Which is the Best Fat?

Go to the “cooking oils” section of the supermarket as a health-conscious shopper, and prepare to freeze in indecision: olive or canola? Is coconut oil good or bad? What the heck is rapeseed oil? Sadly, most consumers sigh in despair and simply reach for what’s familiar, which is a shame: each cooking oil has different properties and different benefits (or dangers!). Read on for a quick primer on the types you’re most likely to encounter.

A Note Regarding Storing

We’re going to talk about smoke points today, which is the temperature where the molecular structure of a fat begins to break down, losing its healthy properties (and in some cases, even gaining negative effects!). As your oil ages in your cupboard, its smoke point drops, rendering the figures in this article obsolete. The answer? Use your oils! They aren’t intended to be long-term, they’ll taste better, and most of us could use more in our diets. Also: get them out of the sun!

Speaking of “smoke points,” just what are those? Well, if you move past a certain temperature, the oil begins to break down, losing most of its nutritional properties. Even worse, burned oils have been shown in studies to generate possibly cancer-causing free radicals. How do you know you’ve gone too far? First of all, you’ll see, well, smoke. Use your nose, too—the oil will go from a neutral smell (vegetable and Canola) or herbal/fruity (olive) to the smell of a dirty fry-o-lator. Not the best. Really torched it? Your oil may even turn black or brown. Ditch it (safely! Away from water!), clean out your pan, and start over.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Probably the most popular of the “healthy” oils given its ties to the Mediterranean diet and its heart healthy, antioxidant rich bragging rights. While this oil can be essentially used for anything, it does have a low smoke point, meaning it will start to burn, break down, and lose its nutritional benefits over 375 degrees F. So while you want to steer clear of frying or high-heat sautéing with this oil, olive oil will add a delicious flavor to cold dishes like condiments, salads and salad dressings. If you do decide to cook with it, keep the heat medium-low, and look for the surface of the oil to ripple or shimmer slightly at the correct temperature. When you toss the food in, the sizzle should be quiet and controlled—in other words, it shouldn’t be used in a stir-fry setting.

Coconut Oil

OK, ready for the polarizing fat? Bring up coconut oil during your next workout and get ready to take cover: for every voice lionizing coconut oil, you’ll find one telling you it’s poison. As with many subjects, the truth is more nuanced. We’re not going to get deep in the weeds, here, but here are some quick takeaways:

  • If you want some health benefits from your coconut oil, you need to purchase the variety that is 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Sadly, you are unlikely to find those at your local supermarket.
  • Coconut oil is a saturated fat, and acts just as many other saturated fats do. In several short-term trials, coconut oil was seen to raise harmful cholesterol (LDL) to the same degree as butter, and higher or the same as beef fat or palm oil.
  • Unrefined coconut oil has a low smoke point (350 degrees) while refined coconut oil is somewhat higher (450 degrees). Depending on which you’re using, you’ll want to treat it gently, like an olive oil, or turn up the heat!

Canola (Rapeseed) and Vegetable Oil

Usually these two get their own section of the oil aisle, and make up a wall of golden cooking fat. Vegetable oil is the mutt of the litter, composed of many different plant oils, while canola is composed exclusively of rapeseed plants. Both lend you a relatively high smoke point of 400 degrees, meaning these are a good option for high-heat frying and baking. These oils are high in monounsaturated fats, which raise good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Two cautions while reaching for your canola oil, though. Firstly, these oils are very high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s aren’t bad for you at all, but they may crowd out the Omega-3s you’re getting from a much smaller array of sources, so make sure you have some meals that are Omega-3 only. Secondly, rapeseed is a genetically modified plant, a GMO-derived source. GMOs haven’t been shown to be harmful due to any genetic structure, but they do get sprayed with chemicals that may not be the best for us.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil boasts some serious bragging rights, from health benefits to the highest smoke point of any plant oil out there. Avocados are known for their heart-healthy fat compositions and we’re happy to report that quality translates over to their oil as well. The majority of avocado oil is made of a monounsaturated fat, oleic acid. Oleic acid is packed with heart healthy fatty acids that boast many health benefits including positive effects on certain cancers and autoimmune diseases, as well as immune health benefits. Oh, and that smoke point? At 520 degrees Fahrenheit and offering a very mild flavor, you can do just about anything with this oil.

Sesame Oil

Easily one of the most flavorful oils on the market, sesame oil features in many asian-inspired dishes such as stir frys and noodle recipes. This pantry staple, however, delivers more than just excellent flavor. Sesame oil is made up of 82% unsaturated fatty acids, the same kind we’ve mentioned many times above, that are primo for your heart health. Sesame oil is also packed with antioxidants which help fight and breakdown free radicals in your body, and recent studies have shown an ability to regulate blood sugars and play a role in long-term blood sugar health. So what kind of cooking can we do with this heart-health star? Sesame oil offers a high smoke point of 410 degrees, making it ideal for high heat cooking like the stir fry option mentioned above. Given it’s pronounced flavor, though, it’s also ideal for use in cold dishes like salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. That is one versatile oil!