The proliferation of cooking oils can make choosing the right ones tough. So, we went to our expert, Chloe Plummer, a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, for some tips on healthful cooking oil choices.
The best options are those that replace bad (saturated and trans) fats with more healthful (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) fats, Plummer says. Those high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats can actually raise HDL (good cholesterol) while lowering LDL (bad cholesterol), if they are used in place of those high in saturated fat.
“Let’s take a look at butter, as a bad example,” Plummer advises. “It’s an animal product so it has solid fats, which are very high in saturated fats, which cause a build-up in arteries, which causes heart disease. Obviously, replacing the bad fats with the good ones is better for the heart.”
Plummer advises using these oils as recommended by the American Heart Association instead of solid fats (including butter, lard, shortening and stick margarine) and tropical oils (including coconut and palm oil), which can have a lot of saturated fat.
Combinations of these oils, sometimes sold under the name “vegetable oil,” are also good choices, Plummer says. Some specialty oils, like rice bran, avocado, sesame and grapeseed, are good choices but often cost more and/or are hard to find.
How to Use Them
Cooking oils can often be used in the same way solid cooking fats are used, Plummer points out. “They can be used to make marinades, dips, sauces and salad dressings and can also be used to grill, stir fry, bake, roast and sauté. They do a good job of coating pans to keep the food from sticking and can also be spread and drizzled on foods for added flavor.”
In general, oils with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, and no partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats are the best choices, Plummer says. “And, don’t forget cooking spray, which, because it often has a vegetable base, can be another good alternative because it has fewer calories than oil.”
Another thing to keep in mind is the temperature at which you will be cooking. According to Plummer, an oil’s “smoke point” is the temperature at which it starts to smoke when heated. This break down of oil can lead to undesirable flavors and free radicals. Here are some of the best oils to use at various temperatures:
High heat: Avocado, rice bran
Medium high: Corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, sunflower
Medium: Canola, grapeseed, sesame, olive oil (use extra light for a higher smoke point)
Low heat: Flaxseed, walnut, unrefined oils–best for adding flavor to dressings or sauces
Back to butter, because, let’s face it: Many people love it.
“If people want to use butter, they should choose spreadable tub varieties because they are oil-based and contain more unsaturated fats,” Plummer advises.
Check out our Recipes page for healthy, delicious snacks and meals.
Editor’s Note: This story was revised June 13, 2016, to include information about cooking temperatures.