Healthiest and Worst Oils

Contrary to popular belief, fat is not a dirty word. According to the American Heart Association, it aids in cell growth, protects your organs, and aids in nutrient absorption (AHA). “Our bodies require fats to absorb certain fat-soluble nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as beta-carotene,” explains Christine Palumbo, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian.

“Fat also contributes to post-meal satiety, or a sense of fullness,” Palumbo explains. According to the Mayo Clinic, fats and proteins are processed more slowly by the body than carbohydrates, which can help you feel fuller and maintain a healthy weight.

Healthiest and Worst Oils - Photo by Quin Engle
Healthiest and Worst Oils – Photo by Quin Engle

If you enjoy cooking with oils in particular, you’re making a wise choice: “Fat is an essential nutrient, and liquid fats such as oils are an excellent source,” says Jessica Levinson, RDN, a New Rochelle, New York-based culinary nutrition expert.

Women over the age of 31 should aim for 5 teaspoons (tsp) of oil per day, while men in the same age group should aim for 6 tsp (USDA).

Simply ensure that you select the appropriate oil. The AHA recommends swapping saturated fat-containing foods for those high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Check out the list below for a cheat sheet on which oils to choose, how much to use, and how to avoid.

The Eight Healthiest Oils

1. Olive Oil Extra Virgin

Olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean diet’s renowned heart-healthy reputation, and it is ideal for drizzling over salads, pasta, and bread. “Olive oil, particularly extra-virgin olive oil, is my preferred and primary oil,” Palumbo says. According to Berkeley Wellness at the University of California, virgin olive oils are those in which the oil is extracted without the use of chemicals, while extra virgin olive oils are the highest grade. “[Extra-virgin olive oil] contains over 30 different phenolic compounds,” Palumbo explains. Phenolic compounds are a class of phytochemicals that include several that have anti-inflammatory and blood vessel-dilating properties.

One particular phytochemical has garnered considerable attention due to its possible protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease, as research indicates. According to Palumbo, certain types of extra-virgin olive oil contain a natural anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal. “If it is present in the olive oil, you can taste it in the back of your throat as a peppery finish.”

Olive oil is also beneficial for cardiovascular health. “Extra-virgin olive oil contains a higher concentration of beneficial monounsaturated fats than other oils,” she explains. Monounsaturated fats, according to MedlinePlus, can help lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. A study published in the journal Circulation in February 2017 discovered that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with four tablespoons (tbsp) of virgin olive oil per day helped improve HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Olive oil is suitable for sautéed dishes and baked goods, but because it has a low smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to degrade and smoke), it is not suitable for deep frying, according to Beth Warren, RD, of New York City and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food. Finally, contrary to popular belief, heating olive oil does not degrade its polyphenol content, according to a study published in January 2020 in Antioxidants. While some polyphenols are degraded during cooking, sufficient remain to confer their health benefits.

2. Canola oil

Canola oil contains less than 7% saturated fat and, like olive oil, contains a high proportion of monounsaturated fat. According to Berkeley, it also contains a high proportion of polyunsaturated fat.

Even so, canola oil’s healthfulness has been questioned. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one area of concern is the solvent hexane, which is used to extract oil from rapeseed to produce canola oil and is suspected to be toxic. However, the final oil contains only trace amounts. Another point of contention is the trans fat content of canola oil — though Harvard asserts that the low trans fat content is comparable to that of many other vegetable oils on the market.

Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and a neutral flavor, making it ideal for cooking at a higher temperature, such as roasting or frying, according to Levinson. Because it lacks the flavor of some other vegetable and seed oils, Warren advises against using it in salad dressings and other dishes where the oil is intended to impart flavor.

3. Flaxseed oil

“Flaxseed oil is a good source of alpha-linolenic acid, which is a type of omega-3 fatty acid,” Palumbo explains. According to Mount Sinai, the other forms (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) are found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines.

Apart from their cardiovascular benefits, omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat that your body cannot synthesize on its own, may help reduce your risk of developing certain types of cancer, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. According to the Arthritis Foundation, flaxseed oil in particular may help alleviate arthritis symptoms.

Another enticement? According to Mount Sinai, flaxseed oil contains omega-6 fatty acids, which are also beneficial to your health. A study published in May 2019 in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation discovered that higher omega-6 fatty acid levels were associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

While you may have heard that omega-6 fatty acids are unhealthy, Harvard Health Publishing reports that this is not true; simply balance your intake of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.

Avoid heating this oil, as research indicates that doing so can alter the fatty acid composition. Rather than that, Warren suggests using it in cold dishes such as smoothies and salads. “It’s delicious drizzled over greens or whole grains or used as a marinade,” Palumbo suggests.

4. Avocado oil

Why not give avocado oil a try if you enjoy avocados? “Avocados and avocado oil are both high in beneficial monounsaturated fats,” Levinson explains.

