You probably use cooking oil in lots of homemade meals. But have you ever wondered what sets different oils apart from one another?
All oils aren’t created equal, and there are a few things to consider when choosing which ones to cook with. The uses, flavor, and types of fat that oils contain are just a few things to think about.
How to Choose a Cooking Oil
Some people shy away from adding extra fat into their cooking, but using an oil that contains healthy fats will enhance your diet, as long as you use it in moderation.
First, you should stick to the guidelines your doctor gave you. Your body needs some fat, but fat is rich in calories (9 calories per gram), and some types of fat are healthier than others. It’s possible to get too much, even of the “good” fats. Your doctor, or a registered dietitian, can let you know what limits you should follow.
Also, know that each oil has a unique chemical makeup, so some will be more suited for sauteing, some for searing, and others for no-heat preparations, like salad dressings. When cooking, always keep in mind an oil’s smoke point — that’s the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke and produce dangerous fumes and free radicals. Generally, the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point.
When an oil smokes or burns, any healthy fats and antioxidants burn along with it. The oil will also produce free radicals, which can be damaging and can cause health problems, especially if you use burned oil on a regular basis. Different cooking oils have their own smoke point temperature.
Types of Fats in Cooking Oils
Oil has healthy or unhealthy fats. Some oils have a mix of these fats, so get familiar with them to find the best option for you.
Saturated fats. These typically aren’t healthy. They’re mostly found in dairy products, fatty meats, or coconut and palm oils.
Trans fats. These are commonly found in processed food. Stay away from trans fats, or eat them sparingly. Check grocery labels to find out how much trans fats are in packaged food.
Monounsaturated fats. You can find these healthy fats in raw nuts, olives, and avocados. Monounsaturated fats can also be found in extra virgin olive oil, peanut oil, and avocado oil.
Polyunsaturated fats. These fats, which include omega-6 and omega-3s, are healthy fatty acids. You can get them from oily fish like salmon and mackerel, as well as chia seeds and walnuts. They’re especially good for your brain.
Types of Cooking Oils
You can find the most popular oils in most grocery stores.
Canola oil. This common oil is extracted from the rapeseed plant. Its neutral taste and high smoke point make it a good choice for frying, sauteing, and baking. It’s also used to make margarine. It doesn’t have as much blood pressure-lowering omega-3 as extra-virgin olive oil, but canola oil boasts one of the lowest levels of saturated fats. That can make it a good choice to help your heart health. It also has alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which your body converts to essential fatty acids. That makes it a great supplement to a vegetarian diet.
Olive oil. Olive fruit and pits are crushed to make this fragrant, fruity tasting oil that’s green or yellow in color. Extra virgin olive oil — the least refined of all types of olive oil — has the lowest smoke point. It’s also healthy for the heart. Bottles simply labelled “olive oil” are a mixture of refined and extra virgin oils.
Coconut oil. The buzz on this tasty, trendy oil is that it may have disease-preventing properties, but the blood pressure-conscious should beware: This oil packs the highest amount of saturated fat. It’s easy to be tempted by a great flavor boost, but too much saturated fat is a health no-no. Stick with traditional, nontropical vegetable oils. Olive and canola are better options.
If you want to give coconut oil a try, use it sparingly for light sauteing or low-heat baking and in sauces. It has a medium smoke point.
Vegetable oil. This is typically a mixed, neutral-tasting oil. Its nutrition varies depending on the particular blend. It’s often a mix of soybean, palm, sunflower, safflower, and canola oils. It usually has a medium-high smoke point and is quite versatile.
Avocado oil. This oil has a sweet aroma and is quite healthy for you. It contains mainly monounsaturated fatty acids that can help lower inflammation. It also has a high smoke point, making it good for frying and searing.
Sunflower oil. This comes from sunflower seeds. It’s a refined oil high in omega-6 fatty acids. It’s good for your heart health and it can lower inflammation. It mainly has monounsaturated fats, and its smoke point is high. Look for its high-oleic versions to reap all the benefits.
Peanut oil. It’s heart-healthy and tastes neutral. Refined peanut oil has a medium-high smoke point and is commonly used for frying. You can find unrefined peanut oil, too, though it’s quite rare.
Almond oil. If you’re looking for a distinctive, nutty flavor to add to a recipe, almond oil is tasty and typically low in saturated fat. Recent studies show that a diet rich in almonds may help reduce blood pressure.
With its high smoke point, almond oil is good for searing and browning as well as on salads.
Other Nut Oils
Walnuts, pumpkins, pecans, and other nutty oils are showing up on fine dining menus and even grocery shelves. All of them have healthy fats for heart health benefits, including lowering blood pressure.
These are no-heat oils that aren’t great for cooking. Use them moderately in dressings.
Flaxseed and wheat germ oils are rich in omega-3 and omega-6, which may help lower blood pressure.These are also no-heat oils, making them good choices for salad dressings and dips. Just be sure to watch your portions.
Storing Cooking Oil
It’s best to buy cooking oils in amounts you’ll use within a month or two after opening them. Otherwise, they can go bad. If you’ve stored oil for a few months, check to see if the smell has changed.
Also, keep cooking oils in a cool and dark place, because heat and light can damage them.
- American Heart Association: “Healthy Cooking Oils,” “Fats 101 Q&A,” “Potassium and High Blood Pressure.”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How to Choose and Use Healthy Cooking Oils,” “Heart Healthy Cooking: Oils 101,” “Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Which is Heart-healthier?”
- Food Insight: “Seven Common Cooking Oils: Health Benefits and How To Use Them.”
- FoodPrint: “Real Food Encyclopedia | Cooking Oils.”
- Harvard Health Letter: “Do omega-3s protect your thinking skills?”
- Pharmacognosy Review: “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health.”
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: “Magnesium.”
- News release, King’s College London.
- Psaltopoulou, T. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, October 2004.
- Ros, E. Nutrients, July 2010.
- Salazar, M. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, April 26, 2005.
- News release, American Heart Association.
- Bakhtin, I. Vopr Pitan, 2006.
- Nurul-Iman, B. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013.
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