The Healthiest Cooking Oils to Use, According to Data
Here's what you need to know about every cooking oil's smoke point, nutrition and flavour.
Shopping for cooking oil used to be easy—there were only a few options available at the grocery store, namely olive, peanut and vegetable. Today, there are over a dozen varieties to choose from, each with purported health benefits.
Plus, the price points are all over the place. Vegetable oil—a generic term for blended oil made from ingredients that could include any combo of palm, sunflower, corn, soybeans and canola—has spiked in price, a trend that began two years ago and remains in a state of flux. Over the last several years, supply has tightened due to extreme weather events (droughts in South America and Canada, typhoons in southeast Asia) and labour shortages during the pandemic, according to an analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute. The supply of sunflower oil in particular has declined because of the Russia-Ukraine war (Ukraine is the top exporter globally). And of course vegetable oil is not only a staple in home kitchens and restaurants, but a key ingredient in many processed foods, which also drives up the price.
Which oil is right for you? Consider smoke point, nutrition and flavour, in addition to price. The oil’s smoke point (the temperature where it starts to burn and tastes terrible) is key. Ones with higher smoke points are best for roasting, frying, sautéing and baking. Those with lower smoke points are good for dressings, sauces or finishing drizzles. Avoiding the smoke point is also impotant because that’s when harmful free radicals that trigger disease are released.
All oils are a calorie-rich fat, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (good in that they’re required for normal body functions and can improve blood cholesterol levels) but some have significant amounts of saturated fat (not-so-good, because they can drive up your unhealthy LDL cholesterol). As with everything in healthy eating, variety and moderation reign supreme, and the type of fat you eat is more important than the amount of fat you eat. Here’s how the most commonly available oils stack up.
Image: Issha Marie
The hero of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil is rich in plant compounds called polyphenols, which have been linked to reducing incidences of cancer and heart disease. It is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, containing about 75 percent by volume, so when substituted for saturated fats, it helps lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. Observational studies have shown a link between lower risks of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and even dementia in people who consume higher amounts of olive oil than those who use little or none. Always go for extra-virgin olive oil, which is pressed mechanically from ripe olives and processed without high heat or chemical solvents. It has a lower smoke point, but more healthy polyphenols.
Medium smoke point: 325°F (extra-virgin olive oil) to about 465°F (refined or light olive oil).
Rich in monounsaturated fats, specifically oleic acid or omega-9 and vitamin E, avocado oil is considered heart-healthy, with the potential to lower bad LDL cholesterol. Its mild, buttery flavour works for sweet and savoury dishes, and it performs just as well for deep-frying as it does as a salad dressing base. The downside? It’s expensive.
Very high smoke point: 520°F (higher than most plant-based oils)
Tip: In terms of health benefits, olive oil and avocado oil are right up there. Avocado oil has a higher smoke point, making it more versatile, but it can be more expensive for everyday use.
Good for frying and grilling, with a toasty but relatively neutral flavour, corn oil is inexpensive, which makes it a good option for occasional deep-fried treats.
High smoke point: 450°F
High in monounsaturated fat, peanut oil contains phytosterols that can block absorption of cholesterol, (Chronic inflammation can occur in response to unwanted substances in the body, such as excess of fat cells, and it contributes to cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and other conditions.) Its slightly nutty flavour makes it a smart choice for stir fry and homemade French fries.
High smoke point: 450°F
Research has found that substituting sunflower oil, which is full of oleic fatty acids, for saturated fats in the diet can produce lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (Your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells, and high levels can increase your risk of heart disease.) It also has high levels of vitamin E—one tablespoon contains 28 percent of recommended daily intake—and can be used for sautéing, stir frying, deep frying and baking.
High smoke point: 450°F
A chef favourite, grapeseed oil has a neutral taste, making it an ideal all-purpose oil (frying, baking or even as a blank-canvas base for dressings with bold ingredients). It does contain high levels of omega-6, which can trigger inflammation if more than moderate amounts are consumed.
High smoke point: 420°F
Like olive oil, canola is high in monounsaturated fat (63 percent) and offers a decent level of polyunsaturated fats. Of all vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats, at just 7 percent, which means it’s one of the healthiest in that category. And it’s one of Canada’s leading crops. There’s plenty of misinformation about canola oil circulating online, claiming that it has high levels of so-called toxins because of the way it’s processed, but these theories have been thoroughly debunked.
Medium-high smoke point: 400°F
Vegetable oil blends contain the highest levels of polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to potentially lower coronary heart disease. The knock against vegetable oils is that they are ultra-refined and processed, which means they not only lack flavour, but also nutrients. The trouble, health-wise, comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, used to make products like margarine, coffee creamer, packaged snacks and fried foods. This form contains harmful trans fats, which raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and is also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Medium-high smoke point: 400°F
Popular and controversial, coconut oil is so high in saturated fat (82 to 90 percent) that the American Heart Association advises against using it. The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation lists it with fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, butter and lard—for consuming in absolute moderation. It has a wonderful flavour and there’s no problem using it occasionally, but it shouldn’t be your go-to.
Medium smoke point: 350°F (up to 400°F for refined coconut oil, which has been filtered and deodorized, so retains little to no coconut flavour or fragrance)
Tip: Oils with similar smoke points can be substituted for one another, but be aware that some carry more flavour than others.
This oil contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, though it’s not especially high in other nutrients. Refined sesame oil has a relatively neutral flavour and a higher smoke point, so it can be used for frying; toasted sesame is bold in flavour, and a little goes a long way.
High smoke point (refined): 410°F
Medium smoke point (toasted): 350°F
This rich, nutty-flavoured oil has a high concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acid and a very low smoke point, so it’s not practical to use it for cooking. Use it as a finishing oil for salads, soups and grain bowls that will stand up to its strong flavour (which is similar to sunflower seeds), and store it in the fridge.
Low smoke point: 332°F
The delicate, slightly sweet and nutty flavour of walnut oil makes it perfect for a finishing drizzle on dishes. This is not an oil you want to cook with; instead, take advantage of its rich concentration of omega-3 fatty acids by adding it to your salad dressing.
Very low smoke point: 320°F
Next: The Healthiest Milk for Your Coffee, According to Registered Dietitians