Our latest consumer survey on dietary fats found that most people report they are trying to limit their fat intake at least some of the time. And yet, there is no need to fear fat in our food. Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet and is involved in many parts of digestion and nutrition, from improving the taste of our food to providing us with a major source of energy to helping our bodies absorb vitamins to refereeing communication between cells in our body.
Cooking oils are a source of dietary fat that many of us encounter every day. And with so many options on the market, it’s common to feel overwhelmed when trying to decide which cooking oil is right for you. Fear not: Many oils that may already reside in your pantry are health-promoting and perfect for everyday use in the kitchen. Let’s explore the basics of a few common cooking oils—including their uses, flavor profiles and health benefits—to help you find what works best in your kitchen.
Whether piled on toast or mashed into guacamole, avocados are a fan favorite. In addition to being a popular food source, avocados are also a source of cooking oil. Avocado oil is produced by various extraction methods that extricate the fruit’s pulp. The result is a neutral-tasting oil that works well as an ingredient in salad dressings, as a way to brown roasts, and as a fat for searing. Avocado oil is composed primarily of oleic acid, an omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid, which may help decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Canola oil is made by heating and crushing the seeds of the rapeseed plant. Canola oil has a neutral taste, which makes it a great all-purpose oil for baking, broiling, stir-frying and sautéing. Canola is high in oleic acid and has the most alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid found in plants, of the common cooking oils. ALA is converted in the body to form eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two essential fatty acids (i.e. acids that our bodies need but do not make on their own, requiring us to obtain them from food) usually found in marine foods like fatty fish. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarians are encouraged to consume somewhat higher amounts of ALA than the DRI recommends in order to aid in this conversion process—making canola oil a great choice for vegetarian cooking.
Coconut oil has enjoyed a growth in popularity during the last decade. To make coconut oil, dried coconut meat (called copra) is pressed into two forms: unrefined coconut oil and refined coconut oil. Unrefined coconut oil has a stronger scent and flavor and is often used as an alternative to butter in baking recipes. Refined coconut oil, with its milder flavor, is better suited for sautéing or stir-frying. In both products, coconut oil is solid at room temperature due to its high saturated fat content. While coconut oil has been touted as a “superfood,” both the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend limiting consumption of tropical oils, like coconut oil, that are high in saturated fat. For this reason, coconut oil should not replace a significant amount of other cooking oils in your diet; however, if you enjoy its flavor, consider sometimes using it in place of butter or shortening, or pairing it with other cooking oils.
All olive oils begin with crushing and pressing olives into a paste. Depending on the refining process, the end product is either extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, or light olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the least-refined and highest-quality olive oil. As such, extra virgin olive oil has the most robust flavor and often works well in salad dressings. Virgin olive oil is slightly more refined than extra virgin olive oil, while light olive oil, the most refined of the three, has the most neutral flavor. Because of its neutral flavor, light olive oil can serve as a multi-purpose cooking oil. Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, and consumers identified it as the healthiest cooking oil in our 2020 survey on health perceptions of dietary fats and oils. Of the common cooking oils, olive oil contains the most oleic acid, an omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid that offers heart health benefits.
Soybean oil is made by extracting oil from whole soybeans. This process involves de-hulling and crushing soybeans, then separating the oil from the rest of the bean. Soybean oil is used in a wide variety of packaged foods, baked goods, snacks, dressings and sauces, in addition to being sold on its own as a cooking oil. Pure (100%) soybean oil is often labeled generically as “vegetable oil”; it may also be sold as a blend with other oils. Soybean oil is high in polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 (ALA) and omega-6 (linoleic) fatty acids. Linoleic acid is an essential omega-6 fatty acid that we need to get from food because our bodies can’t make it on their own.
Sunflower oil is made by refining seeds from sunflowers. Refined sunflower oils work well for marinades, dressings, sautéing and grilling. A unique property of sunflower oil is the variance in unsaturated fat content based on which specific type of sunflower is used. Unless specially labeled, refined sunflower oil is high in linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid. A specific sunflower oil strain labeled “high oleic” generally has a minimum of 80% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid shown to have heart health benefits and anti-inflammatory properties.
Chances are you’ve seen a bottle labeled “vegetable oil” in your grocery store, but you may not have known what exactly that meant. Vegetable oil refers to an oil that comes from plant sources. It is typically a mix or blend of different types of oils and can be used for several different cooking purposes, from baking to frying to sautéing, due to its neutral flavor. The healthfulness of a particular vegetable oil largely depends on its ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats, which will depend on which oils it contains. Most often vegetable oil is a mix of soybean oil and others including canola, corn, palm, safflower or sunflower oils.
Whether you’re a culinary enthusiast or simply looking to add more variety to your diet, there are many types of cooking oils to choose from. Have fun trying out new oils and experimenting with familiar ones in your cooking—there are many ways that oil can be used to enhance your food’s flavor. And be sure to look out for the second installment in this series—a rundown of specialty cooking oils.
This article contains contributions from Madeleine Reinstein, dietetic intern at the University of Maryland, as well as IFIC staffers Kris Sollid, RD and Ali Webster, PhD, RD.