What are the healthiest cooking oils?
There are lot of options for cooking oils these days. But what are the healthiest cooking oils and how can you use them when preparing and cooking food?
What are the healthiest cooking oils? It’s a question you may have found yourself asking if you like to add a splash or two of liquid gold into the pan when cooking meats and vegetables. But not all oils are created equal, and with dozens of bottles and jars lining the grocery store shelves, trying to decide on which cooking oil to buy can feel more than a little overwhelming.
“Over the past 10 years, the landscape of cooking oils has changed,” says Dr. Jo Ann Carson, a professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She points to the wider availability of oils such as grapeseed oil and the fairly recent arrival of coconut oil and avocado oil as examples of how the market has evolved. “With so many cooking oils, it can be difficult to make sense of the latest health headlines about dietary fat in general.”
The good news is, selecting the right oil to cook with doesn’t need to be a challenge. To help make life easier, we’ve checked out the latest research and spoken to nutrition experts to lift the lid on cooking oils and their health benefits, from reducing heart disease to maintaining healthy body weight.
Read on to get the lowdown on which oils to avoid and which to include to benefit your overall health.
Should you use cooking oils?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025), oils are an essential part of a healthy diet. We need the fatty acids in cooking oils to help us:
- Absorb vitamin A, D, E and K
- Support a healthy body weight
- Aid healthy cell growth
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
All oils contain three types of fatty acids:
- Monounsaturated fat: Healthy fat found in olive oil, nuts and seeds
- Polyunsaturated fat: Healthy fat found in oily fish, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds
- Saturated fat: Unhealthy fat found in butter, lard, coconut oil and palm oil
Each oil is categorized based on which type of fatty acid is the most prominent. For example, olive and canola oils are mostly monounsaturated fat, while corn and soybean oils contain mainly polyunsaturated fat. On the other hand, coconut oil is predominantly saturated fat, which is linked to high cholesterol and heart disease.
Even healthy oils are fat, says the Cleveland Clinic, so limiting any oil consumption to a healthy amount, around 27g a day, is essential.
To help you select some of the healthiest oils while still pleasing your taste buds, here is a rundown of nine cooking oils.
Olive oil & extra virgin olive oil
Olive oil is made by pressing whole olives and extracting the oil, and is a key part of the Mediterranean diet. The United States is the third largest consumer of olive oil, getting through around 406,000 metric tons every year.
Both olive oil and extra virgin olive oil have a lower smoke point than other oils, so they are better for medium-heat cooking. “The oil cannot withstand very high heat before it starts to burn and smoke,” says Carson. “Refined, or pure, olive oil may be more suited for high-temperature cooking.”
Jo Ann S. Carson, PhD, RD, FAHA recently retired as a Professor of Clinical Nutrition. For over four decades at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center she focused on nutrition education, helping students gain knowledge and skills to improve their own nutritional habits and those of their patients to prevent chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease. She has chaired the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee and continues to serve on an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Evidence Analysis project related to diet and heart health.
Carson also points out that because extra virgin olive oil offers more flavor than olive oil, it's a good option for sautéing vegetables, dipping bread or preparing salad dressings and marinades.
Olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fats and oleic acid, which can prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol. It’s also low in polyunsaturated fat.
Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed version of olive oil, so it keeps more of the nutrients and antioxidants. A 2018 International Journal of Molecular Sciences review points out that these antioxidants reduce oxidative damage that can cause inflammation, leading to diseases such as cancer or diabetes.
Although many news headlines consistently report that the Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, is critical to good cardiovascular health, a 2019 Cochrane review says there is still ‘uncertainty’ around its effects with the evidence for benefits low or moderate.
Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein is Senior Scientist and Director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the HNRCA. Dr. Lichtenstein is the Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and holds appointments as Professor in the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts Medical Center, Professor of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine.
Avocado oil has a mild flavor similar to the fruit it’s made from, and the oil can withstand high cooking temperatures, making it suitable for sautéing, grilling, roasting or using in salad dressings.
Avocado oil has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fat among cooking oils, second only to olive oil. Like olive oil, avocado oil is also low in polyunsaturated fats and rich in oleic acid.
We need more research to be sure of avocado oil’s health benefits, but early studies show that it can reduce cholesterol, improve cardiovascular health, benefit eye health and help the body absorb other essential nutrients. It may even improve the symptoms of arthritis, as one 2019 systematic review published in the International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases shows.
Compared with other vegetable oils, avocado oil has a higher saturated fat content (20%). However, this percentage is much smaller than the percentage of saturated fat in butter, lard or tropical oils, such as coconut or palm oils.
“Avocado oil is a fine oil to use, although it tends to be more expensive than other oils and may be harder to find,” says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy and director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston.
This neutral-flavored oil comes from a plant called rapeseed. “It’s a versatile and practical cooking oil that's not very expensive and can be used in a variety of ways, from baking and grilling to stir-frying and making salad dressings,” says Carson.
