Oils have always been used in cooking, with many familiar with staples like corn, olive, canola, or vegetable. Many new oils have become available to add flavors to our cooking, such as avocado or grapeseed oils, and it can be challenging to know which one to choose. Some oils are more beneficial for heart health than others, while some are better for drizzling on salads than for cooking with heat. Having a variety of healthy oils in our diet, in moderation, may be the best option.
The Role of Oil in a Healthy Diet
First, let’s start with a basic premise: Fat is good. Our bodies need fat. “For a while, everyone thought fats were bad, and we saw a trend toward fat-free foods,” said Helen Long, MHA, RDN, LDN, CDE, an outpatient nutritionist at Winchester Hospital. “We need fat in our diet because it provides us with essential nutrients and makes us feel fuller.”
However, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. Certain fats are much better for us. Unsaturated fats are the “good” fats; these are generally found in liquid form at room temperature in the form of oils, the National Institutes of Health says. Replacing some carbohydrates with unsaturated fats can improve blood cholesterol and reduce blood pressure.
Saturated and trans fats are “bad” fats, the NIH says. They’re solids at room temperature: think butter, margarine, shortening and coconut and palm oils. Nutritional guidelines and nutritionists tell us that we need to limit our intake of saturated and avoid trans fats, which are found in hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Partially hydrogenated oils are commonly used in restaurants because they’re cheaper than butter and other, healthier, oils, so be careful when going out to eat. And despite a trend toward using coconut oil, the American Heart Association (AHA) tells people to steer clear of cooking with it.
“Although coconut oil was found to have some healthy compounds, it is still about 90 percent saturated fat. Look for oils that are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats,” Long said. Cooking oils from plants contain different levels of these fats, and each oil provides its own unique benefits.
Oils High in Polyunsaturated Fat
Polyunsaturated fats are one of the good fats that you should incorporate into your diet. This type of fat lowers your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind of cholesterol) and triglyceride levels. Oils high in these fats will also add vitamin E, an antioxidant that the AHA says many of us could stand to get more of, to your diet. These oils also contain essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which your body doesn’t produce. The following oils are packed with polyunsaturated fats.
Soybean oil is a common and inexpensive oil that you can find in almost every grocery store. It’s usually the main ingredient in pure vegetable oil and is often used interchangeably with corn oil. Both soybean and corn oil contain about 60 percent polyunsaturated fat and around 15 percent saturated fat.How to use it: Soybean oil is virtually tasteless, so it pairs well with any cuisine. And because you can buy it in bulk for fairly cheap, this oil is great for recipes that require large quantities of oil. Soybean oil has a medium smoke point, which means it works well for baking, sautéing or sauces.
Sesame oil has a nutty, distinctly Asian flavor. It has a good balance of both types of unsaturated fats, with a slightly higher amount of polyunsaturated fat. And it’s relatively low (about 15 percent by volume) in saturated fat.How to use it: This oil pairs best with Asian-inspired meals, but because its flavor is pretty strong, you should use it sparingly. This cooking oil also has a medium smoke point and works best when cooking with low heat. Consider stir-frying with sesame oil or drizzling a teaspoon of it on top of your dish for a flavorful finishing touch.
Walnut oil has a rich flavor and a low smoke point. It’s a popular choice for a heart-healthy diet because it’s very low in saturated fat. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, just one tablespoon of walnut oil can fulfill your daily nutritional need of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 that helps regulate your blood pressure and heart rate. All in all, 67 percent of this oil’s fats are polyunsaturated.
How to use it: Walnut oil has a low smoke point, so it’s not great as a cooking oil. It’s best used to provide a complementary flavor to sauces, dips or salad dressings. It’s also pricier than other cooking oils, so you may want to save it for recipes that call for smaller quantities of oil.
Sunflower is a popular all-purpose oil. It can contain nearly 70 percent polyunsaturated fat and as little as about 10 percent saturated fat. Refined sunflower oil has a mild taste that pairs well with almost any dish. However, if you choose an unrefined version, it’ll pack a stronger flavor closer to that of sunflower seeds.
