Healthy Cooking Oils

Olive, Corn, Canola, Sunflower, Peanut, or Coconut? Cooking Oil Myths Revealed
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Open your cupboard door, and I'm guessing you'll see at least three different bottles of cooking oil, and possibly many more. Is it any wonder you're confused? After years of new -- and sometimes conflicting -- health claims about cooking oils, most of us have switched our recipes around so many times we no longer know which to use when. (And which to toss altogether.)

Here, a guide to the six most common cooking oils, in the order of "healthiness," along with six common myths debunked.

Why Olive Oil Is Good for Your Health

Olive oil reigns supreme as the healthiest oil to cook with because it's highest in monounsaturated fat, which lowers LDL, the so-called "bad" cholesterol. Olive oil is also the richest of all the oils in omega-3 fatty acids, which help keep arteries clear and boost brain function.

Best for: Flavor
The Italians use olive oil to dip or drizzle with practically everything, for good reason. Its distinctive taste adds a welcome dose of flavor to vegetables, sauces, and even bread.

Myth: Olive Oil Has No Saturated Fat
It sure would be simpler if this were true, but unfortunately the science of fat is a pretty complicated subject. According to Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Letter, there are actually 24 different saturated fats. Some, like those from meat and dairy, are bad for you, raising cholesterol and blood lipids; others lower cholesterol levels. Olive oil actually contains 13 percent saturated fat, more then some other oils, but it's good saturated fat rather than bad saturated fat. (Another good saturated fat is stearic acid, the type found in dark chocolate.)

Why Safflower and Sunflower Oils Are Good for Your Health

The oil from sunflower seeds and its lesser-known relative the safflower are high in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, the ratio you want in heart-healthy oils. According to the American heart and diabetes associations, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have important health benefits as a rich source of omega-6 fatty acids. The problem comes with the tendency of omega-6 fatty acids to unbalance even more important omega-3 fatty acids.

Best for: Sautéing and Frying
Safflower and sunflower oils have a higher "smoke point" (the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke) than olive oil, making them good choices for cooking over high heat. Once an oil begins to smoke, the omega-3 acids begin to break down and turn to unhealthy trans-fatty acids. Chose those labeled "high-oleic," which are healthier and can withstand higher heat without smoking.

Myth: Oils Go Bad Quickly When Exposed to Air
It's true as far as it goes: Oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), like safflower, sunflower, and canola oil, can become oxidized when exposed to oxygen or heat, at which point they can be bad for you. However, most of us keep our oils capped, and most of the cooking oils sold in grocery stories are refined by processes that prevent oxidation and raise the cooking potential. One exception is when frying on high heat, when it's a good idea to use peanut oil.

Why Canola Oil Is Good for Your Health

Ever wonder why you've never heard of a canola plant? Canola oil is actually made from rapeseed, a member of the mustard family, which was genetically bred in the 1970s to produce a milder-tasting seed. A bit of history: The name was originally a trademarked derivation from "Canadian Oil, Low Acid," a name it was given by its creators at the University of Manitoba, but it's now a generic term. Canola oil also has a relatively high heat tolerance for frying, particularly "high-oleic" canola oil, which doesn't start smoking until it hits 475 degrees. (Regular canola oil's smoke point is 400 degrees.)

Best for: Baking
Of all the liquid oils, canola oil is popular for baking precisely because it has almost no flavor. After all, you don't really want your cookies or bread tasting like olives or peanuts "“ unless, of course, you're making peanut butter cookies.

Myth: Canola Oil Is Healthier Than Olive Oil
Nope, sorry, canola oil has less monounsaturated fat than olive oil, and this point is the one that matters the most. However, it's also true that canola oil is richest in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid important to cardiovascular health. The best advice is to keep both in your kitchen. Use olive oil on vegetables and when you want its distinctive flavor, canola when you want a milder choice.

Why Peanut Oil Is Good for Your Health

Peanut oil sounds wonderfully natural, since it's derived from nuts. And it is high in monounsaturated fats. However, peanut oil also contains about 30 percent polyunsaturated fat and about 20 percent saturated fat, making it fourth in line for health benefits.

Best for: Frying and Storage
Restaurants use peanut oil for frying and deep frying because it doesn't smoke or burn, even at very high temperatures. Peanut oil also has a longer shelf life than other oils.

Myth: Frying Makes Oils Bad for You
It's not frying per se that makes oils turn bad, but smoking, which releases substances that can be carcinogenic. Because peanut oil does not begin to smoke until it's hotter than 475 degrees, it's an excellent choice for safe frying.

Why Corn Oil Is Good for Your Health

Of all the so-called healthy oils, corn oil has the lowest percentage of monounsaturated fat (the healthiest type) at 24 percent, so it should be the last oil of choice for those looking to eat a heart-health or diabetes-friendly diet. Corn oil contains primarily polyunsaturated fats, rich in omega-6 fatty acids -- but most of us get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids from our daily diets, and too much omega-6 can overbalance the more important omega-3 fatty acids. Corn oil also contains small amounts of trans fats, considered the unhealthiest type.

