Which oils are healthiest for cooking?
Not so long ago, if you cooked with extra virgin olive oil, you were considered savvy and health-conscious. Now, EVOO could be a health hazard when overheated—so which oils should you use in your cooking?
Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, an antibacterial, immune-boosting extract also found in breast milk. Look for organic, unrefined coconut oils that say "virgin" or “cold-pressed.” This means the oil’s extracted from fresh coconut (expeller-expressed oils, labeled “refined,” are extracted chemically and have fewer nutrients). Alejando Junger, MD calls coconut a “clean” cooking oil: “Because of its high amount of heat-resistant saturated fat, coconut can be used on medium to high heat up to 350 degrees, rarely goes rancid, helps promote weight loss, and lasts at room temperature for years,” he says. (When we sauté, temps range from 250-350 degrees Fahrenheit, searing meat can register 425 to 450 degrees, but of course it depends on how high your flame is. It’s not an exact science.)
But some cooks just can’t get past coconut oil’s consistency (stored below 76 degrees, it’s a solid) or its coconut-y taste, which is where macadamia nut oil comes in. Not only does macadamia have a neutral flavor, it’s also high in healthy monounsaturated fats, including omega-3, says Fred Pescatore, MD, author of The Hamptons Diet. According to Pescatore, clinical research proves that macadamia nut oil helps reduce cholesterol and speeds up your metabolism, so it may actually help you lose weight. And cooks appreciate macadamia’s high smoke point (413 degrees)—good for searing or stir-frying. Smoke points matter because they signal the beginning of oxidation and degradation of the oil, which triggers the release of nasty free radicals. You know you’ve hit that close-to-burning point when the oil gives off a bluish smoke.
Avocado oil is another Pescatore favorite, with plenty of the good (monounsaturated) fat and nutrients like potassium and vitamin E. It has a medium-high smoke point (375) that’s best for sautéing, and a rich, subtle flavor that works well in salad dressings. And because it’s a fruit oil, avocado’s a good choice for anyone with a nut allergy.
Then there’s the gold standard: extra-virgin olive oil. With its abundance of omega-3 and other unsaturated fats, EVOO still reigns as one of the healthiest oils out there. But heating over 350 degrees damages this delicate oil’s chemistry and health benefits; some experts say overheating it may oxidize the oil to the point of creating harmful free radicals. If you’re in doubt about the smoking point, save this oil for salad dressings or a finishing drizzle. Or use a light (not extra-virgin) olive oil for cooking. Yes, it’s a tradeoff: Light olive oil is refined, so it’s less nutrient-rich, but can be used at higher temperatures (420-470 degrees) and as a substitute for vegetable or Canola oil in baking.
And that’s key, because most experts suggest chucking all vegetable oils, which are cheap to produce but full of free radicals because they’re processed with chemical solvents at high temperatures. Oils affected not only include the ambiguously labeled vegetable oil, but also soy, corn, safflower, sesame, sunflower, cottonseed, and Canola. “Just do me a favor and never use Canola oil,” Pescatore says. “The stuff you’ll find on the supermarket shelves has been refined, heated, and damaged beyond repair.” Meaning there’s no nutritional value left. What is Canola made of anyway? Developed in the early 1970s (the name Canola comes from Canadian Oil), it’s extracted from genetically modified rapeseeds. According to Catherine Shanahan. MD, science director of the Los Angeles Lakers PRO Nutrition Program, Canola promotes inflammation in the gut that extends into the arteries and nervous system.
That still leaves plenty of nutritious nut and seed oils, such as walnut, pumpkin, hempseed, and flaxseed. But because these oils have very low heat thresholds, consider them only for drizzling and dressings, not cooking. Palm oil, on the other hand, is gaining a lot of attention for its vitamin-rich makeup and high smoke point (455!). Red palm oil, that is—from the pulp of the palm plant rather than the seed. Refined palm seed oil has about thirty percent more saturated fat than red. No contest, says Pescatore: “Red palm oil is healthy, regular is not.”