Chances are, at any given moment, you have two or three different cooking oils stashed in the pantry. (Or maybe four or five, although that one bottle has been almost empty for months.) And it’s also very likely that you use them more or less interchangeably, whether you’re roasting veggies or baking cupcakes.
But you really shouldn’t, because cooking oils can be surprisingly different from one another in terms of proper use and health values. Speaking of health, your oil can play an important role in a healthy diet. Why? Because of fat.
Stephanie Nelson, RD and Nutritionist at MyFitnessPal, narrates Eat that, not that!: “Any oil that is liquid at room temperature is an unsaturated fat that is beneficial for heart health by either raising your good cholesterol or lowering your bad cholesterol when replacing saturated fats in the diet…. A typical healthy diet has about 25% to 30% of its calories from fat, with most of those fats being unsaturated fats. Cooking with oil can help you achieve that goal.”
Healthy fats aside, however, the way you cook it can create some problems, as noted by Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RDN and owner of What’s for Dinner Club. Barkyoumb says, “When choosing a cooking oil, the first thing we usually think of is the type of fats in the oil, but we often forget to consider the smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil is no longer stable when they reach their smoke point, they start to break down and release free radicals that can be harmful to the body by causing cell damage. Also, oils that exceed their smoke point can have an unpleasant taste, which is the last thing we want when cooking! “
That’s why we rank these cooking oils not just for their nutritional value, but for how they perform in the pan or casserole dish and how they affect the flavor of the dish you’re making.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, lard really is unhealthy, given that it’s called… lard. And it’s made from the fatty tissue of pigs. A tablespoon of lard contains 20% of your total fat intake for the day and 25% of your saturated fat.
“Coconut oil is actually high in saturated fats,” Nelson says, especially when compared to the other oils on our list, but she adds, “It has a shorter fatty acid chain than other saturated fat sources and is more plant-based than animal-based.” In other words, it’s not that unhealthy, but is best just “eaten in moderate amounts”.
Some vegetable oils are actually pretty healthy, while others are pretty bad for you. And that’s really the problem here: It can be difficult to tell exactly what you’re getting — which can range from corn to cottonseed to palm to soybeans, etc. — unless you carefully study the label of each bottle of vegetable oil.
“When I bake something, I don’t mind using canola oil,” says Nelson. I use sesame or avocado oil when working with a flavor profile that calls for it. It’s not particularly unhealthy to eat moderate amounts of refined oils.” Canola oil has a neutral flavor profile, making it ideal for many recipes.
“Sesame oil has a medium-high smoke point of 410 Fahrenheit,” says Barkyoumb, adding, “It adds a nutty flavor, making it great for frying.” It’s high in heart-healthy antioxidants, and some studies even suggest neuroprotective benefits.” But it can be pricey, and that nutty flavor can cause off-notes in some dishes.
With a high smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, peanut oil is great for stir frying. It is rich in vitamin E and antioxidants and is excellent for frying when refined. Even when refined, peanut oil is usually allergy-safe, but cold-pressed peanut oil remains a hazard for those with peanut allergies.
“Olive oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit, which is common in cooking, especially for baked goods,” Barkyoumb says, adding, “It’s very versatile, it’s great for all types of cooking, and it’s rich in vitamins E and A unsaturated fat called oleic acid, which is linked to health benefits including heart health.
“Avocado oil has a smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Barkyoumb, so it’s “great for high-heat cooking like frying. It has a neutral flavor and also has the heart-healthy fats found in olive oil.” That would be monounsaturated fats, adds Nelson, saying she likes to cook with “avocado oil when I’m working with a flavor profile that calls for it.” .
Steven John is a freelance writer for Eat this, not that! based outside of New York City. Continue reading