How to Choose Healthy Cooking Oils

Let’s face it: Healthy cooking involves a lot of decisions, some easier to make than others. Deciding which oils to cook with, which ones to drizzle over your salad and which ones to stay very, very far away from is trickier – especially when so many labels make confusing health claims.

Fear not – choosing healthy cooking oils doesn’t need to be complicated. Just follow this handy guide to choosing the best oil for each culinary adventure you embark on in your kitchen!

Types of Fats and Cooking Oils

Fats come in chains of varying lengths and are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. One way fats are distinguished from one another is by their double bonds – whether there are no double bonds, one double bond or many double bonds between the carbon molecules.

The categories of fats include:

Saturated Fats

Bond Type: None

What Are They?

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and turn to liquid when warmed. They mostly come from animal sources (like butter) and tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. Contrary to popular belief, not all saturated fats are bad. For example, coconut oil is anti-microbial, aids digestion and reduces inflammation, while ghee has a wealth of nutrients that support our health. Yes, saturated fats should be limited, but they aren’t the evil devils that cause multiple ailments, as some would like us to believe.

The man-made hydrogenated saturated fats are the ones to avoid, but the good quality saturated fats are very beneficial.

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Mono Unsaturated Fats

Bond Type: One Double Bond

What Are They?

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, but will harden when put in the refrigerator. These kinds of fats have been made popular by the Mediterranean diet (which are full of them) and are well-known for lowering your risk of heart disease, arthritis and cancer.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Bond Type: Multiple Double Bonds

What Are They?

Polyunsaturated fats are liquid no matter where you store them. They have many double hydrogen bonds in their fat chains, and they are extremely sensitive to heat, light and air. Some of the most well-known polyunsaturated fats are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have gained attention for their ability to reduce inflammation, build cell membranes, improve brain health, reduce heart disease and more.

Omega-3s and omega-6s are essential fats that our bodies can’t make, so we need to gather them from our diet. Both of them are necessary, however we need a very specific ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, and that’s 1:2 to 1:4. Most people have absolutely no problem getting omega-6, as they are typically overflowing in our diets – in fact, in the average North American diet we are getting about 1 omega-3 to 15 omega-6s. Too much omega-6 throws our bodies into a pro-inflammatory state.

Trans Fats

Hydrogenated oils and trans fats are produced by companies that take polyunsaturated oil and transform it into a solid, so it lasts longer on the shelves and is easily spreadable (think margarine). When single and double bonds are hydrogenated, they are more shelf-stable and consistent.

These are made when, under unnaturally high heat, those single and double bonds in the mono and polyunsaturated fats are saturated with hydrogen to make them more predictable at different temperatures. Our bodies can’t actually recognize the chemical structure, and this can lead to things like high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer.

In their natural states, fats are incredible anti-oxidants while in their hydrogenated state they become the opposite, contributing to free radical damage in the body.


* The Culinary Nutrition Expert Program delves into fats and healthy cooking oils in our very first class module. We share how and why the oils we choose are important for our overall health, and for those dealing with health conditions. *

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decoding label claims on Healthy Cooking Oils

As with many types of foods, cooking oils can have a host of labeling claims. It can be challenging to decode them because different areas of the world have varying standards and labeling laws, plus each oil can have its own optimal method of extraction and processing.

Below are some common explanations for cooking oil labeling claims.

Cold Pressed

Companies make cold pressed oils by grinding nuts or seeds and then pressing them in a heat-controlled environment to extract the oil; the temperature should not go above 120 degrees. This process helps to maintain the oil’s nutrient value and flavour.

Expeller Pressed

An expeller press squeezes the oil using high pressure; no additional heat (or chemicals) is applied; but due to the friction of the press heat is inevitably created.

Refined

Refined oils are ones that are typically filtered, heated, bleached and deodorized after extraction. This makes them more shelf-stable and longer-lasting; but the consequences are a loss of nutrients and the potential damaging effect the chemicals added in the refining process may have.

