Not all oils are created equal, so when you cook, it helps to know what to reach for. The amount of antioxidants and healthy fats vary widely in different types of oils. So, too, do smoking points, which are important, since cooking at a high temperature with an oil that has a lower smoke point can produce free radicals and damage the oil's nutrients.
When shopping for cooking oil, read the labels carefully and choose oils that haven't been refined chemically — look for descriptions like cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, organic, or mechanically refined — to reap the most nutrition benefits from each type, and check the ingredients to avoid anything that is hydrogenated. Find your favorite cooking oil below to see if you are using it to your health benefit, and then check out our calorie breakdown of oils to see how they stack up calorically!
Canola oil: Canola oil comes from the canola plant, a variety of the rapeseed plant that was cultivated to produce rapeseed that is low in uric acid, which has a bitter taste and which some believe to be toxic in high quantities. Canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of heart disease. If you're worried about canola oil's controversial genetically modified history as well as types that may contain low levels of trans fats, look for canola oils that are labeled organic.
Use for: The light taste and high smoke point of canola oil make it a great all-around cooking oil.
Coconut oil: The health benefits of coconut oil are hotly debated; while some claim that there isn't a lot of research to prove that coconut oil's high saturated fat content is worth it, others look to studies that have found that virgin coconut oil raises good cholesterol and prevents tooth decay.
Use for: Coconut oil has a high smoking point, so use it when you are cooking at a high temperature. You can also substitute the oil for butter in many types of baked goods since it imparts a flaky, buttery-like consistency — just remember that coconut oil contains more calories than butter.
Olive oil: When it comes to oil, extra virgin olive oil packs a nutrient-rich punch. It contains high levels of vitamins A and E for healthy hair, skin, and eyes, as well as chlorophyll and magnesium. But what most people know about olive oil is that it's high in healthy fats called monounsaturated fats, which help lower bad cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease.
Use for: Extra virgin olive oil, which comes from the first pressing of olives, is great for drizzling onto veggies or in salad dressings, but not so much for cooking at a high heat, since it has a low smoking point; use virgin (from subsequent pressings) for cooking things at high heat, or opt for another oil.
Peanut oil: Oil made from peanuts also protects your heart, since it contains resveratrol, the same compound found in red wine.
Use for: It may not be the healthiest cooking technique, but if you're planning on an indulgent fried-food day, use peanut oil. It has a higher smoking point than many oils, meaning less oil will be absorbed by your food while you fry.
Vegetable oil: Oils labeled as vegetable oil are usually blends (often containing soybean oil), so their health benefits vary. Soybean oil is high in monounsaturated fats but also contains a sizable portion of saturated fats. When in doubt, choose oils that aren't a blend depending on what type of cooking you're doing.
Use for: Depending on what type of cooking you're doing, use vegetable oils for light sautéing or baking. Find out more about smoke points and uses for different types of vegetable and other oils here.
Walnut oil: Like the nut it comes from, walnut oil contains healthy polyunsaturated fats that can lower bad cholesterol. Those same fats may even help lower your stress levels and blood pressure, according to a small study.
Use for: Walnut oil is great as a salad dressing or for other nonheated uses.