Canola oil also has relatively high monounsaturated fat content and is a good source of polyunsaturated fat. It also has the lowest level of saturated fat among cooking oils and is one of the few oils that contain a good plant-based source of omega-3 fats, a beneficial type of polyunsaturated fat.
A review of studies published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases Reviews found that canola oil can ‘significantly’ reduce people's risk of heart disease.
Made from the fruit of the coconut palm tree, coconut oil is a white solid at room temperature with a consistency resembling that of butter or shortening, rather than liquid oil. Unrefined coconut oil can be used for medium heat sauteing or baking, while refined coconut oil can be used with high temperatures.
Despite marketing claims that coconut oil is a healthy option, it’s high in saturated fat, containing more than the same amount of butter or lard. As a result, it’s not included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans or recommended by the American Heart Association.
However, a 2021 review in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture maintained that coconut oil has been proven to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, as well as improving the skin. It claims that Western science needs to do more research into the benefits of coconut oil.
“Coconut oil does not have any unique heart-health benefits, and its ‘halo effect’ — meaning its perception by the public as a healthful food — is probably not justified from a scientific perspective”, says Lichtenstein. “There is no reason to use coconut oil rather than unsaturated oils, and there are potential disadvantages from its high content of saturated fat”.
Until more substantial research, it’s probably safer to steer clear of coconut oil if you want to limit saturated fats in your diet.
This versatile cooking oil is extracted from grape seeds left over from wine making. A favorite of chefs and foodies, grapeseed oil has a mild flavor that can be combined with other, stronger flavors. It's a good all-purpose oil for sautéing and roasting, or in salad dressings. Store it in the refrigerator along with walnut oil so it doesn’t become rancid, advises the Cleveland Clinic.
Grapeseed oil is rich in vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant. It also contains very high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. While some evidence, such as a study published in the Missouri Medicine journal, points to omega-6 fats increasing the risk of obesity, autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies, another study published in Food & Function found that the type of omega-6 fats found in rapeseed oil can lower inflammation. So we need more research to discover how grapeseed oil can impact our health.
A flavorful oil with a pale color and nutty aroma, peanut oil comes from the edible seeds of the peanut plant. According to food experts, it can withstand high heat and is a good choice for cooking Asian-inspired meals and stir-fries.
Among cooking oils, peanut oil has the highest monounsaturated fat content and similar levels of polyunsaturated fat to canola oil.
Like grapeseed oil, peanut oil is rich in the antioxidant vitamin E. However, it also contains very high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat, so some health experts warn against using it until we know more about the effects of omega-6 fatty acids on our health.
Often used in Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, sesame oil comes from pressed sesame seeds. Sesame oil lends a nutty flavor to any dish, especially toasted sesame oil, which has a darker color and bolder flavor. Refrigerate sesame oil after opening it.
“It's not usually used as a cooking fat and is used more for its intense flavoring,” says Lichtenstein. “It’s a good mix of polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat.”
Sesame oil contains sesamol, a key natural phenol known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. According to the American Oil Chemists’ Society, sesamol can reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. A small randomized control trial published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that it may help to regulate blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
“Historically, vegetable oil has typically been soybean oil,” says Carson. “But these days, the term also may be used for a blend of different oils.” Vegetable oil made from soybeans is a neutral-tasting oil that does not have much flavor, but it’s a versatile, all-purpose cooking oil for sautéing and frying or making salad dressings.
Soybean oil is primarily polyunsaturated, with just 15% saturated fat. As a bonus, soybean oil contains omega-3 fats, which are heart-healthy fats often found in salmon and sardines but are less common in plant-based food sources.
Light in color and neutral in flavor, sunflower oil has one of the highest concentrations of polyunsaturated fat among cooking oils. It also contains some monounsaturated fat and is low in saturated fat, making it an overall heart-healthy option. Sunflower oil is an excellent all-purpose oil because it can withstand high cooking temperatures, so it can be used for roasting, frying and deep-frying.
There are three types of sunflower oil available in the U.S. for home cooking, each of which have been modified to have different fatty acid profiles:
- High linoleic acid
- High oleic
Modifying sunflower oils to have higher linoleic or oleic acid levels changes how these oils behave during cooking. While all three have the same levels of saturated fat, high oleic contains more monounsaturated fat and high linoleic contains more polyunsaturated fat.
A diet with plenty of oleic acid is linked to lower cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease. It may also increase good cholesterol. As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved health claims for high oleic sunflower oil.
What is the healthiest cooking oil?
According to the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, olive oil or extra virgin olive oil is the go-to cooking oil for a heart-healthy life, although other oils can provide similar benefits, such as vegetable oil. In addition, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends switching from butter, lard, shortening or coconut oil to vegetable oil when cooking to reduce saturated fat in the diet.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
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Joanne Lewsley is a UK-based freelance writer and editor, covering health and lifestyle news and features. She mainly creates evidence-based health and parenting content and has worked with a number of global sites, including BabyCentre UK, Medical News Today, Fit & Well, Top Ten Reviews, and Yahoo!
- Cari NierenbergLive Science Contributor