Dietitian grades best and worst of cooking oils

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The cooking oils aisle of the grocery store offers a wide assortment of types, brands and prices. You may find yourself even more baffled – and rightly so! – trying to pick the healthiest option. 

Keep reading this Healthy Oils Guide from Ohio State Registered Dietitian Mara Weber, MS, RD, LD

[Hint: Bookmark this page or email it to yourself for easy reference next time you’re at the grocery store]

Many foods can be cooked in oil, such as chicken or potatoes. But be sure you are using the healthiest option or else your meal can take on added empty calories.

“I recommend variety but in moderation since oil provides concentrated calories. Stick with unsaturated fats for the most part,” says Weber. 

This offers a good reminder: oils are principally ‘fats.’

So what does Weber reach for in her pantry? 

“I find extra virgin olive oil to be my biggest workhorse in the kitchen because I can use it for multiple dishes, and it’s one of the all-around healthiest options.”

  1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    • Health Grade: A
    • What is it? Oil extracted from olives. 
    • What does ‘extra virgin’ mean? Olive oil is graded by quality. Extra virgin is the highest quality because it is not processed, which can destroy some health benefits. Lesser quality versions of olive oil are usually called “light” (referring to flavor, not calories), or are just labeled as olive oil. 
    • In the kitchen: Olive oil can be a vinaigrette for your salad, a dip for bread or used during the cooking process. Heating olive oil also takes away its distinct fruity flavor and makes it taste milder. The smoking point is low, therefore higher temperatures will cause your food to brown quickly and possibly set off the smoke detector. 
    • Health grade explained: Stick with extra virgin for the most health benefits. It contains antioxidants, mostly monounsaturated but also polyunsaturated fatty acids to maintain heart health, vitamin K (helps naturally clot your blood) and vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps keep your blood vessels and skin healthy).

  2. Vegetable Oil
    • Health Grade: Variable 
    • What is it? Vegetable oil is an umbrella term for all oils derived from plant sources. Most products on the market labeled as vegetable oil are some blend of canola, corn, cottonseed, palm, safflower, soybean or sunflower oils. 
    • Health explained: As vegetable oil is a blend with varying levels of ingredients, the health grade would depend on the proportions of other oils.

  3. Canola Oil
    • Health Grade: B
    • What is it? Canola oil comes from rapeseed (rape from the Latin rapum meaning turnip; they are related). 
    • In the kitchen: With its high smoke point, the oil does not break down or burn until much higher temperatures. However, it does lose some of its health benefits with overheating. It can be used in cooking, baking, salad dressings and frying.
    • Health grade explained: This oil is low in saturated fat and contains monounsaturated fatty acids as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids (those fats frequently referred to as omega fatty acids).

  4. Flaxseed Oil
    • Health Grade: A
    • What is it? Flaxseed oil is extracted from the seed of the plant linum usitatissimum. 
    • In the kitchen: Usually taken as a nutrition supplement or utilized in salad dressings. However, be aware – flaxseed oil spoils very quickly (within five weeks of harvest). To reduce spoiling time, keep it stored in a dark-colored, airtight container in the refrigerator. 
    • Health grade explained: Not as versatile as other oils. High in omega 3 fatty acids (a polyunsaturated fatty acid) but oxidizes and goes rancid quickly. This oil provides a slightly nutty flavor.

  5. Palm Oil
    • Health Grade: D-
    • What is it? Derived from the palm fruit grown throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. Palm oil is found in vegetable oil blends but also in other food products and cosmetics.
    • In the kitchen: Used in frying, cooking and shortenings.
    • Health grade explained: Although versatile in use, it is a saturated fat and should be limited. Consumption can increase your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

  6. Coconut Oil
    • Health Grade: D
    • What is it? Coconut oil is extracted from the fruit of mature coconuts.
    • In the kitchen: Coconut oil has a sweet, nutty taste, and is often used as a substitute for shortening or butter in a vegan diet. It provides a tropical flavor to vegetables, curry dishes and fish.
    • Health grade explained: Coconut oil is a saturated fat, which is easy to tell because it is solid at room temperature. Virgin coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that raises both HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. It contains a very high percentage of saturated fat, even more than palm oil.

  7. Sesame Oil
    • Health Grade: B
    • What is it? Oil derived from sesame seeds. 
    • In the kitchen: Used in cooking and frying but frequently used to provide a dish flavor. It is customary in many Indian, Middle Eastern, African and Southeast Asian dishes. Provides a slightly nutty taste.
    • Health grade explained: It provides both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as some vitamin K (which helps with blood clotting).

  8. Avocado Oil
    • Health Grade: A
    • What is it? Extracted from the fruit of avocado. It is light green in color much like the fruit itself.
    • In the kitchen: Similar to olive oil but does have a considerably higher smoking point and therefore is a good oil for frying or sautéing. It is also a good choice as a salad dressing or dipping oil. 
    • Health grade explained: Contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Raises your HDL (“good”) cholesterol and lowers your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well as vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps keep your blood vessels and skin healthy).

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