What are the healthiest oils to cook with?

A woman pouring cooking oil into a baking dish

With so many different types of oils to choose from, it can be hard to know which one to use for sautéing, baking or drizzling on a salad.

Oil is pure fat, which means it’s high in calories. Still, cooking with oil can be healthy if you use it in moderation and choose the right type. Stick with oils that contain mostly unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, canola oil and avocado oil.

I use mostly extra virgin olive oil and canola oil. For salad dressings and dips, I love extra virgin olive oil. Canola oil is great for roasting veggies at high temperatures or baking.

Below, I’ve listed oils with my favorites first, taking into consideration their nutrient profile and versatility in the kitchen.

Extra virgin olive oil

What is it? Oil extracted from olives. “Extra virgin” refers to the processing of the oil. Extra virgin oil is the least processed and has the most flavor and phytochemicals, compounds in plants that can help prevent cancer. Light olive oil is more refined and contains the least amount of flavor and phytochemicals.

In the kitchen: Olive oil can be a vinaigrette for your salad, a dip for bread, or it can be used to sauté veggies or other foods. Heating olive oil also takes away some of the distinct fruity flavor and makes it taste milder. I wouldn’t recommend using olive oil for deep frying. Frying is done at a high temperature, and when olive oil reaches its smoke point (the point at which it begins to burn), the compounds in it, including the ones that benefit your health, begin to break down. For baked goods, olive oil also isn’t a great option because of its distinct flavor.

Tips: 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 (which helps naturally clot your blood) and vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps keep your blood vessels and skin healthy.

Canola oil

What is it? Canola oil comes from rapeseed (rape from the Latin rapum meaning turnip; they’re related).

In the kitchen: The oil has a neutral flavor, making it quite versatile in the kitchen. Canola can withstand heat well and doesn’t burn as easily as olive oil, so it can be used for frying or roasting at high temperatures. It also works great for baking because of its mild flavor. For those who don’t like the flavor of olive oil, canola oil works great for sautéing, dipping bread or for making salad dressings.

Tips: This oil is an excellent choice because it’s low in saturated fat and contains monounsaturated fatty acids as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are frequently referred to as omega fatty acids.

Avocado oil

What is it? Oil extracted from the fruit of avocado. It’s light green in color, much like the fruit itself.

In the kitchen: Though fruity and nutty like olive oil, avocado oil has a considerably higher smoking point, so it’s a good oil for frying or roasting at high temperatures. Avocado oil also is a good choice for sautéing or using as a salad dressing or dipping oil.

Tips: Avocado oil contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. This may lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Avocado also contains vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps keep your blood vessels and skin healthy.

Sesame oil

What is it? Oil derived from sesame seeds.

In the kitchen: Customary in many Indian, Middle Eastern, African and Southeast Asian dishes, sesame oil has a slightly nutty taste. It can be used in salad dressings or to sauté veggies, meats or tofu. Toasted sesame oil has a very strong flavor and is often used sparingly to drizzle on a dish after cooking, in a salad dressing or noodle dish. I love the flavor, but a little goes a long way.

Tips: Sesame oil provides both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as some vitamin K.

Flaxseed oil

What is it? Flaxseed oil is extracted from the seed of the flax plant, also called linum usitatissimum.

In the kitchen: Flaxseed oil is usually taken as a nutritional supplement or used in salad dressings or drizzled over veggies. It’s best to store flaxseed oil in a dark-colored, airtight container in the refrigerator. The oil burns easily and should not be used in cooking. It has a distinct nutty flavor that can overpower some dishes.

Tips: Flaxseed oil is not as versatile as other oils. It’s high in omega 3 fatty acids (a polyunsaturated fatty acid), but it oxidizes and goes rancid quickly.

Vegetable oil

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.

In the kitchen: Vegetable oil can be used for high-heat cooking, meaning it won’t smoke at high temperatures. Its neutral flavor makes it good for baking and making dressings.

Tips: As vegetable oil is a blend with varying levels of ingredients, it’s difficult to discuss the health benefits as it would depend on the proportions of other oils.

Palm oil

What is it? Derived from the palm fruit grown throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, palm oil is found in vegetable oil blends and in other food products and cosmetics.

In the kitchen: Used in frying, cooking and in shortenings.

Tips: Although versatile in use, it’s a saturated fat and should be limited. Consumption of palm oil can increase your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which poses a risk of heart disease. Avoid consuming palm oil on a regular basis.

Coconut oil

What is it? Coconut oil is extracted from the fruit of mature coconuts.

In the kitchen: Coconut oil has a sweet, nutty taste, and it’s often used as a substitute for shortening or butter in a vegan diet. It provides a tropical flavor to vegetables, curry dishes and fish. In some dishes, it has a strong flavor that can be overpowering.

Tips: Coconut oil is a saturated fat and is solid at room temperature. It contains a higher percentage of saturated fat than palm oil. Avoid consuming coconut oil on a regular basis.

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