Avocado oil has an excellent nutritional value at both low and high temperatures, according to a review published in June 2019 in the journal Molecules. “Avocado oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil, making it ideal for cooking at a higher temperature,” Levinson explains. It’s ideal for stir-frying, sautéing, or searing, according to Sara Haas, RD, a Chicago-based chef and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Meanwhile, Levinson recommends avocado oil for baking due to its neutral flavor.

5. Oil made from walnuts

“Walnut oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly alpha-linolenic acid,” Levinson says.

“Because walnut oil is unrefined and has a very low smoke point, it is not suitable for cooking. It has a robust, nutty flavor and is best used in salad dressings and as a flavor enhancer at the end of a dish, “Levinson explains.” According to Warren, walnut oil is ideal for desserts and other recipes that benefit from a nutty flavor.

6. Sesame Seed Oil

Sesame oil, a staple of Asian and Indian cuisine, is included on the American Heart Association’s list of heart-healthy cooking oils.

“Sesame oil is another source of polyunsaturated fat,” Levinson explains. Sesame oil is known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fat and other substances in the artery walls, causing these vessels to narrow and blood pressure to rise.

“It has a high smoke point, which makes it ideal for high-heat cooking methods such as stir-frying, but it has a strong flavor,” Levinson notes, adding that “a little goes a long way and can be overpowering.” She enjoys cooking with sesame oil and uses it primarily in sauces and marinades. Palumbo agrees, noting that she keeps “a small bottle of toasted sesame oil in my refrigerator — it adds a sweet, nutty flavor to stir-fries and marinades.”

7. Grapeseed Oil

According to Warren, grapeseed oil is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point, making it a healthy choice for all types of cooking and grilling. Its mild, nutty flavor is also delicious in salad dressings or drizzled over roasted vegetables.

Grapeseed oil, like flaxseed oil, is high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Additionally, grapeseed oil contains vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant and is critical for immune system support, according to the National Institutes of Health. The USDA states that one tablespoon of grapeseed oil is an excellent source of vitamin E.

8. Sunflower Oil

Sunflower oil is another AHA-approved cooking oil due to its high unsaturated fat content and low saturated fat content. According to research, choosing sunflower oil over a saturated fat-rich oil may help lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

According to the USDA, 1 tbsp of sunflower oil is an excellent source of vitamin E, just like grapeseed oil.

3 Oils to Avoid or Limit

1. Coconut Oil

This oil is divisive. According to a September 2016 article published in the Ghana Medical Journal, coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, contains approximately 90% saturated fat, but not all saturated fats are equal. “This is not to be confused with the saturated fat found in red meat, which clogs your arteries,” Warren explains. Coconut oil contains a high concentration of medium-chain fatty acids, which the body has a harder time converting to stored fat, she explains. Another advantage: Although not all studies have reached the same conclusion, a study published in March 2018 in BMJ Open discovered that the oil significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels.

However, according to a study published in January 2020 in Circulation, coconut oil may also raise your LDL cholesterol levels, which is bad news for your ticker. “Eating a lot of coconut oil would make it difficult to maintain a healthy LDL cholesterol level,” says Kimberly Gomer, RD, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.

If you choose to cook or bake with coconut oil, the Cleveland Clinic recommends that you do so in moderation, within the recommended saturated fat intake limits, and as part of a larger healthy diet.

2. Hydrogenated oils that have been partially hydrogenated

According to the AHA, the primary source of unhealthy trans fats in a person’s diet is partially hydrogenated oil, which is found in processed foods. These synthetic trans fats are produced industrially by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to solidify them.

The FDA determined that these fats are so harmful to health that manufacturers must eliminate all trans fats from their products by January 2020, an extended deadline. You should also avoid partially hydrogenated oils, Warren advises. Still, the Mayo Clinic reports that in the United States, if you purchase a food that contains less than 0.5 grams (g) of trans fat, a company may label it as having no trans fat, and those small amounts of trans fat can quickly add up if you’re not careful. (To determine if a product contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, look for the phrase “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the ingredient list.)

“Avoid partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fatty acids,” Palumbo advises. “[They] extend the shelf life of a product, but they are harmful to human health.”

3. Palm kernel oil

According to research, palm oil contains roughly equal amounts of saturated and unsaturated fat. According to Harvard Health Publishing, because it is semisolid at room temperature, it is frequently substituted for partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods — which is not always a bad thing, given that it contains less saturated fat than butter and no trans fats.

Still, palm oil should not be your first choice when cooking, especially when other oils with lower saturated fat content are readily available. Additionally, diabetics should monitor their saturated fat intake closely (due to their increased risk of heart disease) and avoid saturated fat sources such as palm oil, according to the American Diabetes Association.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are also ethical concerns about the use of palm oil, as palm oil production has been linked to deforestation and unethical labor practices.

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