4 of the Best Cooking Oils For Healthier Meals, According to RDs
Experts are constantly telling us that cooking at home is linked to better diet quality. In some cases, it can be nicer to your wallet, too, since cooking at home tends to cost less than dining out. But what you add to your dishes when you cook your homemade meals can be an important detail to consider when channeling your inner Iron Chef. Since many dishes require oil for cooking, it makes sense to put some extra thought into the kind you’re using – especially when considering which cooking oil is good for your health.
Cooking oils are a kitchen necessity and come in various types, each with its distinct characteristics and nutritional profiles. Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fats known for heart health benefits, is a staple in Mediterranean cuisine. Canola oil, with a balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and a high smoke point, is versatile for various cooking methods. And avocado oil, high in monounsaturated fats and an incredibly high smoke point, is ideal for high-heat cooking.
When looking for the best cooking oils, it’s best to consider the oil’s fatty-acid composition, smoke point, and stability under heat. Plus, the oil should remain stable under heat, meaning it should resist oxidation, a process that can produce free radicals that may harm your health.
You can also consider the bottle as a potential indicator of the quality of your cooking oil, says Carrie Gabriel, a California-based registered dietitian. High-quality oils usually come in dark glass bottles, which keep out light and oxygen and prevent the oil from going bad. Larger plastic bottles tend to be lower quality and oxidize more quickly. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, as some higher-quality oils are being offered in innovative squeezable bottles that are dark enough to avoid light oxidizing the oil.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to cooking oils, ahead we had registered dietitians (myself included!) share which cooking oils are worth exploring if you’re trying to cook healthy dishes, and which are best left on the grocery shelf.
The Best Cooking Oils For Your Health
Being great heat conductors, oils are used in cooking primarily to evenly distributing heat across the food, reducing the risk of overheating and burning. Additionally, they enhance the flavor of dishes, bringing out the natural aromas of ingredients and adding a unique taste profile of their own. Oils also contribute to the texture of food, providing a desirable, crispy exterior in fried dishes while maintaining juiciness and tenderness within.
But when it comes to whether you should be reaching for an olive oil or opting for a canola when you’re making your meal, there are some dietitian favorites that they deem “the best cooking oils.”
“My go-to oil is usually canola because it can handle more heat when cooking,” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, a Cincinnati-based registered dietitian. “It contains primarily monounsaturated fat, has a neutral taste, and is more affordable than avocado or olive oil.”
One thing to note about cooking with certain seed and vegetable oils, like canola oil (or sunflower or grapeseed), is that oftentimes the oil has been produced with hexane, a potentially toxic solvent used during the oil-extraction process. Some seed and vegetable oils may contain trace amounts of hexane, a concern to some, but experts agree that the residual amount is not enough to warrant concern. That being said, if it’s a concern to you, look for cold- or expeller-pressed and/or organic canola oil.
Ultimately, Andrews says that canola oil is a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and while it does contain bioengineered ingredients, those ingredients are tested for safety. Recent research also supports the use of canola oil in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, she points out.
While she uses it more often “for marinades or salad dressings because it has a low smoke point,” Andrews is an olive-oil fan for many reasons.
For starters, the potential benefits for your heart when you include olive oil in your cooking (and eating) are plenty, thanks to the high amount of monounsaturated fats, antioxidant phenols, and other micronutrients that support heart health. Evidence suggests these compounds and nutrients may reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, blood pressure, and lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. Plus, high consumption of olive oil has been suggested to prevent coronary heart disease (CHD).
Avocado oil is a unique type of cooking oil derived from the pulp of the avocado fruit. It has an exceptionally high smoke point, making it a preferred choice for high-heat cooking techniques like frying or sautéing.
“Avocado oil is one of the best choices because of its monounsaturated fat content,” says Sarah Garone, NDTR, CNC, a nutritionist based in Arizona. Under the monounsaturated fats umbrella, this oil is a particularly great source of oleic acid, which may promote heart health by contributing to a balance of cholesterol levels. The oil’s subtle, nutty flavor can add a unique twist to recipes, enhancing the overall culinary experience.
Sesame oil is also a superb choice for cooking. Its medium-high smoke point makes it an excellent option for stir-frying, sautéing, and grilling. Plus, sesame oil imparts a distinct, nutty flavor that can enhance a variety of dishes. It is also rich in antioxidants and heart-healthy fats, contributing to a balanced diet.
Are There Oils You Should Avoid When Cooking?
While all oils can be used during cooking, that doesn’t mean that each variety should be used. Oils that have gone rancid should be avoided when cooking. Per Garone, “you can tell olive oil has gone bad if it has an unpleasant smell or sour taste”.
Oils that have lower smoke points should not be used when cooking and are better used in salads, dips, and other “cold prep” recipes. Flaxseed and walnut oils are two examples of oils that have a low smoke point.
Finally, although it is deemed “safe,” cooking with hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils may not be the healthiest choice for your heart, as consumption is linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In other words, that old-school Crisco isn’t going to do wonders for your heart health.
Bottom line? Many delicious and healthy cooking oil choices can enhance many of your dishes. But to find which oil is best for your needs, your best bet is to ask your doctor or registered dietitian.