How to use it: This oil has a high smoke point and, unlike walnut oil, it’s fairly inexpensive. It works well for deep frying and searing.
Grapeseed oil tastes like an extremely mild olive oil, with slight hints of grapes. It’s become popular lately because it is a great source of polyunsaturated fat and is very low in saturated fat.
How to use it: Grapeseed oil has a medium-high smoke point and, with its mild flavor, is a great all-purpose oil. Use it for baking, marinades, stir-fry or sautéing.
Oils High in Monounsaturated Fat
Just like polyunsaturated fats do, monounsaturated fats help lower LDL cholesterol and increase vitamin E levels. Try pairing these different cooking oils with leafy greens to increase your body’s ability to absorb their beneficial nutrients. These five oils are rich in monounsaturated fats.
Olive oil is one of the most common cooking oils. It has a strong, slightly bitter flavor. It pairs well with most foods, and it’s especially good as a dip for crispy bread. (Try adding some Parmesan cheese on top for extra flavor!) It comprises almost 80 percent monounsaturated fat, with just 14 percent saturated fat. Opt for extra virgin olive oil if you want a less acidic offering.
How to use it: Olive oil is extremely versatile, especially when combined with other flavored oils. As you move from regular to virgin to extra virgin olive oil, the smoke point lowers. So you’ll want to use an extra virgin oil for light sautéing and choose an refined olive oil for higher-heat cooking such as stir-fry, bakes or sears. It’s also good for sauces, marinades and salad dressings.
This is another increasingly popular oil. It’s considered a clean-tasting oil because its flavor is extremely mild. If you have sensitive taste buds, though, you might notice a slightly buttery or nutty flavor. While avocado oil contains about 65 percent monounsaturated fat, it also has a slightly higher saturated fat content at 17 percent.
How to use it: The mild flavor and high smoke point of this oil make it a good choice for searing and browning. Just keep in mind the fat content of the rest of your meal before you use a lot of this oil.
Canola oil is a heart-healthy all-purpose oil. It’s flavorless, inexpensive and very low in saturated fat. More than 60 percent of its fats are monounsaturated.
How to use it: Canola oil pairs well with any meal or baking recipe. It has a medium-high smoke point, so it works well for sautéing, baking or high-heat cooking.
Just as flax seeds are popular these days, so is flaxseed oil. You’ll find mixed reviews on the taste of this oil; some people have described its taste as “rancid.” As a general rule, if you don’t like the taste of flax seeds, you probably won’t like the oil; it has a distinctive, nutty flavor that’s hard to mask. Flavor aside, flaxseed oil is a great plant source of omega-3s, and less than 10 percent of its fats are saturated.
How to use it: Flaxseed oil is considered a no-heat oil, so leave it out of the cooking equation. Use it instead for marinades, dips or salad dressings.
Almond oil is high in monounsaturated fat, and it’s very low in saturated fat at 7 percent. Cold-pressed almond oil has a distinct, nutty flavor, but refined almond oil, which is better for cooking, has a much milder flavor.
How to use it: With its high smoke point and low saturated fat content, refined almond oil is a good choice for frying. It can also be used for searing, sautéing and baking. In general, though, almond oil is best when reserved for a finishing touch.
How to Make Oils Part of a Healthy Diet
There’s no one perfect oil for healthy cooking. Helen Long encourages people to try out different cooking oils to find one that they like, and to consume all oils in moderation.
Nuts, seeds and nut butters provide a lot of the same fat and nutrients that oils do, so be aware of your total fat intake and use moderation with these as well. Consider choosing an all-purpose oil, an oil for sautéing and an oil with a distinct flavor for sauces and dressings. Match your choices with your cooking needs and your budget.
Looking for more ways to improve your heart health? Be sure to ask the nutritionists at Winchester Hospital.