Avocado oil or canola oil? Coconut oil or olive oil? Find the right cooking oil can be tricky. Luckily, this easy guide breaks down the best – and worst – oils to cook with.
It’s often hard to identify healthy cooking oils. For example, you’ve probably read conflicting headlines about how canola oil affects cholesterol, or whether the saturated fats in coconut oil are good or bad for heart health.
To ease all of your oil woes, we’ve ranked cooking oils from best to worst. We’ll tell you which ones cause inflammation, and which you can safely use for sautéing liberally.
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Things to Consider When Choosing a Cooking Oil
There are several factors that come into play when considering cooking oils. We evaluated our cooking oils based on the following four characteristics.
When you cook with oils, you’re exposing them to heat. When temperatures get too high, it can damage or “oxidize” certain heat-sensitive oils.
Animal studies show that consuming oxidized oils generates free radicals in the body. These molecules damage our DNA and can result in all types of issues, from inflammation and raising cholesterol to cancer. (1, 2) Some of the best cooking oils have a high smoke point, meaning they stay stable under high heat and avoid oxidizing.
Fatty Acid Ratio
Oils contain different types of fatty acids. The most important to consider are omega-6 or polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 monounsaturated fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids are the most predominant type. Unless you eat plenty of fish, eggs, and nuts, it’s easy to get too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3s.
While omega-6 fatty acids aren’t inherently “bad”, consuming too many of them can cause widespread inflammation, which is linked to all sorts of diseases. (3, 4)
The best cooking oils contain a more balanced ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, making them less inflammatory.
It’s not uncommon for cooking oils to contain GMOs. Corn and soybean oil, in particular, are likely to be genetically modified, with about 94 percent in the U.S. coming from GMO plants. (5)
Research on the long-term health effects of GMOs is unclear. These crops are engineered to withstand the toxic effects of herbicides and pesticides like glyphosate, which have their own list of negative health effects. One study, in particular, found an association between glyphosate and increased risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, meaning it is potentially cancer-causing. (6, 7) Glyphosate can also harm the honeybees that pollinate plants and if their role in this is disrupted from pesticides, it may affect our food supply. (8)
GMOs can also create “superweeds” and “superbugs” that are adapting to survive the pesticides sprayed on crops. This requires even stronger pesticides to combat them, which could cause health issues for consumers. (9)
Production and Processing
Some oils are extracted using high heat or chemicals. This can oxidize sensitive oils before they are even bottled!
Highly processing or refining oils strips away the beneficial nutrients, or even damages the oil further. (10) Look for oils that are labeled “unrefined” to make sure they aren’t processed to the point of harming your health.
The Best Cooking Oils
The best cooking oils are minimally processed, with healthy omega-3 fatty acids and no GMOs and a high smoke point.
Avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points, making it resistant to oxidation. (11)
This healthy oil is also abundant in monounsaturated fatty acids, so you avoid the possible inflammatory effects of too many omega-6 fatty acids. As a bonus, it contains beneficial antioxidant compounds like polyphenols and carotenoids, which in animal studies shows to prevent aging and disease. (12)
Look for cold-pressed, unrefined avocado oil. The smoke point is slightly lower, but it ensures minimal processing with no heat, so there’s no risk that it’s already oxidized.
Use avocado oil in high-heat sautéing and frying, as well as broiling and roasting at high temperatures.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Even though olive oil’s smoke point is lower than some of the other oils on this list, studies show it is still one of the most stable cooking oils.
Researchers theorize that the high levels of monounsaturated fat and abundant antioxidants help stabilize the oil, even when it’s heated above its smoke point. In this way, olive oil is one of the unique oils that work outside of the smoke point box when it comes to oxidizing. (13)
Be sure to purchase extra virgin olive oil, ideally cold-pressed. This ensures that none of the antioxidants are damaged by heat processing, and also that you avoid chemical solvents used to extract the oil from the seed.
Coconut oil is another fantastic oil for high-heat cooking. Almost 90 percent of coconut oil is saturated fat, which is much more stable than polyunsaturated fats for cooking. (14)
Plus, coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a different type of fatty acid that may help with weight loss and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, while raising good cholesterol. (15, 16)
Coconut oil is best used for medium to high heat cooking. Be sure to look for unrefined, cold-pressed oil to avoid oxidization.
Macadamia Nut Oil
While not as common as the other cooking oils, macadamia nut oil contains high amounts of monounsaturated fats, making it excellent for high-heat cooking. (17, 18) Animal studies show macadamia nut oil may even help reduce inflammation. (19)
Give vegetables and meats a buttery flavor by roasting them in macadamia nut oil. As always, be sure to purchase cold-pressed and unrefined oil.
If you’re cooking with medium heat, say with light sautés or gentle roasts under 400ºF, almond oil is an excellent choice. Almonds also contain monounsaturated fat, making them less inflammatory than many seed oils.
Studies also show consuming almond oil may lower your cholesterol. (20)
The Worst Cooking Oils
Sunflower Seed Oil
Sunflower seeds are Paleo-friendly and don’t contain GMOs, but sunflower seed oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can promote inflammation when eaten too often.
The refined versions of sunflower oil tend to have a higher smoke point than the unrefined versions as well, meaning you’ll have to choose between a refined oil with a high smoke point (which could already be oxidized) or an unrefined oil with a lower smoke point.
While it’s not the best choice for cooking, it’s still better than corn and canola oils.
Canola is a popular cooking oil because of its high smoke point. However, over 90 percent of the canola in the U.S. is GMO. (21) The plant is engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, which can cause some pretty nasty side effects, like cancer. (22)
We generally don’t recommend using canola oil, unless you’re in a major bind or using an organic, unrefined version. Even so, canola contains higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which cause inflammation.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the production of palm oil and its effect on the environment. It’s cultivation resulted in huge deforestation throughout Indonesia and other regions of the world, and even killed off certain species of animals. (23) Still, sourcing sustainable palm oil is possible, and just takes a little extra effort to find.
While palm oil has a decent fatty acid profile, studies conflict as to whether it’s actually healthy for your heart or not. (24) Since studies are unclear in this regard, we don’t recommend palm oil.
Corn, Cottonseed, and Soybean Oil
Corn, cottonseed, and soybean oil are three other popular cooking oils. However, all three are grown from GMO plants in the U.S. (25)
While these oils have a high smoke point, they are also very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Animal studies also show that consuming these types of oils after they’ve oxidized disrupts gene expression and may lead to tumors. (26)
Steer clear of these three oils whenever possible.
The Bottom Line
There are lots of cooking oils on the market, and their health effects vary wildly. Choose an unrefined cooking oil that can withstand the temperature you’re cooking at, and avoid GMO plants whenever possible. As much as you can, stick to the five top cooking oils on this list for the best heart-healthy options.
For more tips on buying cooking oils, check out these suggestions for buying the healthiest coconut oil, and these slew of reasons for avoiding vegetable oil at all costs.