However, refining can also depend on the type of oil – and some are ‘naturally refined’ without the use of excess heat and chemicals.

Unrefined

Unrefined oils are those that haven’t undergone any processing after extraction; save for some filtering (without chemicals or heat) in some instances. Unrefined oils still retain their nutrient properties and flavour.

Virgin and Extra Virgin

You’ll mostly see ‘virgin’ or ‘extra virgin’ applied to olive oil, and it’s the only type of oil that has an international standard for its labeling terms. Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first press; virgin oil the second.

Generally speaking, virgin oils are simply those that are extracted without heat or chemicals. Though you may see ‘extra virgin’ labels on other types of oils, it’s primarily a marketing term and there usually isn’t much difference between virgin and extra virgin.

If you’re looking at a product and wondering if it’s a healthy cooking oil or not, another rule of thumb is to get in touch with the oil producer or company to find out more information about how their products are processed.

How Do You Decide Which oil is The Best to Cook With?

The more double bonds a fat has, the more susceptible it is to heat, light and oxygen. That means delicate fats such as flax oil, chia oil, and walnut oil are going to be easily destroyed by heat, while the stable fats such as ghee, coconut oil, lard and tallow will be more suitable for high-heat cooking.

With this guide in mind, you can ensure you are choosing healthy cooking oils in the proper way to maintain their health benefits!

Healthy Cooking Oils

4 Unexpected Benefits of Ghee

Ghee

Type of Fat: Saturated
Temperature: High heat cooking
Best Uses: As a replacement for butter in many recipes. Ghee is also a cooking oil you can make at home
How to Store: A cool dark place for 3 months, in the fridge for up to a year.

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Coconut Oil

Type of Fat: Saturated
Temperature: High heat cooking
Best Uses: Butter replacement, gluten-free baking, elixirs and hot drinks, homemade body care
How to Store: A cool dark place

cooking oils - avocado oil

Avocado Oil

Type of Fat: Monounsaturated
Temperature: High heat cooking
Best Uses: Sautéing, stir-fries, dips, sauces and dressings
How to Store: A cool dark place

Sesame Oil

Type of Fat: Monounsaturated
Temperature: Low to medium heat cooking
Best Uses: Stir-fries, noodle dishes, dressings, Asian-inspired dishes
How to Store: A cool dark place

Olive Oil

Type of Fat: Monounsaturated
Temperature: Low to medium heat cooking
Best Uses: Light sautéing, dips, sauces and dressings
How to Store: A cool dark place

cooking oils: flax oil

Flax Oil

Type of Fat: Polyunsaturated
Temperature: Do not heat
Best Uses: Drizzle over salads, cooked whole grains and meat/poultry/fish, add to smoothies and dips
How to Store: In the fridge or freezer

Hemp

Type of Fat: Polyunsaturated
Temperature: Do not heat
Best Uses: Drizzle over salads, cooked whole grains and meat/poultry/fish, add to smoothies and dips
How to Store: In the fridge or freezer

Chia Oil

Type of Fat: Polyunsaturated
Temperature: Do not heat
Best Uses: Drizzle over salads, cooked whole grains and meat/poultry/fish, add to smoothies and dips
How to Store: In the fridge or freezer

Walnut Oil

Type of Fat: Polyunsaturated
Temperature: Do not heat
Best Uses: Drizzle over salads, cooked whole grains and meat/poultry/fish, add to smoothies and dips
How to Store: In the fridge or freezer

Best Practices for Healthy Cooking Oils

Keep these tips in mind when choosing healthy cooking oils.

  • Buy oils in small bottles to keep them fresh for as long as possible
  • Buy oils sold in glass where possible instead of plastic
  • Purchase organic oils
  • Always store oils in a cool, dark place
  • Buy cold-pressed, unrefined oils where possible (we avoid the refined oils)
  • Keep all polyunsaturated oils in the fridge

Cooking Oils to Avoid

Though you may find some of the following oils in organic, cold-pressed versions, we recommend avoiding these oils when found in ultra-processed foods and in plastic bottles.

