If you cook your own meals at home, you’ll likely be using cooking oils in some capacity, thus facing the sometimes-daunting decision of which oil to use.
With so many cooking oils out there to choose from, some healthier than others, what exactly makes one oil a healthier choice over another?
The Bad Cooking Oils
Some of the most common cooking oils you’ll find in many kitchens are unfortunately, the unhealthy kind. These include canola, corn, sunflower, peanut and soybean oils. Although you may hear much about the benefits of the polyunsaturated fats found in these oils, their omega-6 fatty acid content is a lot higher than their omega-3 fatty acid levels. This causes an imbalance in the body and a whole host of problems related to inflammation (the body’s natural response to an overload of omega-6) such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and other problems.
The Good Cooking Oils
Luckily, there are cooking oils with an ideal, balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
You’ve probably heard that olive oil is a healthy choice to use when cooking, which is absolutely correct but it isn’t your only option. Some other oils with healthy omega-3 to omega-6 ratios are coconut, palm and avocado oils.
These nutrient-rich oils contain an abundance of healthy fats and antioxidants and have the added bonus of adding great flavor to your food.
Cooking with Healthy Oils
So is it really just as easy as picking out your healthy oils and setting to work in the kitchen? Well, not quite. Cooking with healthy oils is great for your body, but it’s important to consider the type of cooking you’ll be doing and how high the temperatures will be getting.
Different oils are ideal for different heats, and using the wrong oil can be detrimental to your health if you cook it beyond its smoke point.
What is the Smoke Point?
The smoke point of an oil is exactly what it sounds like: the point at which an oil begins to smoke.
The smoke point is a natural property of unrefined oils, reflecting an oil’s chemical composition. One of the main reasons for refining (or processing) an oil is to raise its smoke point. For this discussion, let’s focus on olive oil, a pantry staple commonly used in cooking.
As with all other oils, olive oil’s smoke point varies with how much it’s been processed, so high-quality extra-virgin olive oils have a lower smoke point (around 320°F) than lighter, highly-processed olive oils (which can have a smoke point up to 420°F.)
Generally, olive oil’s smoke point is lower than that of some other oils such as soybean or canola, so it’s not an ideal oil for frying. (For comparison, refined soybean and sunflower oils have some of the highest smoke points, at around 450°F, and avocado oil’s smoke point is 520°F.)
What Happens Past the Smoke Point?
When an oil is heated past its smoke point, it generates toxic fumes and free radicals which are extremely harmful to your body.
When the smoke point is reached, you’ll begin to see the gaseous vapors from heating, a marker that the oil has started to decompose.
Decomposition involves chemical changes that not only negatively affect the food’s flavor and nutritional value, but also create cancer-causing compounds that are harmful when consumed and/or inhaled.
So if you’ve cooked your olive oil too long and it starts smoking, please turn off the stove and keep the vapors out of your lungs! And definitely throw away any food that’s been in contact with the oil; it’s much better to start again than to risk putting these free radicals into your body.
So while extra-virgin olive oil is a great choice for health (it’s the least refined and most nutrient-dense), it’s not the best pick if you’ll be working with high heats.
The nutrients in extra-virgin olive oil start to oxidize and degrade starting as low as 300°F. Opt for extra-virgin olive oil in salad dressings, marinades, drizzled over vegetables for roasting or pan-frying and blended with hummus and sauces for a smooth, decadent flavor and tons of health benefits.
If you’ll be cooking over 320°F but still want to reap the health benefits of olive oil, opt for a lighter, more refined type with a higher smoke point to avoid the risks mentioned above.
Cooking with Other Healthy Oils
Unrefined walnut oil is another great pick for it’s monounsaturated fats and other nutritional benefits, but like extra-virgin olive oil, it doesn’t stand up well to heat. Its low smoke point (also 320°F) means it’s also good for drizzling on vegetables or using at low temperatures.
Cooking with Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has a higher smoke point, at 350°F, than extra virgin olive oil, so it can be a good choice if you’ll be working with slightly higher heats. However, coconut oil is still best used at low to moderate temperatures, while olive oil (non extra-virgin) is the better choice for higher temps.
While coconut oil has received a bad rep in the past for its high saturated fat content, studies have shown that our bodies efficiently use saturated fat for energy. Coconut oil has many other benefits like:
- it hydrates your skin
- curbs sugar cravings
- boosts metabolism
- eases digestion
- supports immunity.
It also adds a slightly sweet flavor to food that many people enjoy.
Cooking with Avocado Oil
Avocado oil, with a milder flavor than olive oil, is extremely high in monounsaturated fatty acids and has a very high smoke point at 520°F, making it a great choice for cooking at high temperatures.
Avocado oil is actually even more ideal than vegetable or soybean oil for cooking at high temperatures but its higher cost makes it less popular than its cheaper counterparts. Opt for avocado oil when you can, though, to reap nutritional benefits along with the higher smoke point.
It’s safe to use when pan-frying, baking, grilling and searing meats, and adds a delicious nutty flavor along with plenty of vitamins and cancer-preventing compounds.