When it comes to food, oil is a tricky substance to deal with. Depending on what kind you use while cooking and how much, it can either be highly beneficial or actively make dishes more unhealthy. So what’s a health-conscious chef to do?
We thumbed through the latest research, the USDA’s database on food nutrition and safety, and consulted with registered dietitian Hillary Wright to identify the health benefits of eight different oils and when it’s best to use them (depending on their smoke points) to make your time in the kitchen less daunting and more nutritious. Just remember, moderation is key. “It’s best to follow the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and limit oils and saturated fats to less than 10 percent of your overall calories per day,” Wright says.
1. Grapeseed oil
Health Benefits: Your chicken thighs and breasts will be damn lucky to get a rubdown with grapseed oil. Sure, it’s not as widely used as some other plant-based options, but grapeseed oil has something olive oil does not: high linoleic acid levels. And, according to new research out of Ohio State University, that high lipid content can lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes. What’s more, previous research suggests taking linoleic acid supplements, or as little as a teaspoon and a half of oil, was all it took to increase lean body mass and reduce fat in the midsection, the researchers say. Grapeseed oil is an excellent source of linoleic acid; it constitutes about 80 percent of its fatty acids.
Nutrition: One tablespoon has 120 calories and 13.6g of fat (2.3g saturated, 6.2g monounsaturated, and 4.3g polyunsaturated) per the USDA.
When to Use: Grapeseed is similar to olive oil in its versatility—only it’s better for cooking at high temperatures because it has a higher smoke point.
2. Algae oil
Perhaps the newest culinary oil to hit grocery shelves comes from an unlikely source: algae. It may seem a little wonky, but algae oil, like Thrive Culinary Algae Oil, is impressively healthy. The algae is grown in fermenters (similar to wine and beer) where it consumes plant sugars. This encourages the production of oil, which is expelled from the algae similar to how oil is pressed from coconuts and seeds.
Health Benefits: Touted as being one of the planet’s most sustainably made food sources, algae oil is said to help preserve heart health, lower body inflammation, and serve as the perfect pantry essential. “Algae oil also contains DHA, and important omega 3 fatty acid also found in fish oil that’s good for your cardiovascular system,” Wright says.
Nutrition: One tablespoon has 130 calories and .5g of saturated fat—per Thrive Culinary Algae Oil. That’s the lowest percentage of saturated fats among any other cooking oil. To put things in perspective, algae oil is comprised of 4 percent saturated fat, while olive oil contains 14, canola 7, and coconut 87. Conversely, algae oil also contains the highest level of monounsaturated (good) fats, boasting 90 percent monounsaturated fat, while olive oil has 74, canola 63, and coconut just 6.
When to Use: Algae oil lets the natural flavor of your food come through, making it ideal for cooking, baking, and use in salad dressings. It also has one of the highest smoke points, so it’s good for frying, searing, sautéing, or stir frying.
3. Coconut oil
Health Benefits: Over 90 percent of coconut oil is saturated fat, which historically has been associated with higher blood cholesterol levels. But the oil also contains medium chain triglycerides, which are more easily and rapidly used by the body’s cells as energy, and may be less likely to be stored as fat, Wright says. It’s tricky with coconut oil: The MCT oil may raise healthy HDL cholesterol as well as unhealthful LDL cholesterol. Research suggests these MCTs may increase your body’s ability to burn fat as fuel, but studies showing a significant trigger for lose weight is lacking.
Nutrition: One tablespoon of coconut oil has 121 calories and 11g of saturated fat per the USDA.
When to Use: It’ll remain solid at room temperature, so heat it up a bit and add it to ethnic dishes and sautees, dressings, and desserts for a flavor boost, Wright suggests. Use organic refined coconut oil for mid-temperature sautéing, stir-frying and baking since its smoke point is 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that if you use virgin or extra-virgin coconut oil (which has a stronger flavor), it’ll burn more quickly because of its lower smoke point, making it suitable for low-heat cooking only.
