How to Choose a Healthy Cooking Oil
Some of the messages about the health benefits and harms of certain oils can be confusing. Coconut oil, for example, has grown in popularity in recent years, with proponents claiming without evidence that it can do everything from weight loss to preventing Alzheimer’s disease. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a hashtag doing the rounds on social media – #seedoilfree – referring to the misconception that seed oils such as sunflower and canola oil are toxic.
And then there is the question of price. All prices, even at the “basic” end of the oil spectrum, have reached record highs over the past two years due to factors such as the invasion of Ukraine, labor shortages , drought in some parts of the world and overly wet weather in others, says Mintak Joo, principal research analyst at Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data platform.
But choosing and using (and saving on) cooking oil doesn’t have to increase your stress levels or harm your health. Here’s the science-backed, dietitian-approved, and recipe-friendly skimp on cooking oil.
How are cooking oils made?
Cooking oil starts with the natural oil found in a wide variety of plants: seeds (such as soybeans, sunflower, sesame, safflower, and grapeseed); fruits (palm, olive and avocado); grains (corn and wheat germs); and nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and others). “Vegetable” oil is usually soybean oil or a blend of oils such as soybean and canola.
This natural oil is extracted from the plant using mechanical methods, such as passing the seeds or fruits through a press called an expeller. Manufacturers may also use chemical solvents and high heat to extract the oil, or a combination of mechanical and chemical methods. Many oils are then “refined,” using more chemicals and high temperatures. This step removes impurities and helps create an oil with a more uniform color, more neutral taste and better shelf stability.
Refining has a downside: Exposure to high heat can destroy some of an oil’s nutrients, such as antioxidant polyphenols, says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of policy at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. .
Some mass-produced oils may have antioxidants added after processing, but for a more nutrient-dense oil, look for the word “unrefined” on the label or “cold pressed,” which indicates the oil has been pressed at a temperature not exceeding 120 degrees. And choose oils labeled “organic” if you want to avoid those that have undergone chemical treatment.
How to choose a healthy cooking oil?
Most oils contain around 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. But it’s the type of fat in them it is the most important. “What is really related to [good] health is the unsaturated fat that comes from vegetable oils and vegetable fats,” says Mozaffarian.
Fortunately, most cooking oils are high in unsaturated fats, with a combination of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats, albeit in different proportions. These proportions are important because while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been linked to a lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and stroke, saturated fats have been shown to increase blood LDL levels” Wrong” cholesterol. (High levels can cause blockages in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.)
Olive oil is an excellent choice due to its high levels of good monounsaturated fats, antioxidant polyphenols, low amount of saturated fats and vitamins like E and K. Studies have shown that consuming olive oil can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer, and death from any cause.
“Two other oils for good health are canola oil and soybean oil,” says Mozaffarian. Both contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fats and omega-3s and omega-6s, which are essential fats that you can only get through your diet.
To limit saturated fats (the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest keeping it to less than 10% of your daily calories), you’ll want to use a light hand with coconut oil, butter, and ghee.
Quick tip: if a fat is solid at room temperature (think: butter, ghee, unrefined coconut oil), it’s mostly saturated. If it is liquid, like the majority of cooking oils, it is mostly unsaturated.
What are the different smoke points of cooking oils?
Each cooking oil has a specific smoke point, the temperature at which it begins to smoke and burn. Try frying with an oil that has a low smoke point — like walnut oil — and you could end up with a smoky (and possibly very dangerous) mess.
And then there is the flavor. Some cooking oils have a neutral oil that won’t steal the limelight from your other ingredients. Others assert themselves a little more, brightening up the taste of your dish. Much of the choice comes down to personal preference.
But it’s wise to keep a few essentials on hand: an olive oil for sautéing, seasoning, dipping and drizzling; canola or soybeans for sautéing, frying and baking; coconut oil for dairy-free cooking or when you want a sweet tropical note; and plain or toasted sesame oil for sautéing or adding aromatic flavor.
For freshness, most cooking oils should be stored in a dark glass bottle or container away from sunlight, but a few are best refrigerated.
Which oils are bad for you?
Processed foods often contain palm, palm kernel, and cottonseed oils. Palm oils — which resist oxidation, extending their shelf life — are found in many foods, including ice cream and pizza. Most home cooks in the United States. use other oils, but palm oils are a staple in African and Asian cuisines. Cottonseed oil is used commercially to give spreads their creamy texture and impart a rich flavor to fried foods (like potato chips). All three are high in saturated fat, so check the package label before buying. And palm oil production raises environmental concerns. Organizations including the World Wildlife Fund say some methods lead to deforestation, endangering species.
Are more expensive oils worth it?
You might be wondering why one olive oil costs three times as much as another when they are both labeled “extra virgin” and the bottles contain the same amount. Or why certain types of oils are so much more expensive than reserve oils like canola.
One of the main reasons is that mechanical methods (like the expeller pressing used for cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil) are less efficient; they extract less oil from the plant. Producers therefore have to start with more raw materials, which increases the cost base. And walnut, almond and avocado (and to a lesser extent, coconut) crops have been hit by drought and other challenges affecting the price of their oils.
When to use them? You can sauté your vegetables in cheap olive oil just fine, but cold-pressed artisanal olive oil may offer more nutrients or a more complex flavor that’s worth splurging on (and may -be to be used sparingly). Here’s how to save if you want to use specialty oils.
Buy house brands or store brands. Not only are they less expensive than brand name cooking oils, but they also often offer just as good quality. Examples: Wellsley Farms Organic for BJ’s Wholesale Club, Kirkland Signature for Costco, Great Value for Walmart and Good & Gather for Target.
Shop at stores where cooking oils are permanently discounted. Prices at BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and WinCo tend to be lower than other stores that have reduced or eliminated their regular promotional offers.
Buy in bulk or stock multiples of the same size. But check expiration dates because oils should be used within 30-60 days of opening.
Time your purchases. Cooking oils are usually on sale in stores during the first week of the month.
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