Cooking with these oils is best for health, according to research

By Alistair Gardiner
Published April 27, 2021

Key Takeaways

Nutritionists and researchers consistently tell us that we should be eating a Mediterranean-style diet to boost our health—especially cardiovascular health. An oft-cited reason? Its primary source of added fat is olive oil, which is widely known as a “healthy fat.”

Olive oil gets a lot of good press, but there are other healthy fats, too, according to dietitians. Whether you’re using cooking oil to sauté, grill, stir-fry, or drizzle onto your salad, here’s what you need to know about five different cooking oils, according to health experts.

Olive oil

Olive oil is regularly touted as a top health food and superior dietary fat. This is largely due to its high monounsaturated fatty acid content (about 10 grams per tablespoon) compared to saturated fats (just 2 grams per tablespoon). According to dietician Christine Palumbo, RDN, consuming monounsaturated fats can help lower your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is known as the “bad” cholesterol. Lowering LDL levels can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. 

Palumbo noted that extra-virgin olive oil also contains more than 30 phenolic compounds, which boast anti-inflammatory and blood vessel-expanding characteristics. 

According to another dietician, Stefani Sassos, RDN, not only can these monounsaturated fatty acids help promote heart health, the antioxidants in olive oil also offer a health boost. Sassos pointed out that olive oil consumption has been linked to weight loss and increases in overall longevity. 

When it comes to cooking with oils, paying attention to their smoke point (the temperature at which they begin to break down) is key. Extra-virgin olive oil has a relatively low smoke point of 325°F to 375°F, so it’s best for sautéing over medium heat or used for dressing salads. In other words, it’s not ideal for deep-frying, which we ought to be avoiding anyway.

Canola oil

Having a diet that features canola oil as a primary cooking fat can result in lower total cholesterol levels, in comparison with a typical Western diet which is high in saturated fats, according to an article by Jessica Caporuscio, PharmD. Canola oil, which is produced from rapeseeds, is low in saturated fatty acids (1 gram per tablespoon) and relatively high in monounsaturated fatty acids (8 grams per tablespoon) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (4 grams per tablespoon). 

Canola is relatively versatile with its higher smoke point of 400°F. While it’s not as flavorful as olive oil and you may not want to put it on your salads, it can be used for sautéing, frying, and baking. Of note, you may want to watch out for highly processed canola oils, which aren’t as good for your health—instead, keep an eye out for cold-pressed varieties. 

Flaxseed oil

This oil, which has a very low smoke point of 225°F, should not be used for any kind of cooking. It does, however, have a pleasant nutty flavor and a range of nutritional boons, which make it perfect for salad dressing and drizzling on various foods.

According to Sassos, flaxseed oil is high in monounsaturated fats and is also one of the few vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also found in certain oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. The consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to lower lipid levels and reduced blood pressure in those with high total cholesterol. These polyunsaturated fats may also lower your risks of certain types of cancer and can help reduce the symptoms of arthritis, according to Palumbo. 

Sesame oil

If you’re looking for an oil with a high smoke point, sesame oil may be among your best bets. With a smoke point of 450°F, it’s great for frying and stir-frying and it also boasts a strong flavor, which can add a flourish to certain Asian-style dishes. 

More importantly, sesame oil is rich in both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and low in saturated fats. According to Sassos, research indicates that not only is sesame oil good for heart health, it also contains the antioxidants sesamol and sesamin, and research indicates it can help reduce blood pressure. Additionally, Palumbo points out, evidence suggests that sesame oil has anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce your chances of developing atherosclerosis.

What about coconut oil?

Coconut oil has increased in popularity recently, mostly due to its role in the keto and Paleo diets, but its nutritional value is a point of controversy. Coconut oil is made up of 90% saturated fatty acids, which may raise your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, according to Sassos.

That said, Palumbo notes that not all saturated fats are the same, and some research shows that the fat in coconut oil may not clog your arteries in the same way that the saturated fat in processed meats does. The medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut oil may, in fact, raise your levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (AKA the “good” cholesterol). Research on this subject arrives at inconsistent conclusions. As such, health experts recommend using coconut oil in moderation. 

With its low smoke point of 350°F (for unrefined varieties), coconut oil is best for baking and sautéing. 

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