5 healthy cooking oils and how to use them in the kitchen

Cooking oil overwhelm is REAL. I know because I deal with it myself. There are so many oils to choose from. And there’s so much conflicting information about which oils are healthy… and which aren’t.

Here’s the first thing to know when choosing cooking oils: not all saturated fat is bad. For a long time, the FDA and American Heart Association told you saturated fat was “bad fat” that should be avoided. They told you to replace oils that contain saturated fats with highly processed seed vegetable oils that contained less saturated fats.

But in recent years, we’ve learned that popular seed and vegetable oils aren’t the healthy alternatives we thought they were. In fact, research shows these oils increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. There’s also evidence that popular vegetable oils contain alarming percentages of trans-fats — the one truly “bad” fat.

So, which cooking oils should you turn to when you want to stay healthy? Here are five to add to your cooking oil arsenal… and when you’ll want to use them…

1. Olive Oil

Olive oil may be the one oil everyone agrees on. It’s a rich source of antioxidants and polyphenols that protect your cells from oxidative stress. Plus, it contains an inflammation-fighting compound called oleocanthal. Research shows it can raise your good (HDL) cholesterol levels and lower your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. And a 2014 study found that a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) daily can lower heart disease risk by 10 percent.

But before you start cooking everything in EVOO, you should know… different types of olive oil are good for different things. EVOO, for example, is great when you’re making dip or salad dressing. Or when you need something to drizzle over your favorite pasta dish. But it has a pretty low smoke point — 325 to 375 degrees F. The smoke point is the point when the oil starts to oxidize or break down. As a result, it’s not the best choice for frying or roasting at higher than 375 degrees F.  If you do want to fry or roast with olive oil, use pure olive oil. It doesn’t have as much flavor or nutrients as EVOO, but its smoke point is 465 degrees F.

2. Avocado Oil

Avocados are having a major moment… so it makes sense avocado oil is too. You’ll see it popping up more frequently in your favorite health blogs, cookbooks, and Pinterest recipes. Avocado oil has a similar fat profile to olive oil, but it doesn’t have as strong of a taste. So, if you find olive oil too bitter, avocado oil may be just the thing for you. It has a high smoke point (375 to 400 degrees F), which means it’s more versatile than EVOO. You can use it for everything from sautéing to searing.

It’s not as chemically processed as those vegetable oils I mentioned earlier, which means it’s a better choice if you’re trying to eat clean. The only downside? It’s expensive. So, if you’re on a budget, it may not be the best everyday cooking oil.

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3. Coconut Oil

There are a lot of conflicting viewpoints on coconut oil. It contains quite a bit of saturated fat (more than beef or butter). That means people who are still holding on to the view that saturated fat is bad are going to tell you coconut oil isn’t healthy. And the fact is, coconut oil can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol. But it also raises your HDL (good) cholesterol. And when it comes to heart health, the ratio of these two is most important. Coconut oil also contains polyphenols, anti-inflammatory compounds and a fatty acid called Lauric Acid that kills bacteria and other pathogens. As a result, cutting-edge health nuts consider coconut oil a superfood.

Coconut oil tastes, well, like coconut — especially unrefined coconut oil. As a result, I don’t always like to use it for savory dishes. But I do love it for baking. It adds a special something to brownies, cookies, bread — you name it. If you want to use coconut oil in other dishes but don’t want the coconut taste, try refined coconut oil. It can handle cooking temps up to 400 degrees F.

4. Grass-fed butter

Butter used to be a bad word in the health world. That’s because, like coconut oil, it’s high in saturated fat. So, at the height of the fat frenzy in the 80s and 90s, cooking with butter was a serious transgression. But we know better now. Saturated fat isn’t the devil it was made out to be. In fact, the highly processed, low-fat margarine spreads used to replace butter are far worse.

Real butter contains quite a few nutrients (especially if you go grass-fed). It contains vitamins A, E, and K2, as well as the inflammation-fighting fatty acids Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and Butyrate. But do you know butter’s biggest benefit? It’s delicious. But FYI… it burns at high cooking temps, which means it’s not the best for frying.

5. Ghee

If you’re lactose intolerant (like millions of Americans), then Ghee is a good alternative to traditional butter. Ghee is a clarified butter that originates in India. “Clarifying” butter removes the lactose and proteins, which makes it easier for some people to digest. Like butter, it’s high in saturated fat. But as I mentioned earlier, saturated fat isn’t the big health bogeyman it’s been made out to be.

If you’ve never had ghee, you may be wondering what it tastes like. Ghee is known for its nutty, rich and — you guessed it — buttery flavor. It has a higher smoke point (up to 485 degrees F) than traditional butter, so it doesn’t burn as easily. That means it’s a good choice for sautéing or even frying foods. It also produces less of the toxin acrylamide than other oils do at high heat (read about acrylamide’s cancer-causing connection to potatoes). Ghee is, however, even higher in fat and calories than traditional butter. And as you know, traditional butter isn’t exactly known for being low in those things.

Here’s one piece of advice no matter what you choose to cook with — fats and oils go rancid easily. So, don’t buy them in big batches. And store them in a cool, dark, place where they’re less likely to oxidize (mix with oxygen and start breaking down). Here’s to healthier cooking oils!

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  1. How to Choose a Healthy Oil for Cooking — Consumer Reports
  2. 10 of the Healthiest Cooking Oils, Explained — SELF
  3. Ask the doctor: Coconut oil and health — Harvard Health Publishing
  4. Healthy Cooking Oils — The Ultimate Guide — Healthline
  5. Should I Be Using Ghee Or Butter In My Diet? — Healthline
  6. Clearing the confusion about cooking oils — Easy Health Options
  7. Why they are wrong about coconut oil — Easy Health Options
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.