Have you ever stood confused in a grocery aisle brimming with an endless choice of cooking oils, wondering which one to buy? Until a few years back, I often found myself in this bewildering situation. In fact, in the past, I rarely paid attention to which oil I used for cooking until one day I happened to visit a close friend’s kitchen. She had different cooking oils for baking, frying, grilling, and garnishing.
That day I learned that using the right oil can make a whole lot of difference in the taste and the nutritive value of the food you cook. Since then, I have been experimenting with various cooking oils and this article is a summary of my experience and research.
The cooking oil we use plays a crucial role in our wellbeing. Our body needs fat for producing hormones, absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins, and generating energy. However, the therapeutic properties of the cooking oil we use can change depending on how we use them. Therefore, it is important to know which oil to use in a given situation.
For instance, virgin olive oil when overheated gives off toxic smoke; hence, it is not recommended for heavy cooking and deep frying.
From vegetable oil to cannabidiol or CBD oil, the market is full of oil options that make confusing health claims, thereby causing confusion to anyone looking for edible oils.
Consider the below-mentioned factors when selecting healthy cooking oil for each culinary adventure you embark upon.
The Degree of Saturation
The first thing you should know about oil is its degree of saturation. This is because the more saturated the cooking oil is, the more heat-tolerant it is.
Fats are classified into two groups based on their saturation.
Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA)
These are procured from an animal source like meat and dairy and are solid at room temperature. For instance, butter and lard. A few plants produce saturated fats, namely palm oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter.
Unsaturated Fatty Acids (UFA)
Unsaturated fats are derived from plants, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish and are liquid at room temperature. These fall into two categories, namely monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Unsaturated fatty acids are well-known for their health benefits.
Cooking oils contain a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Oils that contain a high proportion of saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, whereas those that contain a high amount of unsaturated fats are in the liquid form.
Saturated fats are stable; hence, if you need cooking oils that do not turn rancid and lose their nutritive value during high-temperature cooking, I would recommend using coconut, avocado, and canola oil.
On the other hand, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can be used for low-heat cooking or for garnishing salads and cooked vegetables.
Whether saturated or unsaturated, all oils offer special health benefits when consumed and applied topically.
For instance, research has proven the therapeutic effects of using olive oil in the diet.
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that we choose healthy unsaturated fats and limit our saturated fat intake. Where saturated fats increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases, unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated offer several health benefits.
Furthermore, the American Heart Association affirms that saturated fats increase the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, and high cholesterol and replacing them with unsaturated fats can reduce such cardiac disorders.
Thus, it is recommended that oils containing a high proportion of saturated fats, like coconut oil and lard, should be used in moderation as their daily intake may spike up the cholesterol levels. However, since these oils do not oxidize when heated, they are good for high-heating cooking methods like frying. We will read more about this in the next point (Smoke Point).
On the other hand, oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are recognized for their therapeutic and protective properties. Consequently, the FDA recommends soybean, avocado, and fish oil to be included in the daily diet. These oils are proven to regulate the heartbeat and offer a variety of other health benefits.
Furthermore, oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids are proven to have positive effects on one’s overall health. Refer the chart below to choose a cooking oil with a healthy fat composition.
Choosing a cooking oil with the right fat composition can help you obtain maximum health benefits from your cooking.
One of the most important things to consider when choosing the right cooking oil is its tolerance to heat. The temperature at which the molecules in the oil start breaking down (oxidation) is called as the smoke point.
Culinary oils contain fatty acid chains that determine the smoke point of the oil. The longer the fatty acid chain, the more the oil can be heated without it getting oxidized or broken down. Oxidation of oil is associated with unpleasant odor and flavor and reduction in its nutritive value.
This is particularly true for oils that are high in PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) like olive, canola, and soyabean oil. When overheated, these oils can produce toxic and carcinogenic compounds, thereby proving to be harmful in the long term.
Therefore, as a budding cook, I first acquainted myself with the smoke points of various oils, enabling me to decide where to use them.
Oils with a low smoke point are best consumed cold, drizzled on salads, or used to garnish a few cooked dishes like grilled fish or chicken. However, oils with high smoke points are suitable for frying and cooking at high temperatures.
Refer to the table below to learn about the most popular cooking oils, their smoke points, and uses.
Saturated/Unsaturated Fat Content (SFA/ UFA)
SFA > UFA
Deep-frying, medium-heat cooking, and body care
SFA < UFA
Deep-frying, baking, and grilling
SFA < UFA
Deep-frying, sautéing, medium-heat cooking
Other Vegetable Oils
SFA < UFA
Pan-and-deep frying, baking, and medium-heat cooking
Unrefined Sunflower Oil
SFA < UFA
Drizzled over salads, making vinaigrettes, and sautéing vegetables
SFA < UFA
(High PUFA Content)
Very low smoke point and high heat sensitive
Adds flavor to Asian-style soups and gravies
Virgin Olive Oil
SFA < UFA
Light sautéing, along with salad dressings, or on steamed vegetables
SFA < UFA
(High PUFA Content)
Drizzled on salads and in dips and smoothies. It can also be used when baking.
Sesame Seed Oil
SFA < UFA
Drizzled on cooked food or used in Asian-inspired cooking for a strong flavor and aroma.
Flavor and Aroma
Most cooking oils, like canola and sunflower oils, have neutral flavor and odor, thereby enabling you to use it in any form of cooking without affecting the overall taste of the dish. On the other hand, peanut, sesame, and cannabidiol oils have a unique flavor and aroma that is adopted from their respective source ingredients.
Therefore, when choosing your cooking oil, it is critical to research the impact of the oil’s flavor on the food. For instance, sesame and groundnut oils add a rich nutty flavor to food. Hence, unless your recipe demands so, it is wise to use a neutral oil that will not dominate the taste of your dish.
Most Asian dishes are known for using sesame and fish oil that add an extra flavor to the cuisine. Similarly, Mediterranean cuisine uses extra virgin olive oil to add a peppery flavor to most dishes.
The importance of packaging of cooking oils goes beyond merely storing the oil and attracting customers. It is a quick indicator of the quality of the contents. Oils need to be protected against oxidative damage, absorption of foreign odors and flavors, moisture, and thermal deterioration.
For instance, olive oil stored in a PET or plastic container tends to get oxidized faster in comparison to when it is stored in a glass bottle, causing the oil to turn rancid (unpleasant odor and acrid taste). Conversely, high-quality olive oils are stored in dark glass bottles to prevent sunlight and atmospheric oxygen from destroying the contents.
Similarly, sunflower oil, like vegetable oil, is affected by light and oxygen. Glass containers offer adequate protection to the oil, thereby increasing its storage life.
A reputed oil producer will take extra care and invest in a packaging that will not mess with the longevity of the cooking oil. Therefore, it is critical to check the quality of the packaging before buying the cooking oil.
Cooking oils are not created equal. Each oil has a different role to play in whipping up a nutritious meal. The good news is that choosing the most appropriate and healthiest cooking oil for any culinary occasion isn’t rocket science.
Use the tips shared in this article to pick the right cooking oil for your meals, making them nutritious, delicious, and heart-healthy for you and your family.
Joy Smith is a speaker, mentor, entrepreneur, mother of four, and grandmother of six. After trying a number of poor quality CBD products, she teamed up with her family to develop an organically grown, full spectrum hemp oil to help people who suffer from a wide array of ailments. Visit Joy’s website to learn more at joyorganics.com