What is the Healthiest Cooking Oil?

Olive oil being poured into bowl

Remember the butter vs margarine debate? One year butter was declared the winner and the next it was margarine. Well, it turns out the experts don’t entirely agree on the healthiest cooking oil either.
Many of my blogs are inspired from conversations with others, and this one is no exception. My husband, Greg, and I were debating which oil was the healthiest. From my reading, it was olive oil; from what he’d read it was avocado oil. He’s been waiting for me to write this blog for months!
As with most subjects I seem to tackle, there’s no easy answer. There is a ton of conflicting information out there which sent me down about a dozen rabbit holes. So again, bear with me as I try to make the science part as pain-free as possible. Or, if you just want the answer, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Let’s start with saturated and unsaturated fats. Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature, such as butter, lard, palm and coconut oils, animal fat and dairy products. Unsaturated fats are classified as monounsaturated (omega-9) or polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6) and both are in liquid form at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated and polyunsaturated may be healthier than monounsaturated (though the jury is still out). And I forgot to mention trans fats or hydrogenated fats (i.e., margarine, shortening), the worst of them all.
If you’ve made it this far, I don’t want to lose you on the chemistry. Instead I’ll explain why one is better than the other. Trans fats increase your risk of heart disease, increase your LDL (bad cholesterol), decrease your HDL (good cholesterol) and contribute to insulin resistance. Saturated fats increase your risk of heart disease and stroke and raise both your LDL and HDL. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats decrease your risk of heart disease and decrease the levels of LDL (many studies show that they don’t affect HDL). Omega-3s are heart protective and anti-inflammatory and may increase your HDL. Omega-6s may help control your blood sugar, reduce your risk for diabetes and lower your blood pressure (it may also be anti-inflammatory). They used to say that you should consume more omega-3 than omega-6 but it looks like this is also being challenged.

Other things to consider:

  • Processed/refined oils lose a lot of nutrient value compared to virgin oils. Wait a second, how many nutrients are in oil?? Some oils contain vitamin E and vitamin K for example.
  • Smoke points are the temperature at which an oil starts burning, which is important if you’re cooking with it but not if you’re putting it on a salad.
  • Oils are high in calories so use them in moderation. Your body needs good fats but try to get them from foods (avocados, seeds, olives, nuts, fish) instead. Try using water or vegetable stock instead of oil when sautéing. 
  • Vegetable oil is so generically named because they can make it out of soybean, corn, canola, safflower, palm, etc. Check the ingredients on the label.

The table below is a summary of the most widely available oils. Many of them come refined or unrefined (the less common ones are in brackets).

table showing cooking oil properties

So, what’s the answer? I’d say the best oil isn’t one from a bottle but from the foods themselves. However, if you must use an oil, olive oil and avocado oil it is (Greg and I both win)! Try to use unrefined oils (extra virgin, virgin, expeller pressed or cold pressed) but keep in mind they also have a lower smoke point than their refined counterparts.

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