4. Olive oil
Health Benefits: Extra virgin olive oil is rich in good monounsaturated fat (75.9 percent), which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Studies have also found strong anti-inflammatory properties, which reduce swelling and even pain, and keep your arteries functioning properly, which comes in handy for a number of bodily functions (sex, for one). “Extra virgin olive oil consistently comes out on top as an important part of some of the world’s healthiest diets,” Wright says. “It’s so versatile, lending a great flavor to any food, whether it’s drizzled on bread or salads, or used to sauté vegetables or any kind of protein—you really can’t go wrong!”
Nutrition: One tablespoon has 120 calories and 14g of fat (1g saturated, 9g polyunsaturated, 3g monounsaturated fat), per the USDA.
When to Use: There’s a bit of a debate about using extra virgin olive oil in high-temperature cooking. A 2014 study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that olive oil is more stable than certain seed oils for frying at temperatures between 320 and 374°F. Still, you may be best off using olive oil only for low-temp cooking and for drizzling on salads and veggies.
5. Peanut oil
Health Benefits: Peanut oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, vitamin E, and phytosterols, which are said to help lower (bad) LDL cholesterol levels. “Past studies have shown that, compared to a low-fat diet, following a moderate-fat diet including nuts and peanut oil may help boost healthy HDL cholesterol levels while lowering unhealthy triglycerides during weight loss,” Wright says.
Nutrition: One tablespoon has 119 calories and 14g of fat (2.3g saturated, 4.3g polyunsaturated, 6g monounsaturated), per the USDA.
When to Use: Considered one of the best cooking oils for its high smoking point, peanut oil is ideal for deep-frying and stir-frying since it doesn’t absorb flavors, Wright says. You can fry chicken and fish in the same pan, and both will maintain their own taste. (Not that we’re endorsing deep frying your food!)
6. Walnut oil
Health Benefits: Because of high concentrations of alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), walnut oil has a protective effect on your heart. Walnuts and their oil are also rich in antioxidants (one of the best antioxidant sources among the tree nuts), which help to diminish the effects of free radicals that cause cell damage and accelerate the aging process. It’s also rich in selenium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium.
Macros Per Serving: One tablespoon has 120 calories and 14g of fat (1.2g saturated, 8.6g polyunsaturated, 3g monounsaturated), per the USDA.
When to Use: “Walnut oil is best eaten cold and adds a delicious nutty flavor when drizzled on cooked whole grains or bean salads,” Wright says. The options don’t end there: Use it to top salad and pasta, and add flavor to fish and steaks. The reason walnut oil is best used uncooked is because it has a low smoking point, and tends to become bitter when heated.
7. Avocado oil
Health Benefits: Avocado oil gives you a nutritional profile similar to olive oil as far as Omega’s are concerned. It also makes nutrients like carotenoids more readily available for our body’s absorption (anywhere from two to 15 times). Research also shows avocado oil is beneficial when it comes to cardiovascular health, healthy aging, and better eye health.
Macros Per Serving: One tablespoon has 124 calories and 14g of fat (1.6g saturated, 1.9g polyunsaturated, 10g monounsaturated), per the USDA.
When to Use: Avocado’s high smoke point makes it ideal for searing meat and frying foods (say, in a Wok). “This buttery-tasting oil also tastes great drizzled on soups, vegetables, and crusty bread.”
8. Sesame oil
Health Benefits: Sesame oil has a slew of health benefits from its ability to lower blood pressure to boosting heart health. Research shows the oil can remove dental plaque and improve overall oral health (check out everything you need to know about oil pulling here), and a 2011 study found it may be helpful in managing blood glucose levels for those taking medication for diabetes.
Macros Per Serving: One tablespoon has 120 calories and 14g of fat (2g saturated, 5.6g polyunsaturated, 5.4g monounsaturated), per the USDA.
When to Use: Light sesame oil has a high smoke point and is suitable for frying, while dark sesame oil from roasted sesame seeds has a slightly lower smoke point. Use this when stir frying meats or vegetables, or sautéing. “Using a stir-fry oil that’s 30 percent sesame oil adds that unique taste we associate with a great stir-fry,” Wright says. Note: Always refrigerate or it’ll go rancid.