Top 4 Healthy Oils To Cook With

healthy oils to cook with

In a world dominated by fads and “miraculous” dietary solutions, the search for healthy oils to cook with can seem like a fool’s errand. That said, we can’t just admit defeat and drown everything in bacon grease (as delicious as that may sound).

Thankfully there are a few healthy alternatives that do have some unique characteristics that put them a step or two above your imitation butter or beloved bacon grease.

What’s the deal with Extra Virgin?

healthy oils to cook with

A lot of weight is put on the purity of our oils, so it’s important to understand exactly what the ‘virginity’ of an oil means and how it’s pressed. The concepts of extra virgin oil and cold pressing go hand-in-hand. 

In order to remove all the impurities many oil processing techniques involve heating and chemically treating the oil. Like in olive oil this usually produces a lighter and less beneficial oil (this is the “extra light” olive oil you see in the stores). 

Not to mention this by-product is often then mixed and spliced with other “lesser” oils to be more cost effective and alter other attributes like color, consistency or taste. That’s why non-virgin oils that aren’t cold pressed are typically cheaper, because, well, they are.

The one benefit that they do have is that the heating and chemical treating does often make those oils more resilient to heat, so they’ll have a higher smoke point. However if you’re looking for healthy oils to cook with stick to your extra virgin and cold pressed processes.

Saturated vs Unsaturated

healthy oils to cook with

Not all fats are made equal. Fatty acids and the ways in which our bodies process them are complex things. To make things simple there are just a few things to keep in mind.

Saturated fats are not all bad and unsaturated fats are not all good. Your body requires a balance; generally getting more unsaturated fats is better.

Saturated fats are generally less complex molecules that typically don’t get used as efficiently. However, as your body needs a balance of the two, it’s important to pick and choose.

HDL and LDL

healthy oils to cook with

These acronyms stand for “high density lipids” and “low density lipids” or better known as good cholesterol v. bad cholesterol. Again your body does need both. But as you might’ve guessed, you’re healthier having more HDL – which some of our top 4 healthy oils to cook with can help.

To avoid treating your shopping trip like a trip to the library a general guide to go by is that saturated fats are usually solid, generally keep better, and often have higher smoke points (with some exception). That said, not all saturated fats are to be avoided. They come in various chains of molecules, and some are better than others.


4 Healthy Oils To Cook With

While there is some variance based on how you use healthy oils, the 4 in our list are the healthiest oils for cooking.

 Avocado Oil

healthy oils to cook with

Avocado oil is one of the healthiest oils to cook with. Since it’s derived from avocados, it’s naturally high in fiber. Therefore, avocado oil is good for cholesterol and good for digestion.

The primary fatty acid component of avocado oil is monounsaturated oleic acid – the same omega-9 unsaturated fatty acid that is found in olive oil. This makes it another great oil to replace less healthy alternatives. Also similarly to olive oil, avocado oil is high in vitamin E.

Avocado oil is a thick, heavy substance chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and other hefty nutrients. Given the thickness and fact that it’s packed with what your body needs and wants, it can help make a very filling, healthy meal. Avocado oil can also help regulate your digestion.

Avocado oil may be good for your bones, too. ​While whether this is true long term is still up for debate, some key extracts in avocado oil seem to have some affect on reducing pain and the debilitating affects of hip and knee osteoarthritis. It’s unlikely that it’ll be shown to reverse the effects of arthritis, but anything that makes mobility and living a little easier is worth looking into.

Avocado oil can also handle the heat. ​One of the great attributes of avocado oil is that with it’s high levels of oleic acid and fiber it is very resistant to rancidity and also can be used at a very high heat – upwards of 400F. This makes avocado oil great for stir-fry, sauté, and other high heat cooking.

 Olive Oil

healthy oils to cook with

Olive oil is one of the old standards – the ‘go to’ oil in many kitchens. And that’s not surprising either as it is very good for you in the right quantity. The primary type of fatty acid found in Olive oil is one of the most popular types of unsaturated fats – monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA for short).

​These simple unsaturated fat chains are actually considered a healthy fat to use when dieting. Again, lets not all grab our crazy straws just yet, as the key to using oils in healthy eating is to replace those unhealthy, long-chain, saturated and trans fats with MUFAs and polyunsaturated fats.

You can read up more on this healthy dietary fat here at the Mayo Clinic site. 

Olive oil also promotes heart health. One of the other chemical components that gives olive oil its claim to fame is call hydroxytyrosol (HT). This chemical compound helps promote a healthy heart by protecting blood vessels from damage by triggering a genetic change and helping the blood vessels avoid damage from overly reactive oxygen molecules. In other words, it boosts their antioxidant defenses.

In addition to its HT content, olive oil is also rich in Vitamin E and beta-carotene – two other well-known antioxidants. All these health benefits have helped the popularity of olive oil. So although olive oil is unsaturated, it has thoroughly saturated the market.

As such it’s buyer beware, as some oils out there are frauds. Check this article out, discussing that topic further. Whatever you do, remember the importance of always making sure to read labels carefully so you know what it is you’re buying.

