Which Cooking Oil is Healthiest?

When it comes to cooking oil, we see a lot of headlines about what’s good and what’s bad. Today it’s olive oil, tomorrow it’s coconut oil. Next week, they’re both villains. What’s a sautéing aficionado to do? That depends. We will tell you which oils are best for you, but to fully understand their scope, here’s a little cooking lesson, first.

So what do you use cooking oil for?
Technically, cooking is the application of heat to food for the purpose of making it more digestible, more palatable, safer to eat, and to change its appearance and taste. Cooking with fats and oils provide lubrication, flavor and a means to extract, infuse and create new flavors.

Here’s an example of how I often use oil: Infusing one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil with fresh minced garlic, freshly grated lemon zest, fresh chiffonade of basil, a pinch of kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper will work wonders as a rub for fresh salmon or combined with one tablespoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice as a vinaigrette dressing for fresh garden tomatoes.

Cooking Methods to Use (and Not Use) Oil For:
Frying is the process of cooking a larger piece of food in a greater amount of fat for a longer period of time. But forget about frying—there is nothing beneficial for our health by frying foods and the process only promotes free radicals in cooking oils.

Sauté is a similar process—the difference is that you cook smaller pieces of food in smaller amounts of fat for shorter periods of time. Sautéing can be done low and slow, as in making a frittata or dry sautéing without any oils if desired. An example would be to sweat onions in a partially covered pot low and slow for a longer period of time.

Baking, broiling, barbecuing, braising, stewing and (my personal favorite) wilting can be done with or without oil. All of these cooking methods can be done low, slow and for short times by making foods small and selecting foods that require less cooking.

Example: You can make spinach taste amazing by lightly heating a teaspoon of fresh chopped garlic in one teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil until fragrant (about one minute) then add three cups of fresh cleaned spinach stems removed. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and stir until just wilted and serve—it’s fabulous

Oils and Oxidation:
When it comes to cooking oil, oxidation is a bad word. That’s when, upon heating, the oils breakdown into free radicals, which are bad for our health. High temperatures, along with the type or pan you’re using, can contribute to this.

READ MORE: Are Your Pots and Pans Healthy?

Polyunsaturated fats such as those from soybean, safflower, sunflower, corn, and most margarines will oxidize the greatest during the cooking process, while saturated fats such as butter, coconut oil, palm oil, poultry fat, meat fat and lard will oxidize the least. But they contribute to higher cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated fats like peanut oil, avocados, canola oil, and olive oil are less stable but studies show that olive oil especially can help lower our bad cholesterol and raise our good HDL levels. Those Italians may have it right! Studies also show that eating tomatoes with olive oil raises plasma antioxidant activity.

Polyunsaturated fats oxidize less then monounsaturated fats and much is determined by fruit variety, harvest time and extraction methods.

The Oils (and Cooking Temps) You Should Be Using:
The key is to choose a healthy oil, but don’t heat it above it’s smoke point, or the temperature where it begins to give off smoke. Excessive heat and over cooking not only increases free radicals in oils but will denature animal proteins, leach out important water soluble and heat labile nutrients like vitamin C. Textures can be overly softened, moisture and flavors are lost, changed or destroyed and vibrant colors are turned into drab hues of their former beauty.

Here are 12 of some of the healthiest oils and their smoke points. I recommend you heat below those points.

  • Walnut oil (monounsaturated) 325°F
  • Extra virgin olive oil (monounsaturated) 310°F
  • Virgin olive oil (monounsaturated) 375°F
  • Canola oil (monounsaturated) 400°F
  • Almond oil (monounsaturated) 420°F
  • Avocado oil (monounsaturated) 510°F
  • Safflower oil (polyunsaturated) 450°F
  • Sunflower oil (polyunsaturated) 450°F
  • Sesame oil (polyunsaturated) 400°F
  • Soybean oil (polyunsaturated) 450°F
  • Corn oil (polyunsaturated) 450°F
  • Rice bran oil (Monounsaturated) 490°F

 My Personal Favorites:
For taste it depends on the application. I love the taste of good quality first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.  I also love it when infused with citrus, blood orange, lemon, basil, garlic and balsamic vinegar.  I like toasted sesame oil with mushrooms and whole wheat pasta, farro and vegetables. Avocado oil is great with plants and salads and rice bran is good for light cooking because of its high smoke point.

READ MORE: Cook for the Most Beauty Benefits

Rice Bran Oil is relatively new to the market place, but research looks promising. Two studies found that it’s effective at reducing free radicals formed during the cooking process thanks to its high antioxidant levels.

Olive Oil Benefits Beauty:
The powerhouse benefit in extra virgin olive oil is the amazing skin and body protecting polyphenol named hydroxytyrosol. Studies show that it has among the greatest free-radical absorbing capacities of any ever studied. Hydroxytyrosol has more antioxidant power then green tea and will help reduce inflammation to the skin. Containing beta carotene, vitamin A, Vitamin E, D and K along with protecting phenolic compounds and many more healthful nutrients shown to have beneficial effects on almost every bodily function from condition of our skin and hair to the maintenance of the aging process.

Buy as you need:
Store in cool dark place, use in small amounts, and avoid long exposures to heat, light and air.  I use extra virgin olive oil (mostly on cold applications) and recently rice bran oil, both sparingly. Also, get the most from a small amount of oil by making rubs infused with citrus, herbs and spices before tossing with root vegetables to roast or grill, fish to sear or bake, and just simply with fresh picked garden tomatoes now “That’s Amore”.

Bottom Line: Less is More:
More health benefits that is! Because I spent over a quarter century cooking for many doctors and especially one very special couple, Dr. Cadwell Esselstyn Jr. and his wife Ann, who successfully teach a vegan no-fat diet, I have come to believe less oil of any kind has the most benefits. Ann advises me to say less to none.One of the best ways to cut back is to eat less of them. By abstaining you lose the desire. If you drank whole milk, then switched to 2%, then 1%, then fat free skim you would think whole milk would be overly rich and thick if you were offered it. This example of saturated fat holds true for oil, sodium and sugar.

READ MORE: What’s the Saturated Fat Situation?

So, try this great tasting less fat 30 minute tomato sauce and see for yourself. In 2 quart sauce pot heat one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, then add ½ cup of small diced sweet onions and sauté until translucent. Add 1 tablespoon fresh finely chopped garlic and cook two minutes. Add one 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (unseasoned with no added sugars) with ¼ teaspoon of black pepper and ¾ teaspoon of kosher salt. Bring to a simmer, add 1 tablespoon dried basil, one teaspoon dried oregano and simmer partially covered for 20 minutes and serve.

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