeing your dinner in peanut oil? Although it has a very high smoke point, you may want to skip it. “With the rise of peanut allergies in the last few decades, it is increasingly important to know your culinary audience when cooking with peanut oil,” Randhawa notes. A leading group of Allergy and Immunological physicians do not necessarily agree, noting that “Most individuals with peanut allergy can safely eat highly refined peanut oil. This is not the case, however, for cold-pressed, expelled, extruded peanut oil,” which should absolutely be avoided. Randhawa noted, with regard to refined peanut oil, that “…refined peanut oil is (also) known to have trace amounts of hexane, which is a byproduct of petroleum used in the separation process of oil from the whole pieces of peanuts.”