Your Guide to Choosing Healthier Cooking Oils
Experts break down the types of fats found in cooking oils, including what to look for and avoid.
Every cook worth their salt knows the importance of cooking oils. While olive oil is a favorite for a reason, there are so many more options out there—those with higher burning temperatures, more nutrient-packed components, and some with unique flavor profiles. But many of these oils contain large amounts of fat and figuring out which oils are the best, and healthiest, option for you can feel overwhelming.
Not all fats are bad, explains Dr. Ileana Vargas, MD, MS, assistant professor of pediatrics pediatric endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at Columbia University Medical Center. "Our bodies need fat in order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K) and we must also consume fat to obtain essential fatty acids (EFAs) that our bodies cannot produce." Dr. Vargas says the two essential EFAs we need to consume—ideally through food—are Omega-3 and Omega-6. "EFAs are a form of unsaturated fat, generally known as the 'good fat' as they have a positive effect on the body by lowering LDL levels (bad cholesterol) and increasing HDL levels (good cholesterol)," she explains. Unsaturated fats generally come from plant sources, while saturated fats tend to come from animal sources including dairy. A good rule of thumb: unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature—like olive oil—while saturated fats are solid—like butter, margarine, bacon, and animal fat. From heart-healthy options to those to use sparingly, one doctor and a nutritionist weigh-in on the different types of oils to cook with for a healthier meal.
Types of Fat in Oils
Many processed foods contain high amounts of Omega-6/Omega-3 ratios, which can have a negative effect on your health, potentially leading to cardiovascular disease, inflammation, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer, says Dr. Vargas. Like most things in life, moderation is key. Simply watching the types of fat you consume is a small step towards mitigating these potential illnesses. "Overall a fat is fat," says to Vanessa Rissetto, MS, RD, CDN. "Of course, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are more desirable as they help to lower LDL and don't clog arteries in the same way as saturated and trans fats," she explains. So now that you know the types of fats to look out for, discovering the types of fats that make up your cooking oils is the next step in making better choices.
Ratios to Consider
"Ideally, we want no more than three to one ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in our diets," explains Dr. Vargas. The standard American diet is currently greater than 10 to one, in some instances greater than 20 to one. But not to fret, Dr. Vargas says, these ratios can be improved, or rather lowered, by choosing healthier oils higher in Omega-3.
Better-for-you oils do exist, according to Dr. Vargas. Healthier oils to choose as they have lower Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios are canola oil (which is great for baking and frying), flaxseed oil, olive oil (virgin olive oil is ideal for sautéing and light olive oil is perfect for high-heat cooking), avocado oil, and cod liver oils. Meanwhile, Rissetto adds safflower oil to the list, as it too has less saturated fat, "which makes them overall healthier and less likely to clog arteries," she says. But Dr. Vargas warns against using too much the particular oil—reiterating the necessity for moderation.
Rissetto urges that just because something is a healthier fat, "doesn't mean you can eat it in obscene amounts," she says. She suggests sticking to the serving size, saying it's "paramount in these instances and that would be 1 tablespoon per serving in order to reap the benefits of fullness and heart health."
Less Healthy Options
While there are plenty of better-for-you cooking oils, there are many that don't fit the healthier criteria—like those high in trans fats. Rissetto says these man-made fats, "listed as 'partially hydrogenated oil' in the ingredients list of packaged foods—increase risk of heart disease more than any other type of oil." Meanwhile, oils with higher saturated fats should also give you pause. These oils are soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and rice bran oil.
"Try to avoid vegetable oil, corn oil, and palm oils as they contain more Omega 6 and no price benefit over canola oil which contains more Omega-3," says Dr. Vargas. That being said, one outlier does exist in the world of cooking oils, and that's coconut oil. "Coconut oil is controversial as it contains a lot of saturated fat, and while it can improve your HDL level, it can also raise your LDL and total cholesterol," says Dr. Vargas. She recommends using it in small amounts.