Most of us regard cooking oil as nothing more than a means to a non-sticking end. But (and this is a big, prepare-to-gag kind of but) the average American consumes a whopping 36 pounds of cooking oils per year — more than three times as much as in the early 1970s. These oils contributed more than 400 calories to our daily diet in 2010 (the Census Bureau suspiciously quit collecting data on how much fat and oil companies produce in 2011, meaning the Department of Agriculture can no longer use that data to accurately calculate how many calories cooking oil contributes to the average American diet).
All of this cooking oil isn’t exactly doing us any good, either: Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, estimates that, at this point in time, roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils. She’s also told me time and time again that consuming too much vegetable oil (an umbrella term for plant-based oils) can result in fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines.
The lesson here: Cooking oils play a massive role in our overall health, which means choosing healthy oils is a bright idea if you expect to continue living for as long as humanly possible. To help us all make better choices, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and my go-to source for all nutritional queries, to help me rank every popular cooking oil by how healthy they are.
But first, here’s a quick explanation for our ranking: “I ranked these based on their fatty-acid profiles: How much saturated fat, unsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and medium chain triglycerides they contain,” Hunnes explains.
Generally speaking, unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are regarded as healthier than saturated fats, since they lower cholesterol, and therefore, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. But while the consumption of saturated fat has traditionally been linked to heart disease, it’s worth noting that science continues to go back and forth in regard to whether or not saturated fats are actually healthy. As for medium chain triglycerides, these are linked to increased endurance, weight loss and lowered cholesterol, so they’re totally good for you.
With that as our guide, let’s rank some oils…
1. Flaxseed Oil, Pumpkin Seed Oil and Hemp Seed Oil (tied): “These contain fairly high doses of omega-3 fatty acids from plant-sources, which are extremely healthy for us,” Hunnes explains, since omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation and control blood pressure. “They also contain good doses of monounsaturated fats, which likely reduce cholesterol.”
There’s a catch, though: Flaxseed oil, pumpkin seed oil and hemp seed oil all have relatively low smoke points — the temperatures at which an oil starts to burn and smoke — meaning they fare better in dressings, spreads and marinades than on the stovetop or in the oven.
2. Sesame Oil: “Sesame oil is a good source of monounsaturated fat, anti-inflammatories and antioxidants,” Hunnes says. “It might also help reduce cholesterol.” Sesame oil also has a high smoke point (410 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning it’s well-suited for cooking at higher temperatures.
3. Avocado Oil: “Avocado oil is extremely high in oleic acid [which protects against cardiovascular disease],” says Hunnes. “It’s even better for you than olive oil: It’s an anti-inflammatory and may help reduce cholesterol.” Avocado oil also has an even higher smoke point than sesame oil (520 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning it’s great for frying foods.
4. Canola Oil, Olive Oil and Peanut Oil (tied): “All of these are high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants,” Hunnes explains. “They can also be relatively good anti-inflammatories.” Hunnes also says that canola oil and peanut oil are better suited for high-temperature cooking than olive oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Speaking of which: The difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil, if you were wondering, is essentially that extra virgin olive oil is less processed, meaning it’s both slightly healthier and more flavorful. As such, extra virgin olive oil is best in dressings, spreads and marinades, while regular olive oil works better for general cooking and sautéing.
5. Sunflower Oil: Hunnes explains that sunflower oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are good for the heart when consumed in moderation. Sunflower oil also contains no saturated fat, but has a relatively low smoke point.
6. Corn Oil: “Corn oil contains good levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and decent amounts of monounsaturated fats,” Hunnes says. “It may help reduce cholesterol.” Corn oil also has a high smoke point.
7. Grape Seed Oil: “I would put grape seed oil after corn oil, since it’s high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats,” Hunnes says. “We sometimes get too much omega-6 fatty acid in our Western-American diet, and too much can be inflammatory. But it’s so much better for you than saturated fats or trans fats.” It’s worth noting, however, that grape seed oil alone doesn’t contain enough omega-6 fatty acid to cause problems: Studies show that linoleic acid — the type of omega-6 fatty acid in grape seed oil — does not increase inflammation in otherwise healthy people.
8. Pam Non-Stick Cooking Spray: “Pam is a combination of canola, palm and coconut oil, so it contains monounsaturated and saturated fats,” Hunnes explains. “But since you typically don’t use too much of it, it’s not overly bad for you. Although, it also contains dimethyl silicone (an anti-foaming agent) and a few other stabilizers, so I think you’d be better off putting a mixture of oils in a spray bottle of your own.”
9. Coconut Oil: “This has a high amount of medium chain triglycerides, so it’s good for people who have some trouble absorbing fats due to certain medical conditions,” says Hunnes. “However, it’s also fairly high in saturated fat, so it may possibly increase your total cholesterol.”
It’s worth noting, too, that Harvard epidemiologist Karin Michels recently called coconut oil “pure poison” and “one of the worst foods you can eat” during a lecture on nutrition — because it contains such high levels of saturated fat — which has since sparked outrage among both Americans and Indians (who live in a country where coconut oil is a dietary staple). Who’s right remains unclear, but one thing’s for sure: Cooking oils, especially those high in saturated fat (like coconut oil), should be used sparingly.
10. Palm Oil: “This is terrible for the environment and the habitats of orangutans in Indonesia,” Hunnes emphasizes. “If you must use palm oil, look for certified humane (non-conflict) palm oil.” On a more personal level, palm oil is also high in saturated fat.
11. Vegetable Oil: While vegetable oil can be used as an umbrella term for all plant-based oils, like I mentioned earlier, Hunnes explains that it can also be used by companies (on ingredient labels) as a generic term for trans fats, which are terrible for you. “There’s nothing redeeming about trans fats,” Hunnes says. “They definitely increase cholesterol levels and cause inflammation.”
And here I thought vegetables were healthy.
This article has been updated to include grape seed oil.