  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Canola oil
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Rice bran oil

In the infographic below, we break it down visually – you can see which healthy cooking oils are great for high heat, medium-heat, and no-heat cooking.

Guide To Choosing Healthy cooking Oils

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15 responses to “How to Choose Healthy Cooking Oils

  1. Leslie Madelung

    I was just researching the best oils to use for a client when I received this wonderful email. Perfect timing and thankyou. I do have a question. This chart mentions sesame oil in the good oils to use and again in the never use section. Could you explain why to me please. Thank you again

    1. Raquel Inoa Jiménez

      As I could understand it refers that even it says cold pressed, organic, etc. If they’re present in processed food try to avoid them.

  2. Rebecca

    What do you think about when you see sunflower oil in some supplements? Like Ascenta fish oils or the Orange Naturals supplements?

  3. Lex

    Where does peanut oil come into play? I cook a lot of asian food, and many recipes call for peanut oil…

    1. Academy of Culinary Nutrition

      Hi Lex! Thanks for your comment. We’re not a fan of peanuts or their oils – our director Meghan Telpner breaks down the reasons why in this post: https://www.culinarynutrition.com//peanut-peanut-sauce/.

  4. Gina

    Thank you for the information but I think what is lacking here is the smoke points for each oil. How do we know which one can be baked, sauteed, fried with?

    1. Academy of Culinary Nutrition

      Hi Gina! In the infographic there is a section titled ‘Temp’ that illustrates the type of heat we recommend for each oil.

      An oil can oxidize before it reaches its smoke point, so that’s why we didn’t include them here. If you do a lot of high heat cooking, try using the saturated fats (ie ghee and coconut oil).

  5. Chantelle

    Hi!

    Thank-you for this post; it’s very informative! :)

    Just one question: why should saturated fats be limited? I thought saturated fats being detrimental to health was old news?

    1. Academy of Culinary Nutrition

      Hi Chantelle, glad you found the post informative! Your diet should optimally be varied and include more nutrient-dense foods along with heathy fats. Fat is great, but doesn’t provide any vitamins or minerals like veggies or proteins would.

  6. Katie

    Hello,

    The Avocado oil that I buy is expeller pressed and naturally refined. Is this good? If not what are the best terms to look for specifically for Avocado oil?

    Thanks :)

  7. Academy of Culinary Nutrition

    Hi Katie! Finding a great avocado oil can be tricky. Cold pressed is the optimal option, but with expeller pressed it depends on whether the expeller press used chemicals in the extraction or just the pressure. You may end up with some degradation from the heat created from the sheer force of the press in that case, but that’s better than expeller pressed with all the solvents. It’s best to check in with the brand itself and ask questions about their process, if that info isn’t easily available on their website.

  8. Connie February 3, 2022

    This is great information, thank-you! I do have one question about your chart: Although you describe avocado oil as being appropriate for medium-heat cooking, the “temp” icon shown (large flame) denotes high-heat cooking, as for ghee and coconut oil. Please clarify, thanks.

  9. Academy of Culinary Nutrition February 8, 2022

    Hi Connie! We’ve fixed the post text – avocado oil is fine for high heat cooking.

  10. Patty March 8, 2022

    This is great information all at the same place, but I do have a question. I don’t see anything about Peanut oil. Is it the same as walnut oil? Thank you.

  11. Academy of Culinary Nutrition March 8, 2022

    Hi Patty! Peanut oil is not the same as walnut oil. Peanut oil is high in Omega 6 fatty acids, and doesn’t have any Omega 3s. Omega 6 is an essential fat, but too much in the diet may lead to inflammation. Walnut oil is rich in Omega 3 – it has Omega 6 as well, in a more ideal ratio. Another thing to keep in mind is that walnut oil isn’t safe for cooking, but peanut oil is.

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