Best for: Frying if You Don't Have Peanut Oil
Refined corn oil has a smoke point of 450 degrees, so it's better than canola oil if that's all you have.

Myth: All Vegetable Oils Are Equal
Corn and canola oil are often listed together, but while they both start with C, they aren't equal in health benefits. Because corn oil contains no omega-3 fatty acids at all, it has fewer health benefits than its rivals.

Why Coconut Oil Is Good for Your Health

Pure, unrefined coconut oil has become the darling of the natural food set, touted for its nutritional benefits and as a weight-loss aid. Coconut oil is different than other oils in consisting of more than 50 percent medium chain fats, which the body burns faster, making them less likely to be stored as fat. However, the few small studies that have been done have not shown coconut oil to have a significant effect on BMI or body weight, though there was a small decrease in belly fat. The news isn't all good, though; health organizations such as the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are wary of coconut oil because it's 90 percent saturated fat -- compare that with butter, which is 64 percent saturated fat, and lard, which is 40 percent saturated fat. And reports that coconut oil prevents Alzheimer's are misleading; the one small study done found an increase in memory benefits after 45 days, but no effect at 90 days.

Best for: Baking and beauty
Pure unrefined coconut oil (the kind you want) is solid at room temperature, making it useful as an alternative to saturated fats like butter or lard for baking. It can also be whipped up for icings and frostings. Coconut melts and becomes a clear liquid at 76 degrees, but it has a smoke point of 350 degrees, so it works well for sautéing vegetables, where it adds a nutty flavor. (However, olive oil is still a much healthier sauté choice.) A traditional hair and skin remedy in India and other parts of Asia for centuries, melted coconut oil makes an excellent hot oil treatment for hair or a hand and skin softener.

Myth: All Saturated Fats Are the Same
Recent studies have shown that not all saturated fats behave the same in the body. Unlike animal-derived saturated fats, the saturated fat in coconut oil is formed primarily from lauric acid, and it boosts levels of "good" HDL cholesterol when digested. However, experts still suggest using coconut oil sparingly, primarily as a butter replacement.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

5 months, said...

I am pre-diabetic. In an effort to reduce my A1c readings I am being careful what I eat. In the past six weeks I have lost ten pounds (I was 160; now 150) but part of my daily intake is half a bar of Trader Joe's 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate. I read that this sort of chocolate is healthy. Am I deluding myself? Alec

over 3 years, said...

Contrary to this article, coconut oil is the only oil that is safe for cooking! And all the other oils, except olive oil that can be used for low heat cooking and raw, are very unhealthy whether cooked or raw, especially canola oil. Rapeseed is primarily used to create insecticides! It's promotion as a healthy oil is an outright lie! Use it at your own risk! I repeat, use only coconut oil for high heat cooking! It is the single most healthy oil on the planet! It odesn't have to be extra virgin. It can be refined, and it still is the most healthy oil for human consumption! Do your own research via Google. You don't have to believe little ole me. Info is all over the place!

over 3 years, said...

I find that the information in your "Oils" article is seriously out of date and gives the wrong information to folks seeking health! Coconut oil is absolutely the best most healthy oil to eat and to fry with! Saturated fats are good for you, not bad, including those from animals! The make the LDL too big to penetrate arterial walls! Or didn't you know that yet? Omega 3 fatty acids from plants have very little to do with heart health! It's the ones from animals like salmon that do! Please do your research and stop being influenced by the corrupted food industry and organizations like the National Cancer Society and other establishment organizations whose agenda is not related to public health but to funding sources, and are primarily influenced by the AMA, the allopathic medical establishment whose main agenda is to stay in power as the premier medical provider accepted by the public, and protecting the income of doctors and surgeons, who do nothing to keep us healthy, as that would put them out of business! If you really care, really try to stay current. That means you will no longer heed the proclamations of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment, and begin to heed the latest research, such as that provided by websites such as AUTHORITY NUTRITION! You can even look at many videos provided by You Tube, from honorable doctors with a conscience, such as Dr. Miller, a cardiologist and professor of surgery, proclaiming the health provided by saturated fat! Dr. Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF has a great lecture on the evils of sugar titled SUGAR - THE BITTER TRUTH! and other videos as well! It is sugar that causes heart disease and diabetes II, and metabolic syndrome that is killing us! Just because an establishment organization says it's so, doesn't make it so! In fact, for over 50 years, we have been following their advice, the low fat low cholesterol diet; and heart attack rates and cancer rates have not lessened one percent! Allopathic medicine boasts a cure rate for cancer at a whopping 2-3%! Heart disease remains the number one killer! Our society has become more obese and more unhealthy following their recommendations! Isn't it time we stopped believing them? Or do you still eat margarine? At the very least you should publish information that doesn't agree with established information, and let the public decide for themselves, rather than taking the stance that you really know and have the answers, and publish the only truth! I am disappointed. I rest my case. Thanks for listening!

over 4 years, said...

there is no mention of palm fruit oil in this article. Because of it's savory flavor and high smoke point, this oil is great for baking and high-heating cooking. It's full of beta carotene and vitamin E too.

over 4 years, said...

