How to Choose and Use Healthy Cooking Oils

Plus, 8 ways to make sure you’re getting the most health benefits
cooking shrimp in oil with lots of smoke

Cooking with oils is a big part of meal prep, adding flavor to many dishes. But navigating which oils are best – or worst – for you and your food can be a challenge.

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Confused about which oils are healthy and which aren’t? Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, explains how to choose the best oil for you — and other ways to keep your oil consumption honest.

Understanding different types of fats

Because there are so many cooking oils available to use, it’s important to understand the different types of fats, both good and bad, that make up these oils. By knowing which fats provide health benefits and which fats are a detriment to your diet, your choice in cooking oils will be easier to make.

Unhealthy fats

Saturated fats: The fewer you have of these fats, the better. Less than 7% of your daily fat calories should come from saturated fats. To cut back on saturated fats, limit:

  • Butter, whole milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Lard, Bacon fat, fatty cuts of red meat, the skin of poultry
  • Coconut, palm, palm kernel oils

Trans fats: Eliminate trans fats from your diet by staying away from foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils. Many packaged or processed foods contain these oils, so scan the ingredient list.

Healthy fats

Monounsaturated fats: Get the benefits of these fats from olives, avocados and nuts. Use extra virgin olive oil as often as possible. For higher heat cooking or baking, consider almond, peanut oil or avocado oil for good ways to get monounsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats (omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids): Focus on eating more foods packed with omega-3s. Choose oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel) and walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds. The American diet tends to be omega-6 heavy, so no need to worry about adding those in.

How to get the most benefit from your cooking oils

When you’re cooking with oils, you don’t have to choose between taste and health. But remember that less quantity is more quality. To use the least amount of fat and get the most taste and health benefits, Zumpano recommends the following.

1. Understand that oil’s pluses don’t always outweigh its minuses

Oil is a fat, regardless of what kind you use. At 9 calories per gram, fats are far more calorie-dense than carbohydrates or protein — which have 4 calories per gram. Even healthier oils, such as avocado and olive oil, are still fats. Keep your fat intake between 25-35% of your total daily calories.

2. Choose olive oil more

Olive oil has been proven to lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels when used to replace saturated fat such as butter. It also contains beta carotene, vitamins A, E, D and K plus many more healthful nutrients. Research shows these nutrients have beneficial effects on almost every bodily function.

Extra-virgin olive oil has the lowest oxidation rate of cooking oils. Oxidation promotes free radicals, chemicals that are highly reactive and can damage cells. Some of this damage may lead to cancer and other disease states.  It is also an excellent source of antioxidants, which also protect cells from damage and oxidation.

Extra-virgin olive oil also has an amazing skin- and body-protecting polyphenol called hydroxytyrosol. Studies show that hydroxytyrosol has among the greatest free-radical absorbing capacities.

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3. Consider your whole diet instead of just cutting out fat

Restrictive diets that cut fat often add sugar to compensate for the loss in taste — which isn’t exactly a healthy alternative. Think about everything you eat and aim for a nutritionally balanced mix that includes moderate amounts of healthy fats.

4. Sauté instead of fry

Pan-frying uses a substantial amount of oil and higher heat for longer periods. Deep fat frying also uses a lot of oil at high heats but can be done for shorter periods. But frying foods in oil — or any kind of fat — promotes free radicals.

Sautéing cooks small pieces of food in small amounts of fat for less time. Plan meals with foods that don’t need frying. When you bake, grill or quickly sauté your food, you reduce the amount of fat you consume. And remember: all oils that are safe to use at very high heat should be consumed in the least amount possible.

5. Make sure your oil is fresh

When you buy many oil varieties and store them for long periods, they eventually oxidize and develop free radicals. Instead, buy just a few kinds of oil in small amounts. Store them in a cool, dark and dry place and be sure to replace any that smell bitter or “off.”  Check the best-by date because oils should be used within 30-60 days after opening.

Grapeseed and walnut oils are an exception: Store them in the refrigerator so they don’t become rancid. The cloudiness in refrigerated oils will clear once they return to room temperature.

6. Be careful with spray oils

Many spray oils claim to have no trans-fat. Manufacturers can say this because they’re allowed to round down to zero if a serving size is less than half a gram. (Most spray oils list the serving size at a quarter-second spray.) To keep things honest, get the same results by using a towel or brush to wipe on the bottom of your pan.

You could also try PFOA-free nonstick or ceramic pans. Hand wash them with a soft, nonabrasive sponge or cloth to protect the surface and keep them in good shape.

7. Be strategic

If you’re eating healthy fats by dunking your ciabatta bread in olive oil or frying foods in canola oil, you aren’t getting the biggest bang for your buck. Use oil instead to extract, extend and infuse flavors or create new ones.

For example, instead of dipping your bread in a few tablespoons of olive oil, use the same amount of oil in a flavorful dish that several people can share — such as roasted vegetables or as a dressing for your salad. Or get a healthier, more flavorful meal by pan-searing fish with a little oil instead of frying battered fish in a pot of it.

Choose unsaturated fats as often as possible. They help round out a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Limit animal fats (saturated fats) and completely avoid trans-fats when possible.

8. Know cooking oil’s smoke point

The smoke point is the temperature that causes oil to start smoking, which produces toxic fumes and free radicals. Because of their chemical makeup, different oils have different smoke points. Some oils are better suited for cooking at higher temperatures. Generally, the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point. (Note: Smoke point relates only to fresh oil; oil that’s used for cooking and then strained and reused loses its integrity.)

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Oils with a high smoke point

These oils are best for searing, browning and deep frying (which you should avoid).

Oils with a medium-high smoke point

These oils are best for baking, oven cooking or stir-frying.

Oils with a medium smoke point

These oils are best for light sautéing, sauces and low-heat baking.

*Virgin coconut oil contains lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride that raises good and bad cholesterol levels.

No-heat oils*

These oils are best for making dressings, dips or marinades.

*Toasted sesame and extra virgin olive oils also work well.

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