Dr. Day is a cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at his practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowship in cardiology at Stanford University. He is board certified in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
Is there such a thing as healthy cooking oil? Perhaps like you, as a child who loved to cook with butter or margarine, this was something I never thought about.
I remember fondly my early days of cooking in my parent’s kitchen. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old when I learned to cook my favorite foods. I used to love putting heaps of margarine on the bread of my grilled cheese sandwiches to get them to grill up nicely and taste great.
I also had no qualms about putting the half of cup of vegetable oil in the cake batter recipe.
Although I can still taste that creamy butter or margarine melting in my mouth, for me, the health risk is just too high to ever go back there again.
In fact, I no longer use any oil with cooking. For my daily vegetable stir-fry dishes, I now use water or vegetable broth and stir the food continuously. I flavor my dishes with herbs and spices. If I bake a fish, I like to use naturally oily fish, like Wild Alaskan Salmon, so that no additional oil is ever needed. I prefer to get my healthy fats with nuts and seeds each day.
My patients often ask, which oils are the healthiest? If you enjoy cooking with oil, you’ve no doubt also wondered which oils may be healthier than others. Here’s what the data shows.
Is There a Healthy Oil?
If you are confused on this one you are not alone. It seems that the recommendations from the “experts” for the healthiest cooking oil keep changing, creating a moving target.
On one hand, oil is a processed food which is extremely high in calories and does not have much in the way of nutrients. Vegetable oils and hydrogenated oils have now been shown to be a significant risk to cardiovascular health.
On the other hand, some people promote the health benefits of organic extra virgin olive oil as part of the Mediterranean diet. They claim the monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, including omega 3s, are a critical component to our health.
Healthy Populations that Eat Oils
To try and sort out what is the healthiest cooking oil, some have looked at populations of people who do or do not consume a lot of oil. While this is not direct evidence, it can be somewhat reassuring that at least in these populations of people their oil consumption does not appear to affect their health in a negative way.
1. Mediterranean Cultures with High Olive Oil Consumption
The Mediterranean Diet, commonly eaten in Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain is rich in olive oil and is now held up by the medical community as the ideal diet that all Americans should eat. Most physicians feel that olive oil is the best cooking oil. In addition to the olive oil, these people also eat a lot of vegetables, fish, fruit, and legumes and a moderate amount of cheese, yogurt, and wine with much less animal meat. Unlike in the U.S., sugar and processed foods are generally absent from this diet.
Eating this way has been shown to decrease your risk of heart disease and cancer. Is the benefit from the olive oil or something else they are eating such as all of the vegetables and fish? Also, is the benefit really because olive oil is a just a healthy substitution to the other oils they could be eating like butter or hydrogenated vegetable oils?
2. Polynesian Cultures with High Coconut Oil Consumption
In recent years, coconut oil has become one of the most popular “healthy oils”. In fact, if you do an internet search many sites now claim that coconut oil is the best cooking oil. We have also started cooking with coconut oil.
Historically, coconut oil was held in contempt due to the high content of saturated fats. Now, more recent data is exonerating coconut oil. In fact, newer data has shown that not all saturated fats are bad and that the saturated fats that come from coconuts and nuts, for example, may be good for us.
Fascinatingly, there have been several studies looking at remote Polynesian Islands where a large percentage of their calories come from coconut oil. Despite such a high content of oil in their diets, their risk of cardiovascular disease appears to be quite low. If you want to read more, here is a study of the Kitava Island and the Pukapuka and Tokelau islands.
3. Bama, China with Historically Minimal Oil Consumption
In contrast to the Mediterranean Diet, there are rural Chinese villages where people historically eat minimal oil and enjoy remarkable health, longevity, and freedom from cardiovascular disease. Our research team has been studying one such area in China where they did not historically eat oil. Because this rural mountainous area of Southwest China was so poor, the only cooking oil they could use is what little they could press themselves from hemp seeds. This sparing use of oil could be one of the numerous factors in the longevity and wellness of the peoples of this region in China.
Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
With olive oil, I recommend organic extra virgin olive oil. We buy the Kirkland organic extra virgin olive oil for a very reasonable price at Costco. Store your olive oil in a cool dry place to keep it fresh as long as possible. This is particularly important if you purchase the typical large Costco sized container. If the oil is old throw it out.
I would not recommend using this oil for high heat cooking as at high heats the oil smokes, may be converted to transfats, and loses any potential health benefits.
Although organic extra virgin olive oil has a halo effect, I would not recommend eating large quantities of even this healthy oil. Even organic extra virgin olive oil is extremely high in calories. To help keep your weight in check, use the least amount of this oil you need to flavor your food.
Other “Healthy Oils”
What other oils are potentially “healthy”? Right now, aside from olive and coconut oils, avocado oil is also very popular. Other potential “healthy oils” could include almond, walnut, or macademia nut oils.
Sesame seed oil is popular in Asian dishes and is accepted as one of the healthier oils as well. Once again, try getting by with less oil if possible.
Organic canola oil was felt to be a healthy oil in the past but as of recently seems to be falling out of favor. If you choose this oil, I would only recommend the organic cold pressed variety.
Two other questionable oils are peanut oil and palm oil. Peanut oil is enjoyed in Asian countries and can be used with higher temperature cooking.
Palm oil has now become the darling of the processed food industry now that trans fats have to be labeled. The issue with palm oil is that it may have a detrimental effect on your cholesterol levels and the environmental concerns with generating this oil.
Oils to Avoid
I would definitely avoid anything that lists hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. I would also definitely avoid vegetable oil or margarine. I also would recommend staying away from corn oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, shortening, and any fake butter products.
The problem is that a huge percentage of processed foods all have these bad oils and trans fats. These oils can cause weight gain and inflammation and should be avoided. The scary thing is that these oils were once considered healthy. Now we know they can accelerate chronic diseases and they will damage your arteries and cardiovascular system.
The scary thing is that even though the label says no trans fat, this is very deceiving. As long as there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving it does not have to be revealed. Any amount of trans fat is dangerous. If you eat processed foods, it is very difficult to avoid dangerous oils!
Do You Really Need the Oil?
As oil is packed with calories and minimal nutrients, one question to ask is do you really need the oil? For example, in my daily stir-fry dishes I do not use any oil at all. Without oil, I have to continuously stir my food. For flavor, I do not miss the oil at all. I use many different sauces to make my stir-fry food taste fabulous.
In baking recipes that call for oil or butter you could substitute avocado puree, mashed bananas, nut butters, or unsweetened applesauce instead.
My 8 Tips on Oil
1. Keep portion sizes in check.
Oil is incredibly high in calories. Don’t eat oil for the sake of eating oil. Only use what you need and no more. With oil, less is more.
2. Make sure your oil is fresh.
Old or rancid oil has breakdown products that can be toxic. Keep oil in a cool, dark place with the lid on to keep it fresh as long as possible. If it does not smell fresh don’t use it!
3. For Asian stir-fry dishes, sesame oil may enhance the taste.
It has a great taste and is a safer oil when cooking at high temperatures.
4. For dips, sauces, hummus, and dressings, use organic extra virgin olive oil.
5. For other high temperature cooking, consider cooking with coconut oil (organic extra virgin coconut oil), or organic avocado and almond oils.
6. For low temperature cooking, consider organic extra virgin olive oil.
7. Avoid the unhealthy oils and any oil in processed foods.
8. Do you really need the oil?
Are you willing to experiment with a healthy non-oil substitute for baking? Get creative! There are lots of resources on the internet to inspire you.
What do you think? What do you feel is the best cooking oil? Do you like the coconut oil benefits? Have you tried cooking with coconut oil? What non-oil substitutes have you discovered? Drop me a line and let me know your experience. You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.