Well, i was a bit confuse reading this especially when i saw the word UNFORTUATELY But... i realize the difference (24 different SF and 13%SF) but its good SF. I used Olive Oil one day to fry fish and IT WAS GOOD. I thought about the Scripture It Was Good.

over 4 years, said...

Hello Everyone, Thank you for sharing your comments, resources, and suggestions. We appreciate the feedback you have given to this topic. Your questions have been passed on to our editorial team for review. To print this and other articles, look to the left side of any article page for the social action bar. At the bottom of the social action bar is an icon and link to print. Click that icon and link, and then follow the prompts for printing. Please note: If you are using your web browser's print functionality for printing, rather than the social action bar, you may find that the article doesn't print in its entirety or you may not otherwise achieve a quality printout. Unfortunately, we can't control the settings for each person's web browser functionality, and thus recommend that you use the social action bar for printing from our website. Here's a picture of the social action bar and print icon/link for guidance: Thank you LadyDawn for assisting Robert Burns and others in accessing the most recent comments. As LadyDawn stated, the easiest way to view all comments is to click on the phrase "View (Number of Comments) Comments" under the words "Join this Conversion". The newest comments will be on the top. As a reminder, is an informational website. If you have any concerns or questions regarding your health, please see a medical professional. You may also visit our Ask&Answer feature, to ask a nutrition expert, who volunteers their time on Thank you!

over 4 years, said...

Because of the neutral flavor of canola oil, some of us still use it for cooking and baking from time to time. There are a few non-GMO canola oils available through online ordering. Yes there are certain stores which also carry it. Yes, for those who don't have corn allergies, there is non-GMO corn oil also. Look, you have to be watchful about the manufacture of all oils you consume - and yes, you have to read labels carefully to know what to look for (which includes the knowing jargon which says one thing to hide another). I for one appreciated this article but I would have loved a printable chart at the end.

over 4 years, said...

As of 2012, more than 80% of the corn, soy and rapeseed (canola) planted in the U.S. was genetically modified. Most of them have their DNA altered to tolerate several times the dose of herbicides that non-GM crops can survive. That makes 100% of the all the most-common, major-brand cooking oils that line our grocery stores both genetically modified AND laden with pesticides. No long-term testing of GM foods has EVER been done, yet they are in more than 85% of our processed foods. They're often referred to as "Frankenfoods" for good reason. But I see no mention of this in any of your evaluations, which makes your work seriously incomplete. Which do you think will get you first, the deliberately damaged foods or the fat they contain?

over 4 years, said...

fine tuning the differences in nutrients, plus smoke points, plus best uses

over 4 years, said...

Go directly to Comments. The latest comment will be at the top of that page. I've always felt the same way but if you know how this comment section functions, you'll be able to find the newest comment with only the click from the email and a click at the link.

over 4 years, said...

The Article "Healthy Cooking Oils" has a new comment. Must one re-read the entire article to fine the NEW COMMENT, then how does one recognize it if it is blended in?

over 4 years, said...

Since Ms Haiken is a staff member, this would be a good time to add to the article by way of answering some of the questions raised. That additional information would add to the significance of this article. Walnut Oil Rice Bran Oil I'm sure there are many of us who would like an article about GMO vs non-GMO products. What would also be great is a chart which shows the oils and the various info such as smoke point, Omega 3, Omega 6, PUFAs (polyunsaturated acids), monounsaturated fats, best uses and so on. It is so much easier to compare and be able to print out a simple table.

over 4 years, said...

What about grapeseed oil and rice bran oil. I haven't used the grapeseed much, but I have used the rice bran and I find it great for high heat cooking. Didn't realize that peanut and coconut oils were so good for cooking.

over 4 years, said...

Trying to help with my husbands diabetic and heart health

over 4 years, said...

Wonderful article. Well written and informative. Thank you.

over 4 years, said...

Would certainly like to be able to copy these articles to email to others & to print out. Useful info but can I keep it all in my memory?

over 4 years, said...

Good article. Thanks. Nit-picking, but you mentioned peanut oil as a nut. I understand it is a legume.

over 4 years, said...

you make no mention gmo and pesticide laden plants being turned into oil -- most of your nutrition advise seems to ignore these dangers and I am no longer reading your articles on nutrition --- they are misleading and not complete.

over 4 years, said...

Informative beyond my comprehension!

over 4 years, said...

The smoke point of olive oil was not mentioned but would be of interest. I often saute things in olive oil. I use an electric wok at 300 deg F, raised in steps from room temp because the crude thermostat would let the heating overshoot if done quickly. I do not notice any smoke from olive oil or from walnut oil that has been "refined for medium high heat" when I work up to 300 in steps. Walnuts are famously healthy, so I presume that walnut oil is healthy also. It does impart a distinctive walnut-like flavor.