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Healthy cooking oils

The 4 best oils to use for cooking (and 4 to avoid).

It's important to choose a cooking oil that's still healthy after you heat it. This article reviews 4 healthier cooking oils that tolerate high heat cooking and discusses a few oils that you should avoid for this purpose.

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Last updated on September 6, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on August 12, 2022.

Most people use cooking oils regularly, as you can use them to prepare all sorts of dishes, including meat, eggs, vegetables, sauces, and certain grain dishes.

People often focus on how to choose a healthy oil. However, the healthiness of oil when it comes off of the grocery shelf is only part of the story.

It’s also important to consider whether the oil is still healthy to consume after you’ve heated it during cooking.

This is because cooking oils have a range of smoke points or are no longer stable temperatures. You should not use cooking oils to cook at temperatures above their smoke point.

This article reviews four healthier cooking oils that tolerate high heat cooking and discusses a few oils that you should avoid altogether for cooking.

Why good cooking oils matter

When cooking oils are heated, particularly at high heat, they eventually reach their smoke point. This is the temperature at which the oil is no longer stable and begins to break down.

When oil breaks down, it begins to oxidize and release free radicals. These compounds can have negative health consequences, potentially causing cellular damage that may lead to disease development.

Furthermore, oils that reach their smoke point release a substance called acrolein, which can create an unpleasant burnt flavor. What’s more, airborne acrolein may be dangerous to your lungs.

It’s also important to consider the amount of processing a cooking oil has undergone, as this can affect its quality.

Highly refined oils have a uniform appearance and tend to be less expensive, whereas oils that have undergone minimal processing may contain sediment particles, have a cloudier appearance, and maintain a more natural flavor and color.

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Unrefined oils may contain more nutrients but are more sensitive to heat and may go rancid more quickly than highly processed cooking oils. Refined oils tend to have higher smoke points than unrefined oils.

Some refined oils are extracted using chemical solvents, while other oils are extracted by pressing plants or seeds. Many health-conscious consumers avoid chemically extracted oils and prefer those made by pressing, such as cold pressed olive oil.

Remember that oils from different sources can vary significantly in their nutritional composition, including the proportion and types of fatty acids they contain. This can significantly influence their health effects.

There are pros and cons to using refined and unrefined oils and oils of varying smoke points.

Read more here about how some vegetable and seed oils can promote good health while others can do the opposite.

Below are four healthier oils that can handle high-heat cooking.

Summary: Cooking oils have their pros and cons. It’s helpful to choose cooking oils based on their smoke point and degree of processing.

1. Olive oil

The smoke point of olive oil is approximately 350°F (176°C), which is a standard cooking temperature for many recipes, particularly those for baked goods.

Olive oil has long been the gold standard for cooking oils in kitchens across the globe. This is largely because it’s versatile. It has a subtle peppery or grassy flavor, and you can use it for baking, sautéing, or cold dressings.

Olive oil is rich in vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant. The primary fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which studies have shown may have anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties.

Additionally, olive oil contains antioxidant compounds called oleocanthal and oleuropein. These may have anti-inflammatory effects, helping prevent LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidizing.

Research has found that olive oil contains heart-healthy compounds and may help prevent obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.

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Summary: Olive oil has a medium smoke point and works well for baking and cooking. It’s rich in antioxidants and may have anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and heart health benefits.

2. Avocado oil

Avocado oil has a smoke point of approximately 520°F (271°C), making it ideal for high-heat cooking like deep frying.

It has a neutral, avocado-like taste, and you can use it similarly to olive oil. It also has a nutritional composition similar to olive oil, with a high percentage of the heart-healthy fat oleic acid.

Some animal studies have indicated that compounds in avocado oil may help lower blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides, high levels of which may increase your risk of heart disease.

Avocado oil may even be beneficial for reducing painful joint inflammation, enhancing the absorption of other nutrients, and protecting cells against free radical damage.

One review concluded that it maintains its nutritional quality at low and high temperatures.

The quality and nutritional makeup of avocado oil depend on various factors, including where the avocados were grown and the extraction method used.

Summary: Avocado oil is nutritionally similar to olive oil. It may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and heart-health benefits. It also has a higher smoke point that works well for high-heat cooking methods like deep frying.

3. Sesame oil

Sesame oil has a medium-high smoke point of approximately 410°F (210°C).

It’s high in the heart-healthy antioxidants sesamol and sesaminol, which may have various benefits, including potential neuroprotective effects against certain diseases like Parkinson’s.

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One small study among 46 people with type 2 diabetes found that using sesame oil for 90 days significantly improved fasting blood sugar and long-term biomarkers of blood sugar management.

Sesame oil works well for sautéing, general-purpose cooking, and even as a salad dressing. It offers a mild nutty flavor that works well in many stovetop dishes.

Note that regular sesame oil differs from toasted sesame oil. The latter has a more amplified nutty flavor, making it more suitable for finishing a dish than cooking one.

Summary: Sesame oil offers numerous benefits and has a medium-high smoke point and versatile, nutty flavor. Just remember that toasted sesame oil is not the same thing and is more suitable for finishing a dish.

4. Safflower oil

The smoke point for safflower oil is higher, sitting at approximately 510°F (265°C).

Safflower oil is made from the seeds of the safflower plant. It’s low in saturated fat, containing a higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids.

One study found that using safflower oil daily may improve inflammation, blood sugar management, and cholesterol among postmenopausal women with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

This oil offers a neutral flavor that works well for marinades, sauces, and dips, as well as barbecuing and frying on the stovetop.

Summary: Safflower oil has a high smoke point and neutral flavor, and it may have anti-inflammatory properties and promote heart health and blood sugar management.

Oils you should avoid in high-heat cooking

Not all oils are stable enough or intended for cooking, particularly high-heat preparations. Others do better in cold preparations or are used as dietary supplements, for example.

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The following oils are best to avoid when it comes to high-heat cooking:

Summary: Some oils are not recommended for high-heat cooking. Flax and walnut oil have lower smoke points and are best in cold preparations. Fish and algae oil are intended as supplements, and palm oil comes with ethical considerations.

Summary

There’s not a lack of options when it comes to cooking oils. For high-heat cooking, choosing oils that maintain their stability is essential. Oils heated past their smoke point break down and can produce unhealthy compounds.

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Some healthier cooking oils that can withstand higher temperatures include olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, and safflower oil.

They contain various unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, and other compounds that may offer health benefits.

On the other hand, some oils are better for cold preparations or as dietary supplements, or they’re otherwise not recommended for high-heat cooking. Some examples include fish oil, flax oil, palm oil, and walnut oil.

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