Chances are that, at any given moment, you have two or three different cooking oils tucked into the pantry. (Or maybe four or five, though that one bottle has been almost empty for months.) And it’s also entirely likely that you use them more or less interchangeably, whether you’re sautéing some veggies or baking some cupcakes.
But you really shouldn’t, because cooking oils can be surprisingly different from one another in terms of their proper uses and their health metrics. And speaking of health, your oil can play a major role in a healthy diet. Why? Because of fat.
Stephanie Nelson, RD and nutritionist with MyFitnessPal, told Eat This Not That!: “Any oil that is liquid at room temperature is an unsaturated fat, which is beneficial for heart health by either raising your good cholesterol or by lowering your bad cholesterol, when replacing saturated fats in the diet…. A typical healthy diet will have about 25% to 30% of calories coming from fat, with most of those fats being unsaturated fats. Cooking with oil can help you hit this goal.”
On the other hand, healthy fats aside, the type of cooking you are doing can lead to some issues, as noted by Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RDN and owner of the What’s for Dinner Club. Barkyoumb says: “When picking a cooking oil, the types of fats in the oil are usually the first thing we think about, but we often forget to consider the smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil is no longer stable. When oils reach their smoke point, they start to break down and release free radicals which can be harmful to the body by causing cell damage.Plus, oils that exceed their smoke point can have an unpleasant taste, which is the last thing we want when cooking! “
So that’s why we’re not ranking these cooking oils based merely on their nutrition chops, but on how they perform in the pan or baking dish, and how they affect the flavor of the dish you are preparing.
Perhaps it’s little surprise that lard is really unhealthy stuff: after all, it’s called… lard. And it’s made by rendering the fatty tissues of pigs. One tablespoon of lard contains 20% of your day’s total fat allocation and 25% of your saturated fat.
“Coconut oil is actually high in saturated fats,” says Nelson, especially compared to the other oils on our list, but she adds: “It has a shorter fatty acid chain than other sources of saturated fats and comes from plants rather than animals. ” In other words, it’s not that unhealthy, but is best only “eaten in moderate amounts.”
Some vegetable oils are actually pretty healthy, while some are pretty bad for you. And that’s really the issue here: it can be hard to tell exactly what you’re getting—which can range from corn to cottonseed to palm to soybean and so on—unless you meticulously study the label of every bottle of vegetable oil.
“If I’m baking something, I don’t mind using canola oil,” says Nelson I’ll use sesame or avocado oil if I’m working with a flavor profile that calls for it. There isn’t anything specifically unhealthy with eating moderate amounts of refined oils.” Canola oil has a neutral flavor profile making it ideal for many recipes.
“Sesame oil has a medium-high smoke point of 410 Fahrenheit,” says Barkyoumb, adding: “It adds a nutty taste, making it ideal for sautéing. It is high in heart-healthy antioxidants and some studies even suggest neuroprotective benefits.” But it can be pricey, and that nutty flavor can create off-notes in some dishes.
With a high smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, peanut oil is great for stir fry cooking. It is rich in vitamin E and antioxidants and in its refined state is great for deep frying. Also, in a refined state, peanut oil is usually allergy-safe, but cold-pressed peanut oil remains a danger for people allergic to peanuts.
“Olive oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit which is a common degree in cooking, especially for baked goods,” says Barkyoumb, adding: “It’s very versatile which is great for all types of cooking and it’s rich in Vitamin E and a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid which is linked to health benefits including heart health.”
“Avocado oil has a smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit,” Barkyoumb says, so it’s “great for high-heat cooking like deep frying. It has a neutral taste and also has those heart-healthy fats found in olive oil.” Those would be monounsaturated fats, Nelson adds, says she happily cooks with “avocado oil if I’m working with a flavor profile that calls for it.”
Steven John is a freelance writer for Eat This, Not That! based just outside New York City. read more