Extra light is not extra healthy, and just because the oil was “bottled in” Italy does not mean the olives are actually Italian grown. These are just a couple labeling tricks manufactures use to make their product seem superior. In fact, if that’s their advertising angle for packaging, it’s a pretty safe bet that those olives were grown anywhere but.

Often times with these product brands, oils are mixed and you end up with not as good of an oil as you were hoping. Unfortunately, the reality is that many higher quality oils that are grown, cold pressed, and imported have the inflated prices to match.​

Given the way in which they’re processed, good extra virgin olive oils typically have a much lower tolerance for heat (around 325-375). That said these should be used for dressings, in sauces, and as garnish or topping where that fresh aromatic flavor can really shine.​

If you are curious about which brand of olive oil is really the best, take a quick look at our post. We did some research and made a ranking of our recommendations for the best olive oils on the market. We list choices for when you want to go all out and splurge and for the more budget minded​ purchases.

 Coconut Oil

healthy oil to cook with

Coconut oil has been praised as a super food and condemned as a nightmare of saturated fat. It’s time to set the record straight. So let’s look at the facts. 

Coconut oil is high in medium chain fatty acids. The vast majority of coconut oil is made up of medium chain triglycerine fatty acids and lauric acid. These are the fatty acids whose properties make coconut oil a healthy oil to cook with.

First let’s look at the MCTs – just what is this “medium chain” fatty acid? As you may have guessed by their name, the medium chain fatty acids of coconut oil are easier for the body to consume and are more easily converted into energy than long chains.

Most of the saturated fats you and I eat on a daily basis are unfortunately long chain fatty acids) – even though they are saturated fats. This more in-depth knowledge is one of the reasons coconut oil has overcome its previous bad reputation.​

Today coconut oil is touted as being one of the healthy oils to cook with – so healthy that it helps reduce ​fat and cholesterol (the bad LDL kind) by helping accelerate the fat burning process. While I wouldn’t recommend grabbing a spoon and going to town, a small dose of the right sort of fatty acid can be a good thing.

While the medium-chain fatty acid is the source of coconut oil’s reported fat burning, bad cholesterol reducing properties, the fact that much of that comes in the form of lauric acid is why so many other health benefits have been attributed to coconut oil.​ While plenty more research and testing is needed to show exactly how lauric acid works it is reported to have a variety of anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral properties. 

Good quality, virgin, cold pressed coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point usually around 350 F. Coconut oil doesn’t generally have a heavy coconut flavor so it can be used with a variety of dishes and with a higher smoke point is great for low heat pan frying.

 Tallow

healthy oils to cook with

Now I know what you’re saying, but tallow isn’t an “oil”. Regardless of where it comes from, oil is essentially fat from one source or another. If gotten from the right sources and used in moderation, tallow is absolutely a healthy way to cook.

If you’ve learned one thing thus far it should be that fat isn’t necessarily bad – it’s all in how you get it, how you treat it, and how you use it. Getting the most out of your beef tallow is about making sure you know your sources.

Tallow is beef fat. As with all things cow-related, it’s important to try and get your tallow from grass-fed animals. Also important is the rending process – how the tallow is separated. Most good tallow will mention that it is kettle rendered, in other words brought to a near boil and separated that way. ​

One of the best things about tallow is that it’s highly stable and won’t break down at high temperatures. This makes it fantastic for high heat cooking like deep-frying and stir-frying. Tallow is a saturated fat with long chain omega-3 fatty acids. As your body does need saturated fats, this isn’t something to shy away from, but more to use sparingly.

Say what you will about saturated fats, but beef tallow does have some fantastic health benefits. Research has shown that beef tallow can help reduce mammary tumors metastasis. Any fat that helps protect in the fight against breast cancer is ok by me.​ 

How it works is by increasing the potency of Conjugated Linoleic Acid. CLAs have well-known anti-tumor properties that the beef tallow seems to accentuate. Beef tallow has been shown to also be high in vitamin D. Vitamin D is a big proponent of bone health and something that many don’t get enough of.

Conclusion

healthy oils to cook with

There's a lot that goes into what makes the healthiest oil for cooking and that includes what it can be used for. Our bodies need fats of various types and in balanced quantities. If used too much any of these oils can be bad for you. That said the healthiest oils for cooking are:

Avocado Oil

healthy oils to cook with

Smoke point:             375 to 400 degrees

Consistency:       medium to thick

Best uses:           dressings and stir fry

Medicinal benefits: digestion and osteoarthritis

Olive Oil

healthy oils to cook with

Smoke point:             325-350 degrees

Consistency:               light to medium thick

Best uses:           dressing, garnish, and sauces

Medicinal benefits: improves heart health

Coconut Oil

healthy oils to cook with

Smoke point:             350 degrees

Consistency:             thick

Best uses:                     pan cooking on low to medium, baking

Medicinal benefits: anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral

Tallow

healthy oils to cook with

Smoke point:           400+

Consistency:             thick

Best uses:                 deep-fry

Medicinal benefits: helps protect against breast cancer

About the author

Jon Strungis

Jon Strungis graduated from Metro State University, wrote briefly for YellowScene magazine, and is passionate about food and writing (in no particular order). He loves exploring new flavors, discovering recipes to transform, and sharing his adventures in colorful detail.

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